When he characterized airports as “non-places,” Marc Augé implied that they were sites where communication takes place “wordlessly,” with “an abstract, unmediated commerce” (Augé 1995: 78-79). Rather than being wordless, however, airports and their surrounding aerospace buzz with incessant radio talk. Indeed, radio communication is a key means by which flight is “grounded” to a technological and social infrastructure (Adey, Budd, and Hubbard 2007: 775; see also Connor 2010: 205-206). “The Pteropoetics of Birdstrike” represents that radio aerospace through recordings of air traffic control (ATC) conversions found at the website, “LiveATC.” The site contains an audio archive of “interesting recordings” of ATC conversations, and approximately eighty of those recordings have to do with birds.
These communications between the airport and aircraft crew provide a remarkable document of the moment-by-moment experience of birdstrike, which tends to occur near the airport during landing or take-off. To my ears, these recordings are miniature audio dramas in which the everyday protocols of aeromobility are disrupted, and potential disaster is avoided through a coordinated effort to guide the airplane back to the airport. There is a generic formula to these ATC dramas, as the participants follow a standardized procedure after a birdstrike in which the crew declares an emergency, requests permission to return to the airport, and reports the number of passengers and amount of fuel remaining onboard. All of this is communicated through the dispassionate recitation of coordinates and codes, and yet these exchanges take on the heightened affective charge of verbal art. When situated with the other three tracks in this sonic montage, the ATC recordings become audible as acts of unintentional spoken word poetry, a pteropoetry that gives voice to the shared vertical horizon of aeromobility.
The second track of “The Pteropoetics of Birdstrike” consists of excerpts from recorded interviews with Roxie Laybourne (1910-2003). Laybourne worked as a taxidermist before joining the National Museum of Natural History’s Division of Birds in 1944. Later in her career, Laybourne was hired by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to study the tiny fragments of bird feathers that had been ingested into aircraft engines during birdstrike, identify the species involved, and thereby aid mitigation efforts. In the process, Laybourne created the field of forensic ornithology, which expanded beyond the FAA to include criminal investigations and wildlife protection.
Laybourne’s recollections provide a number of insights about birdstrike, and the recording of her voice serves as a counterpoint to the ATC recordings, both in terms of sound quality and temporality. The static-laden, low-fi ATC recordings document the harrowing moments during a birdstrike; Laybourne’s oral history recordings, by contrast, are clean and intimate, and her forensic approach to birdstrike investigates the event after the fact. Moreover, Laybourne’s autobiography moves in tandem with the rise of the era of aeromobility, as heard in her accounts of working at an airport in the 1920s, meeting aviator Amelia Earhart, and doing research for the aviation industry.
The capstone of Laybourne’s interview is a recitation of the poem, “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” by Robert Browning. During her junior year at Meredith College, she was asked to memorize Browning’s poem but could only master the first stanza. In 1999, she recalled the assignment and decided to memorize the entire poem. She compared the search for meaning in “Rabbi Ben Ezra” to her study of the microstructure of feathers: both were like “being in a new forest and seeing all the new vegetation in that forest and trying to identify it.”
Laybourne’s recitation of “Rabbi Ben Ezra” is a recurring element across “The Pteropoetics of Birdstrike” and is heard at the start and conclusion of the piece. It thus lends shape to my audio, just as it gave shape to her oral history. Before she began her recitation, Laybourne stated that, “if you don’t understand the poem, you’re certainly not going to memorize it,” but she admitted that “whether you understand it or not, you can still get lost in the poem.” In fact, at the midpoint of her recitation, she does lose her way, and as she struggles to regain her footing, she repeats the same stanza three times. That interruption of the flow of the poem mirrors the way in which birdstrike interrupts the flow of aeromobility and is placed in its entirety at the mid-point of the audio. By good fortune, the stanza that is repeated by Laybourne contains the line: “as a bird wings and sings.”
The fourth sonic element in my audio piece is a recitation by Vincent Price of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To a Skylark.” For Bachelard, Shelley’s iconic work is a vivid embodiment of an aerial imagination, and juxtaposing it with the other tracks described above serves to draw out their poetic overtones. Shelley celebrates the song of the lark, which, for Bachelard, is a particularly resonant aerial image. Bachelard writes that the lark’s song has a “verticality” that has had a “powerful effect on the human soul”: “listening to the lark, the imagination becomes dynamic through and through. […] In the quiet of an evening, the lark ‘converts’ all the dissonance arising from a bustling countryside into a sonorous unity, a musical world, a rising anthem” (Bachelard 2011: 84-85, 87). To allow that avian poetry to speak for itself, I have paired Shelley’s poetic praise of birdsong with recordings of a skylark taken from the website Xeno-canto.
On the original recording, Vincent Price’s voice is treated with a considerable amount of reverb, suggesting that his recitation takes place in a large, open space. This is in contrast to the dry, intimate sound of Laybourne’s voice, and the hyper-mediated ATC communications. I have enhanced that sense of space by lowering the relative volume of Price’s performance, to make it seem that he is at some distance from the listener. This was inspired by Bachelard’s assertion that a sound “becomes aerial” when it is “on the very edge of silence, soaring in a distant sky – soft and great” (Bachelard 2011: 51).
The combination of these four audio tracks, when heard through the historical and theoretical framework established by this essay, has several results. The first is to provide information about the problem of birdstrike, and the audio operates to a certain extent in the mode of the radio documentary, educating the listener about Laybourne’s unique career and engaging the emotions through the drama of the ATC recordings. More than simply convey information, however, the form of the audio-essay or radio feature serves to open out or expand the listener’s understanding of birdstrike such that it resonates not only in the domains of animal protection and public safety but also in the realm of poetics. As audio, “The Pteropoetics of Birdstrike” asks listeners to exercise their aerial imagination, tuning it to a long poetic tradition, but modulating it to the horizons of the airport, understood as a contact zone among birds, airplanes, and radio communication. In this poetics of wings, poems celebrating the verticality of birds crossfade into emergency-landing protocols. In short, audiographic criticism reveals birdstrike to be a problem not only for aeromobility but for the aerial imagination.