SPARK REVIEWS | Volume 10, October 2020, p.116
Sentinels Aloft: An Indifference of
Birds Book Review
MSt. English Literature | University of Oxford, UK
Birds have been concretised as familiar figures in literary tradition and the popular imagination: to name a few, they have been portents of death, icons of freedom, vestiges of idyllic times past. Yet these are appellations humans ascribe to birds, whom carry these manmade ideas on delicate wings. Birds, however, harbour scant attachment to us other than as purveyors of food scraps or abandoned shelter.
Through decentring the human point of view, Smyth helps us relinquish our entrenched biases of birds and, in effect, ourselves. He illuminates recesses of our humanity we wilfully ignore: the underbelly of human progress towards which we ourselves have been indifferent.
A revisionist environmental history
Growing up in a city where green space is ever dwindling, the boundaries between human life and urban wildlife are seldom crossed. I derive an almost childlike joy from spotting a Northern cardinal perching on a backyard tree, a spectacle of now-estranged fauna infiltrating human domain, our urban homes each a microcosm of the city it occupies. The spheres of human life and wildlife rarely collide—and when they do, we recall just how arbitrary these margins are. What makes An Indifference a compelling read is the flavour of novelty in what is—to a layperson like me—a science lesson about bird-human diplomacy. He urges us to unlearn and relearn our evolutionary course with renewed curiosity. Smyth does not alienate the reader with technicalities, either, as he outfits us with the repertoire of an ornithologist while maintaining accessibility. Reading the text, I am reacquainted with what have become inconsequential creatures camouflaged in the white noise of urbanity.
An Indifference invites us to consider the lived experience of birds before recorded time. Smyth offers a counternarrative to anthropocentric history as we know it, focalised by our avian neighbours. In Exploring Environmental History (2005), T.C. Smout summarises the discipline as “the history of wolf hunting from the perspective of what happens to the wolf as much as what happens to the hunter” (pp. 1-2). Smyth not only includes the bird’s outlook but prioritises it. The paradox of his project is that his ostensibly avian-centric account still fixates on the lives and movements of humans, the centre of gravity around which birds orbit. Smyth calibrates our outlook to the acuity of a bird to see our full radius of impact.
Smyth also individualises these birds by referring to their innumerable species names throughout the text. For once, we feel dwarfed and outnumbered. This only seems natural, as the species is comprised of “more specialists than generalists” (Smyth 2020, p. 26) in their habitats (farmland birds, moorland birds, wetland birds), just as we are experts in our professions. “If phenomenological archaeology is the practice of understanding prehistoric sites through our physical and emotional experience of them,” Mathew Lyons writes in a New Humanist review, “this is something like phenomenological ornithology: trying to understand birds through their experiences and behaviours” (2020, para. 3). Beyond decoding avian behaviour, however, this phenomenological thrust that Lyon observes is the engine of Smyth’s text; it is how he cultivates the audience’s affinity with birds. To this end, Smyth refracts our sense of being by reexamining the history of our species through the aerial, detached vantage point of birds.
Smyth narrates the spatial evolution of our planet with a telescopic eye, at times zooming into the English locales of his formative years and zooming out to survey the panorama of entire continents. An Indifference remarkably endows its readers with the same mobility as birds. Smyth encourages us to adopt their mode of being through how they navigate de facto human territory: the forests we raze, the land we cultivate, the horizons we obstruct with towers. As Smyth puts it, “Where we act, birds respond” (2020, p. 13). Humans demarcate physical space to our advantage and, in doing so, have encroached on the jurisdiction of birds. As architects of our habitat, we have customised our natural and built environment to satiate our appetite for expansion.
An unflattering self-portrait
Smyth unpacks what we consider the immutable binary of civilisation and nature, which entirely dissolves in the lives of birds. “We construct human realities around the things we make, the things we built,” (2020, p. 77) Smyth writes, “Birds see a different reality: flatter, sharper edged, locked into the present moment: what is this is now, what is it good for now?” (Smith 2020, p. 77). They adapt to human vagaries, rescuing our detritus to fulfil their immediate survival requirements. Our relationship with nature, by contrast, is informed by the extent of profit we can derive. Our guiding ethos is always: how arable—how lucrative—is this land we occupy?
Our relationship with birds begins and ends with our physicality. We made first impressions not with our persons but our “circles of consequences” (Smyth 2020, p. 17): the resources we select and where we discard the refuse. To amend a human platitude, one man’s trash is one bird’s treasure. Waste is “the currency of our bargain with birds” (Smyth 2020, p. 22) as they occupy the negative space of our physical presence and material consumption. Inarable land lacks use-value because it is unprofitable in our myopic human eyes. In this utilitarian appraisal of nature, humans are very much like the birds. The major caveat is that we can afford to be selective, while birds must be astute opportunists. We thoughtlessly squander our surpluses at great disservice to the planet and other lifeforms.
