September 26, 2020

Song of the Dodo, Resident of the Moon

So I just finished David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo. An intricate, fascinating, sweeping book on many different levels that I highly recommend. My mother wrote a review of it years ago, and I made a mental note then to read it. Only, it’s been on my shelf the last 20+ years and I finally yanked it off only last month and read it.

There’s plenty in the book that resonated, particularly the long sections about Madagascar which brought back so many memories of the months I spent travelling there. But I wanted to share with you one sentence from the book. It’s in Indonesian (Bahasa), a language Quammen only knows bits and pieces of.

He visits a remote Indonesian island chain called Aru in search of a bird of paradise. Now there are many species of this bird, but the one he is in search of here is Paradisaea apoda, the greater bird of paradise, the lovely creature in the picture above.

There’s a whole story to be told about why he searches, and why Aru — all that, I’ll save for another time (better, please read the book). But it takes him, early one morning, across a stretch of mangroves and up a muddy slope to reach a particular tree.

And as he gets close to the tree, he hears a “chorus of squawking” like “a truckload of hysterical geese”. Even his otherwise cynical and laconic Indonesian guide Jimmy, writes Quammen, “seems thrilled” by the sound.

Jimmy says: “Suda, suara cenderawasih.”

“Already, the song of the cenderawasih.”

If you read the book and absorb all that Quammen discusses, you might agree with me that it is a deeply moving, hopeful, profound thing that Jimmy says. Not least because of where it appears in the book. (Yes, you should read it).

But for now, I wanted to share the delight that a special someone pointed me to in the line. For which, I need to tell you that “cenderawasih” is pronounced more or less as written except that the “c” is said “ch”, and that it is the Bahasa name for these utterly beautiful birds.

Knowing that much, look again at the line and its translation. What can you tell about those words? (OK, it helps to know a little Hindi).

(Photo from here)

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