The Heartbreaking and Life Affirming Song of the Zebra Finch
The research on playing music or singing to in utero fetus is wide ranging. The so-called ‘Mozart Effect’ seemed to point to the nearly-born as responding with bodily or tongue movement to classical music but less so with pop music. Anecdotally many tell stories of newborns falling asleep or becoming more easy to handle when the song that was sung or played to them in the womb is replayed. But the longevity of such impacts is still not clear according to a scan of the research. Is the child smarter? More musical? Better equipped for something? Nobody is really sure.
But the Zebra finch that lives in Australia have been singing to their eggs for probably about two million years. The Zebra finch is a boisterous singer with a distinct cry and series of sounds with song types that are taught in families. One family of finches will have similar, but not identical, notes and rhythms of their songs. Very recently, as in the last year, researchers came across a feature of Zebra finch songs that they have not come across anywhere else (yet) in the avian world.
The poet Deena Metzger wrote:
When you go
to the dark place
you must come back singing
the note inscribed
on your palm the song written
on your hand
the way trees
grow about the
shape of the wind
Troubled times we seem to find ourselves in. Many of the structures we have relied upon are disintegrating, to say nothing of the climate…and that brings up a kind of abject and vigilant anxiety among many. While others dam up their ears and turn their eyes from the goings on in the world and say “Things are just fine. Let’s keep going with the way things have been.”
But even that is a ruse. The dead-enders see the signs but it hurts too much to consider the price of change. The baffling punching bag of a question that many (or most) are trying to contend with, and keeps coming back, is ‘How do I proceed with this large scale breakdown of…stuff? It is scary and I don’t know exactly what to do or how to respond.’
Certainly there are answers to be had. And if we were in a solution driven conversation I, or you, could rattle off a few ‘must-haves’ in our dreams for a better day.
But I can tell you what the Zebra finch is faithfully doing. These finches are singing a bit like Deena Metzger. Or more properly said Deena Metzger was writing like the Zebra finches are singing. Singing from the dark place. Proceeding with song that speaks to the shape of the place right now. The research I mentioned earlier found that Zebra finches sing a special song in the last two weeks or so of gestation, when the hatchling is still in the egg. This song is only sung if the ambient temperature is above 79°F at night for a few days in a row.
This song, if sung, has a remarkable impact on the newly hatched bird for their entire life…they will be smaller. Not bigger. Not stronger. Less. How many parents pray and sing for their children to be less? Not many, I’d reckon. But in a troubled time less might be on the menu.
The researchers are convinced that this song is the Zebra finches way of dealing with climate change. A smaller finch cools more easily and needs less food. And there will be less food and more heat in Australia where the finch lives. We’ve all seen the fires there.
We don’t know if this song has been in the repertoire of the Zebra finch for a long time or has only been learned relatively recently because of climate change but the scientists are amazed. They didn’t know such a thing was possible. But it is.
The etymology of the word ‘sing’ takes it back to the Proto Indo-European language root *sengwh, meaning “to sing or make an incantation.” So there is something of a quality of spell casting in singing. And a good song, well sung does indeed cast a spell of a kind and can change you. Words like ‘enchantment’ and ‘incantation’ which each summon a notion of magicalness and spell-ness each have singing verbs inside of them.
I don’t know what the words of the Zebra finch late incubation song might translate into English are but they might be quite heartbreaking. They’d have to be…
“You little ones, who are so close to making it in the world. Can you hear me singing to you? I have not yet seen your little beaks or your closed black eyes, or heard your yearning cheeps yet but I long to feed you for as long as you’ll have it. Please come, please keep coming. I have songs to teach you about the whole world that I know. But I must tell you that I have seen and felt the signs of the where and the whens that we might be living with together for a while and the plans have changed, unwantingly. The heat portends that your days ahead will be hard. Harder than they are already. I’ve learned to read the signs. And I know you are getting bigger every day and I long for that for you. You must be bigger to crack this shell but I must cast a soft spell upon your tender little bones. A spell that you will have to carry with you all your days that will bind you to a smaller life and a smaller body where you can’t fly as far or eat as much. But you’ll be able to carry on and sing the songs that all your ancestors did. This is probably too much for you to bear and you might not even understand why I am making such a thing so for you…but I must. We will claim you even in your smallness…you will be enough.”
And then it is done. The bird is smaller no matter the food sources or external temperature. The spell is cast.
This is, obviously, the poetic rendering of the song…but how could it be otherwise?
Here at Primal Derma, this sort of wondering is part of our song for the changing and hard times. A prayer and a song and a plea for lives that are smaller and closer and more faithful to the land and makes a case for the virtues of smallness and simplicity and the beauty making that arises with a grownup response to hard times. That less means simplicity in our ingredients, our shipping, the number of products we have…we are trying to be at a size where we can actually contend with events. And we pray that for you too.
Thank you all for your ongoing willingness to wonder about such things with your skincare products in and on hand.
Talk soon enough,
Leave a Comment