With this unsavoury representation of humans, Smyth gives insight—albeit imaginary—into what birds think of us. It is unlikely we have redeemed ourselves from our debut: “They must see us, watch us, from the same calculating perspective as they did too many years ago. We’re still galumphing heavy-footed through the edge lands, causing havoc, small life scattering wherever we tread” (Smyth 2020, p. 20). Although humans are the veritable protagonists in this ecological drama, Smyth does not imbue us with any heroism.
Humans have mastered environmental exploitation. We have forced fellow organisms to reconstitute their lives just to make room for us. As Smyth clearly illustrates, “our many overlaps with the birds coupled with the breadth and strength of our grip, mean that the birds have had to rebuild themselves […] to move just a little further out of our reach” (2020, p. 38). We can’t help but cheer on the minor characters, the birds, for their resilience and resourcefulness; how they salvage places we desert to become subsequent custodians.
Smyth evokes the infancy of western civilisation: “If we can watch the prehistoric creep of our species across North America […] we might see landscapes being scraped clean of large mammals large birds large anything; we might see habitats hollowed-out as we shoulder our way in” (2020, p. 36). Smyth reminds us that humans have been agents of destruction acting on a selfish survival imperative long before late-stage capitalism. Colonial and imperial enterprises of our history have wreaked irreparable damage on human lives, and this callous disregard for the livelihood of others has been the fulcrum of our species progress. We have made not just birds but members of our own species constant fugitives on this shared planet.
An indifference of humans
Although our lives are ostensibly disparate, we and the birds are entangled in an “unfathomable symbiosis” (Smyth 2020, p. 17). This ecological mystery permeates An Indifference and engulfs his audience. Smyth expertly manipulates time and space, catapulting us from the prehistoric migration and nascent experiments of our ancestors to the minutiae of bird life in modern London, all in one chapter. Smyth expresses most poignantly, “I think a bird’s being extends beyond its outstretched wingtips; its identity is knotted up in its habitat, in the world that has shaped it, and continues to shape it” (2020, p. 63). While he reminds us of the birds’ indifference at every turn, we are also driven to interrogate our perennial indifference towards the birds. This is the avian perspective of humanity on a macro scope: the indiscriminate course of human evolution and the acceleration of modernity that privileges human lives.
Indeed, birds spare no concern for human welfare nor our sentiments. They have no consideration for us beyond the purview of survival, whether we aid or abate it. Smyth almost humanises the birds as he delineates their thought processes, which are perhaps even more logical and pragmatic than our own. As readers, we cannot help but applaud the birds for their shrewdness where we ourselves are careless.
An Indifference ignites in readers a profound compassion for the birds: Smyth puts our relationship with birds at the vanguard our shared environment, our resource allocation, and the imperceptible call and response of our parallel lives. But as we close the book to peruse its title again, we are reminded one last time this feeling of camaraderie is unilateral and always will be. It is impossible to confirm what birds are thinking; we can only infer as ornithologists do but these interpretations are ultimately human abstractions.
We can never reconcile the birds’ motivations with our human frameworks. We can, however, admire the clumsy harmony in which we live with them. In an essay published in The Times Literary Supplement, Smyth intimates how his perception of birds changed during the COVID-19 lockdown (he even gave a virtual reading of chapter three, “Movements”), namely how birds have offered him respite from his domestic captivity:
Often our little parishes of sky will seem too small. Mine seems small now. But then, at some point soon, a woodpigeon will leap up abruptly into a clap display above the opposite roof-ridge, or a goldfinch will pose fiercely on the vent pipe to clatter out its song, or the bandit-masked magpies will drop down to harry a cat somewhere below, and it will seem, all at once, a little bigger. (2020, para. 18).
An Indifference succeeds as an environmentalist manifesto in that converts readers without vilifying them; it does not reprimand their ecological destruction nor insular habits of existence. Instead, An Indifference appeals to the kinship between humans and birds: both species circumscribed by bodily shortcomings, shouldering the same burden of surviving in insurmountable physical limitations. In this way, humans and birds are compatriots of the same existential and evolutionary plight. How we negotiate our parameters is much like the birds. As Lyons writes, “to the birds, it is us who are just another natural phenomenon” (2020, para. 4). They are apathetic to us the same way that we may be apathetic to, say, the changing of seasons—but this seasonal phenomenon directly affects our lived experiences. We do not question it, however, nor do we protest against it; we respond and adapt accordingly, just as birds do with humans.
An Indifference of Birds is a coming of age story of the human race, a narrative in which birds are reluctant, always apathetic onlookers. Smyth does not offer a remedial solution to our collateral environmental damage but makes us confront the reverberations from our circles of consequences. After all, birds embody—in their movement, their shelter, their ontology—the legacy of human existence.