Saturday, December 16, 2006

the Malayan jungle c.1965

Now & then I rescue a book from the library discards. Ronald McKie's The Company of Animals: a naturalist's adventures in the jungle of Malaya has probably been out of print for decades and it's not the source you turn to if you want to know the current state of the forest but the writing is engaging. I was struck by this description of the soundscape:

"The jungle sings, whistles, rings bells, squeaks, squeals, buzzes. It plays scales, pipes, hoots, howls, scrapes in a dry sandpapery way. One cicada I came to know well gargled so monotonously that one almost pleaded with it to spit. Another, the postman, waited just long enough between whistles to reach the next house. One chimed so that it was forever Sunday. One was a dentist with a water-cooled drill. One went 'Ha-he' up and down, up and down. And among all this noise there was still space for other sounds -- steam presses, grinders, squeaking wheels -- an entire foundry collection, metallic and harsh."


Later his guide alerts the author to a bird call. "I failed at first to pierce the insect wall. It was like listening for a special voice one has never heard in the chatter of a theatre foyer between acts. Then out of the noise came a new note, clear and different. My ears snatched it, held it, and let go. A little later I heard it again; and then still another, different call, faint but distinctive. I was beginning to penetrate the curtain and, with Jim's help, to recognise some of the more common bird sounds: the 'kuang' of the beautiful Argus; the 'pangan-pakau' of a Malay cuckoo; the dismal sermon of the brain-fever bird -- a long call followed by more tuneless descending notes, repeated and repeated."

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