(Essay) When the Drummers Were Birds by Hearth Moon Rising

“I had an idea that I was going into this remote place for visioning, but I ended up ‘auditorying’ instead, entranced by the sounds around me.”

Birds on stand support this drum from Chu 400-300 bce
Birds on stand support this drum from Chu 400-300 bce

The late Layne Redmond http://www.layneredmond.com/Home.html taught women about our ancient drumming heritage through videos, classes and the (out-of-print) book, When the Drummers Were Women. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/910443.When_the_Drummers_Were_Women?from_search=true

In this essay I would like to look back even further, back to the earliest glimmers of civilization, when the drummers were birds.

I believe that the most important tools of civilization were given to us by birds. Our auditory centers were developed by listening to the calls of birds, calls that are more rich and complex than people who have never studied birds in the field may realize. To this day, being able to interpret the sounds of birds is an important survival strategy for most animals, particularly in forested areas where the visual field is restricted.

Birds provide information through a wide repertoire of sounds. There are the songs, of course, which range from simple to intricate, repetitive to highly varied. Then there are the calls which are less melodic and more challenging to distinguish. Birds also provide information from the sounds of their flight, their wings beating against the air, the tree branches, or the water. And some birds announce their presence not by their voice or their movements but by consciously striking other objects. They drum.

This past fall I went to a secluded spot in the mountains where I observed birds for nine days. I had an idea that I was going into this remote place for visioning, but I ended up “auditorying” instead, entranced by the sounds around me. At one time in the past I drove myself crazy trying to catch a glimpse of whatever creature was making whatever noise in the brush, but a few years ago I decided to stop trying to see and start listening. A whole new world opened up.

I began my auditory journey with my frame drum, announcing my presence to the earth, water, and trees. I was also purifying the space with sound. The response was surprising and gratifying: songbirds, corvids, and woodpeckers – all kinds of birds – flew to my circle at the edge of the pond. I could hear, but not see, little animals scurrying in the leaves.

I seemed to really be on to something, so I began my second day of drumming with excited anticipation. The response was unexpectedly tepid. No excited flutterings or tweetings, no crowd gatherings – I was yesterday’s news. Evidently no human drum had penetrated that area for a very long time, and the birds had flocked the day before to get a view of what the heck was making that noise. Today they seemed to be saying, “oh, it’s that redheaded girl, and that’s just what she does.” I still had visitors, but nothing so dramatic.

Over the next week I studied the auditory messages around me. Every afternoon around two o’clock a ruffed grouse across the pond began to drum. The grouse does this by beating his wings against a dead log. Often he is marking territory or calling a mate, but sometimes he drums for no discernible reason. I counted the beats and replicated them on my own drum. Four single beats and then a flurry of notes. I also beat out the patterns of various songbirds. Birders learn to differentiate birds less by memorizing notes than by recognizing the patterns in the songs. There was a great deal of woodpecker activity in this area, a hallmark of a transitioning forest, and I followed the persistent beats of the hairy woodpecker: four steady taps, four more steady taps, then seven rapid taps against the tree.

Nine days of drumming with the birds left my brain in a different place. I felt more secure and more alert at the same time, the very opposite of that dissociated hypervigilance that the frenzy of modern life produces. Perhaps during those days in the wilderness I was accessing the ornithological brain, the brain that existed before our mammalian selves evolved, back when we drummers were birds.

Hearth Moon Rising is a Dianic priestess living in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Her blog is http://hearthmoonblog.com. Information about her book, Invoking Animal Magic, can be found at http://invokinganimalmagic.com

Read Meet Mago Contributor, Hearth Moon Rising.