My Tropic Isle, by E. J. Banfield

Chapter VIII

Reading to Music

“Silence was pleased.”

As I lounged at mine ease on the veranda, serenely content with the pages of a favourite author, I became conscious of an unusual sound-vague, continuous, rhythmic. Disinclined to permit my thoughts to wander from the text, at the back of my mind a dim sensation of uneasiness, almost of resentment, because of the slight audible intrusion betrayed itself. Close, as firmly as I could, my mental ear the sound persisted externally, softly but undeniably. Having overcome the first sensation of uneasiness, I studied the perfect prose without pausing to reflect on the origin of the petty disturbance. In a few minutes the annoyance — if the trivial distraction deserved so harsh an epithet — changed, giving place to a sense of refined pleasure almost as fatal to my complacency, for it compelled me to think apart. What was this new pleasure? Ah! I was reading to an accompaniment — a faint, far-off improvisation just on the verge of silence, too scant and elusive for half-hearted critical analysis.

This reading of delightful prose, while the tenderest harmony hummed in my cars, was too rare to be placidly enjoyed. Frail excitement foreign to the tranquil pages could not be evaded. The most feeble and indeterminate of sounds, those which merely give a voice to the air eventually, quicken the pulse.

An eloquent and learned man says that the mechanical operation of sounds in quickening the circulation of the blood and the spirits has more effect upon the human machine than all the eloquence of reason and honour. So the printed periods became more sonorous, the magic of the words more vivid. The purified meaning of the author, the exaltation he himself must have felt, were realised with a clearer apprehension. But the very novelty of the emotional undertaking drew me reluctantly from that which was becoming a lulling musical reverie.

Still, fain to read, but with the niceties of the art embarrassed, I began to question myself. Whence this pleasant yet provoking refrain? Not of the sea, for a glassy calm had prevailed all day; not of the rain which pattered faintly on the roof. This sound phantom that determinedly beckoned me from my book — whence, and what was it?

Listening attentively and alert, the mystery of it vanished. It was the commotion, subdued by the distance of three-quarters of a mile, of thousands of nutmeg pigeons — a blending of thousands of simultaneous “coo-hoos” with the rustling and beating of wings upon the thin, slack strings of casuarinas. The swaying and switching of the slender-branched and ever-sighing trees with the courageous notes of homing birds had created the curious melody with which my reading had fallen into tune.

And the sound was audible at one spot only. The acoustic properties of the veranda condensed and concentrated it within a narrow area, beyond which was silence. Chance had selected this aerial whirlpool for my reading.

Again taking my ease, the mellow “roaring” of the multitude of gentle doves commingling with the aeolian blandness of trees swinging under the weight of the restless birds, became once more an idealistic accompaniment to the book. I read, or rather declaimed inarticulately, to the singularly pleasing strain until light and sound failed — the one as softly and insensibly as the other. I had enjoyed a new sensation.

Relieved of the agreeable pressure of the text, my thoughts turned to the consideration of bird voices — more to the notes of pigeons, their variety and range. There are sounds, little in volume and rather flat than sharp, rather moist than dry, which seem to carry farther under favouring atmospheric conditions than louder and more acute noises. The easy contours of soothing sounds created in the air seem to resemble the lazy swell of the sea; while fleeter though less sustained noises may be compared to jumpy waves caused by a smart breeze. Pitched in a minor key sounds roll along with little friction and waste, whereas a louder, shriller stinging note may find in the still air a less pliant medium. The cooing of pigeons — a sound of low velocity — has a longer range than the shrieking of parrots. My pet echo responds to an undertone. A loud and prolonged yell jars on its sensitiveness — for it is a shy echo, little used to abrupt and boisterous disturbances. A boy boo-hooting into an empty barrel soon catches the key to which it responds. He adjusts his rhythms to those of the barrel, which becomes for the time being his butt. “Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps,” he girds at its acoustic soul until it finds responsive voice and grunts or babbles or bellows in consonance with his. Only when the vibrations — subdued or lusty — correspond with the vocal content of the barrel are the responses sensitive and in accord. On this stilly, damp evening the air in the corner of the veranda happened to be resilient to the mellow notes of far-away pigeons.

Thus reflecting, I was less astonished that the coo-hooing of the congregation had reached me through three-quarters of a mile of vacant air. There was no competing noise. It was just the fluid tone that filled to the overflowing otherwise empty, shallow spaces.

The nutmeg pigeon has the loudest, most assertive voice of the several species which have their home in my domain, or which favour it with visits. Though the “coo-hoo” is imperative and proud, to overcome the space of a mile the unison of thousands is necessary. But when the whole community takes flight simultaneously the whirr and slapping of wings creates a sound resembling the racing of a steamer’s propeller, but of far greater volume. The nutmeg is one of the noisiest of pigeons individually and collectively.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32