Our time here is coming to an end. We are watching the weather now, waiting for the right winds to set sail north to Hawaii, another three week crossing.
On the island of Moorea, beyond the dark smudges of coral heads, the deeper water is the kind of blue that travels down the optic nerve and goes straight to some centre of longing; the kind of blue you dream of in the middle of winter.
Sitting on the beach the other day I leaned against a palm, trying to memorize that blue, enjoying a medley of bird song above me, until I realized that, in fact I was hearing only one bird—the Common Myna.
The Common Myna belongs to a group of birds that are among the most accomplished mimics in the world. The Indian hill mynas are virtuosos at imitating the human voice. Human and myna sonograms of a phrase like hi there Charlie, look almost exactly the same, though the bird’s vocal tract is nothing like ours.
I read once in a book on human speech that bird song has more in common with human language than any sounds made by our ape relatives.* Birds are born with the ability to make calls, which keep the flock in touch or signal danger. Human babies are also born with innate calls, two in fact, distinguishable world-wide, one a cry of pain, the other of hunger. Later, like birds, humans learn other sounds: meaningless as single units, but eloquent in sequence. Rich in variation and dialects we layer them, like bird song, over our innate sounds. We share this “double articulation’ with birds, as well as the fact that the entire unlikely enterprise is controlled by the left side of the brain.
I brought one bird book from home: A Field Guide to the Birds of Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific—an especially good reference on the seabirds, like petrels, shearwaters, and terns…But like all oceanic islands, the islands we have been sailing through have a small but specialized collection of land birds.
The only guide I could find for the land birds was Oiseaux du Fenua – Tahiti et Ses Iles. I can usually figure it out, Aire de Repartition, might sound like a new perfume by Givenchy, but it actually means distribution. Regime Alimentaire is not a program at a health spa, but diet, and nidification, not a painful aesthetic procedure, but nesting. Unfortunately it is too easy to translate most of the Statut entries, species after species disappearing—because of introduced birds, rats, dogs, cats, development—holding out on uninhabited islands.
I would rather have seen the Tahiti reed-warbler in the coconut I was leaning on at the beach, but why not admire the myna? It is what birder friends of mine might call a trash bird, an introduced species, which (like most introduced species) out competes the native birds, tossing them out of house and home and just generally ruining the neighbourhood. But the myna can’t help it that he’s here. Or that he is so much better at everything, including singing, than the natives. And after all I’d like to be a better mimic. I’ve been working on Spanish for twenty years and still talk pretty much like I’m in fourth grade. When I try to speak French I usually come up with a Spanish word or some incomprehensible hybrid.
And then there’s Tahitian. Tahitian belongs to a group of Polynesian languages that includes Maori and Hawaiian. Spoken, it is a soft stream of short syllables, rich with vowels. In fact the vowels are pronounced just like Spanish, but the similarity ends there. Hello is or ana. Goodbye is na na.
*The Seeds 0f Speech, Jean Achison
It's Farlyn and Tavish's 20th birthday today! A happy and sad day, as we say na na to Tavish, who's hitching a ride further west (on a South African boat)--he should arrive in Australia in early August. We'll miss him!