Friday, April 05, 2002

The Flight of Birds

"Desertification" as a result of cutting down the trees in a forest is an effect that we can clearly see. But, in building a house in the forest, there must be a great number of ways, not necessarily visible to the eye, in which it effects the surrounding ecosystem. We tend to think, "How could building one mountain villa...", but, in order to build that house, we need a road for the heavy machinery used in the foundation work, and we also need the construction work for the electricity and water lines. And, to do all this, trees at and outside the immediate construction site are cut down, the topsoil is dug up, and gravel is brought in. Additionally, any landscaping would bring more new insects and fungi along with the new topsoil. And, in raising these plants and trees, hitherto unknown plants and animals may be transported (sometimes even from abroad) into that area.

This sort of effect on the ecosystem can be repaired to a certain extent through nature's "resilience." Or possibly, after a period of disturbance to the ecosystem, it may stabalize and attain a new system or order. But, probably no one knows just how extensive that "certain extent" is. So, it's totally unclear as to how much my building a villa has effected the ecosystem in and around Ohizumi Village. I hope it's something from which it can bound back. But, when I think about it, probably everyone who builds a mountain cottage thinks the same thing and cuts down the trees, digs up the ground, and brings in plant and animal life not there before. It's like dealing successive punches to nature's resilience. It's not that my "punch" is any lighter than any other.

At the beginning of August 2001, my wife and wife spent a little over a week at our newly built home. It was during that time, one morning, as I stepped out onto the deck and breathed in the slightly foggy air? The morning in the Southern foot of the Yatsugatake was filled with the sound of birds. It wasn't the combined sound of a lot of different kind of birds, but what I heard was the sound of the coal tit coming from all over the sky and mountains. The sound was of a higher frequency than the highest note on a grand piano. It was in no way abrasive--instead it was perfectly clear. The sound came from all over the nearby woods, resounding as if they were calling each other, and then disappeared into the distant fog. Listening, enchanted with this sound, after a while I heard the rhythmical sound of the Kohmi Line train which eventually grew further and further away.

Although it had been 5 days since we arrived at our villa in Yatsugadake, this was the first morning I was able to spend a leisurely morning out on the deck. It had, up until the day before, either been raining in the morning, or, because of the thick fog, the tables and chairs there had been soaking wet. But, that morning, the chairs were dry for the first time in a while. I sat down, stretched my legs out in front of me, and looked up at the sky. The cries of the birds were like waves washing slowly ashore. The birds were not flying individually that morning, but it seems that they were flying around in the forest together in a group. Closing my eyes and listening carefully, the same cries seemed to come in waves of musical harmony in the round, and then, after a while, would fade into the distance, like the waves receding from the shore. In its place would be the cries of a different group of birds, and, as if in answer to those cries, similar cries could be heard coming from a forest in the distance.

The coal tit is approximately 10 centimeters long, and a little smaller than a sparrow or chickadee. The tail is shorter than a great tit, and the wings are a bluish gray, the head black, and there is a black stripe on the side of its face that runs from its eye to the beak. It's white from its cheek to its throat, and its stomach is white as well. It also has a black patch on its chest. This bird doesn't seem to mind humans, and sits on the branches of the wild cherry and dankobai trees(lindera obtsusiloba) that are by the deck and also sit atop the railing on the deck itself. That's when I noticed that it makes a low kind of groaning sound. I thought at first that this bird has a strangely low voice despite it being so small. But, after studying it more closely, I found that it was actually the sound of its short wings rapidly oscillating and shaking the air.

When they come to the trees near our house, these birds move so lightly and freely up and down, from branch to branch of the trees that stand so straight and vertical, and pick at the little bugs that they find there. After about two or three times of repeating this, they then move on to a separate tree, leaving a high pitched sound behind. The birds that fly down onto the deck search for the little bugs that are apparently in between the wooden floor boards.

Suddenly, what I thought was the shadow of a small rock flying by in front of me hit the sliding glass door of the house with a loud thud. Looking down, I saw a bird lying with its white stomach face up, writhing and struggling. It looked as though it had suffered a concussion and lost its balance. I watched it thinking that it would eventually recover, but it had gotten one of its feet caught between the wooden floor boards and wasn't able to get up. I bent down and scooped the bird up in my hands, with just its head peeking out. It tried to resist for a while, but eventually calmed down. Its eyes fluttered about as if it was trying to figure out what was going on. I don't know why, but, feeling the warmth of this small living thing in my hands, I felt very happy. It's not because, coincidentally, I had been able to get this bird without any effort on my part, but it was because this small creature wasn't thinking of me as an enemy, but was quietly leaving things to me. We stayed that way for about ten minutes with me warming the birds in my hands and stroking its head occasionally with my thumb, praying for its quick recovery. I then put the bird down on a table. The bird stood with its feet braced, and it seemed that it was still unable to put any weight on its left foot. I scooped the bird up in both hands again, and walked slowly around the deck of the cottage. The trees near me shook from the rapid wing motions of the companion birds, and, as if in reaction to this deep short resonating sound, the bird in my hands moved its eyes and head looking here and there at the sky.

After about 15 more minutes, I extended my forefinger to the bird in my hand. Although a little clumsily at first, I could feel the bird anchor its left foot onto my finger. I then opened up my hand, and the bird did not even fly away, but, instead, stood on my finger. When I tried to get up out of the chair, the bird, again letting out that whirring sound, flew away and landed on a branch of a nearby wild cherry tree. It was about a meter above me, and, the way the bird was perched looking down, it seemed as though it was looking directly at me. It stayed in that same position for about ten minutes, and then it started to give out that high-pitched cry every now and then. After about another five minutes, the bird changed its position, flew nimbly about 2 meters up the trunk of the tree, and looked up at the sky and began to sing. "Oh, it's all better now," I thought looking at the bird somewhat sadly. I wanted it to hurry lest it be left behind by its friends.

In one of his books, essayist Jimpei Arakawa wrote about a bird flying into a glass window. At first I thought these things happened because birds weren't able to see or recognize the clear colorless "glass", and, trying to fly into the house, flew into the glass instead. However, according to Mr. Arakawa, if the glass is between the bright sky and a dark room, the glass hides what's inside the house, and, instead, reflects the sky. So, the bird, seeing only sky, doesn't slow down and ends up crashing into the glass. In some cases the bird may end up, not with a concussion, but dead. Mr. Arakawa writes that he's found the carcasses of these poor birds on his veranda ever since he built his cabin. And he finally came to the conclusion that the reason for it was that his "cabin was blocking the flight course of the birds."

The same may apply to what happened before my very eyes. Fortunately, this was the first time I found an unconscious bird on the deck of our villa, and, though it's been seven months since then, it has not happened again. Coal tits apparently move through the mountains in flocks--it may be that the birds have stopped flying over our villa. I can't say for sure, but, whenever we leave our villa, we have, for safety sake, too, made it a habit of closing the curtain on the inside of the glass doors and windows.

- MT

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