Innocence is bliss
but ignorance is not
A few mornings back the dawn chorus at five-thirty was so loud it woke me up. I opened the window and leaned out, disturbing a blackbird that has built a nest in a nearby bush. I could hear: robin, carrion crow, wood pigeon, siskin, greater spotted woodpecker, dunnock, great tit, chiffchaff, blue tit, wren, redstart, goldcrest, spotted flycatcher, blackcap and treecreeper. Don’t imagine, however, that I’m an advanced birder with great hearing: I downloaded the Merlin bird recognition app and held my phone up to listen. There are even binoculars that link to the app and will recognise the birds you are looking at. You can also play recordings back at the birds, presumably so they can learn what they are supposed to sound like. I tried it with a siskin recorded in Portugal which certainly seemed to shut up their Welsh cousins. The app is a wonderful example of sharing: everyone records birdsongs, a few experts identify species with some degree of certainty, the algorithm learns. Eventually, it can work almost perfectly. And eventually, I suppose, when we are all out there at dawn playing attraction calls, it will be able to separate the iPhone from the Samsong.
Birds are an unseen part of my notebooks for old journeys. It’s rare to find a mention of them in the text, but turn to the back pages and there might be a list. Or open the identification book that I took along and there will be scribbled notes next to a particular species. If I go wholeheartedly digital, that book will no longer come along, which will save me a kilo in baggage, but halt production on a unique personal record.
I repeated the exercise with the app this morning and got the same list of birds. Then I felt a little pang of disappointment. There was nothing new. Previously I had always just listened to it as music, but now I’m hunting novelty. I cannot step back in time. I’m committed now. I’ll record the dawn chorus until I get my little smack of dopamine from a new name on the list. Of course, my location is known to the algorithm. It will be incorporating my recordings in its remorseless hunt for data, helping my neighbours identify their birds, building a vast empire of information on birds around the world. Big data is everywhere. It didn’t go away with the demise of Cambridge Analytica. Big data algorithms are what enable the Kremlin to interfere in Brexit polls and US elections, aren’t they? Not to mention the Chinese Communist Party’s use of face recognition in identifying Hong Kong democracy protestors. Soon it will be technically possible to point your phone at a crowd and have each face labelled: name, address, interests, criminal record, health report, and the last bird they listened to. And the crowd will know all about you too.
Now what? A baby wren just flew in the window. Must turn the phone off. I had it playing my dawn chorus as I write. It was probably listening to me at the same time. Here is the wren before I opened the window.
In 2010 I went to walk the Abraham Path, a footpath that, it was hoped, would run from the prophet’s birthplace at Šanliurfa in Eastern Turkey to Hebron in Palestine, where he is supposedly buried. The larger ambition was that the path would help Israelis and Palestinians understand their common heritage. At that time the only section that was mapped and usable was inside the West Bank.
I started at the Israeli border on the northern edge of Palestine then headed south through Jenin, part of a small group who were testing out the path. The countryside of the Holy Land was a revelation. Everywhere we came across ancient burial sites, columns of stone, strange carvings and arrow heads. I had not expected such riches, nor that these treasures would be forgotten and abandoned. Ownership of the land is disputed, of course, and the roots of that dispute were laid down deep in history, but ironically there seemed to be very little interest in the history on display.
Every few miles there would be a chilling reminder of the current situation. On one hillside a Palestinian farmer, grim-faced, was digging up his ancient olive trees with a bulldozer. “I won’t let the settlers get them,” he said, pointing out the electric fence that I hadn’t noticed. High above on the hilltop I could just make out the flag of Israel flying. “The settlers have taken the top of our hill and are slowing moving the fence down, taking more and more land.”
He started to get emotional. “How can this happen? My family have farmed olives here for generations. Those people are Russians. How can this be right?” As if on cue, some burly men in miltary clothes carrying assault rifles appeared on the horizon. We could hear their dogs barking. “My sons throw stones at them,” said the farmer, “And then gets called a terrorist. So what are they? Our farm will be theirs soon.”
As I moved south, nearer to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, there were more fences and walls. The rough-hewn advance camps of settlers were replaced by well-heeled Israeli suburbs. From a distance they appeared like clusters of holiday homes on a Greek island, but on closer inspection, I could see how they were defended by high walls and checkpoints. Each one was connected back to Israel by a dedicated fenced road.
On one ridge there was a Palestinian family harvesting wheat by hand, then a little further on an outcrop of rock with a narrow cave entrance underneath. I peered inside. A shadow moved and there was a scraping noise. This was not a small creature. Hyrax? Holding my camera torch in front of me, I advanced inside. The shadow fled into deeper and darker recesses. There was a pungent smell that I couldn’t recognise (there’s no app for that). I took some photos with flash, but when I examined them later, I could not be sure what I was looking at. Was it a real creature? Or my imagination? Without accurate identification it was a mystery, and without mystery, what would we be?
At one checkpoint we used a Palestinian taxi to take us through. The car was a battered old thing, the windscreen spidery with gleaming cracks and no glass elsewhere at all. As we waited in line, two armed settlers came striding over, rifles on their shoulders. As they came alongside, one of them spat. The taxi driver gave no reaction. None at all. It happened so fast that I wasn’t sure if I had really seen it. Perhaps he had just spat at the ground. People do that. It was a coincidence that he had been by the open window. As we drove off, the driver glanced at me and raised one eyebrow.
A couple of days later in Jerusalem, I stood watching the Hasidic Jews pray at the Wailing Wall. Unexpectedly one of them greeted me, “Hey, where ya from?” It felt like someone had just smashed through a wall, an invisible one.
Aaron was a New Yorker. He lived in a closed Jewish community in the Bronx without television and radio. All information, he explained, was controlled by the elderly male rabbis whose explanation was that modern America was evil and their community needed protection. “But y’know, back in the 90s I kinda started questioning that. I mean I was coming across other Americans in my work and they didn’t seem so bad.”
At lunchtime Aaron would sit in his car and eat food prepared by his wife, but sometimes he would chat out the window to non-Jewish people. He had been warned not to, but he was curious. “This guy was laughing at me for never having watched TV. He was like, c’mon Aaron, what about sport, and comedy, and whatever – doncha wanna see stuff?”
This was the 1990s, the pre-digital era, but Aaron found a small television set that would run from his car’s cigarette lighter. At lunchtime he would watch programmes and soon came to the explosive and dangerous conclusion that television itself was not evil. “I was taking a risk. I mean, if I was caught, they would expel me.”
Really? I was starting to glance around. Aaron seemed unconcerned if anyone overheard, but no one seemed interested. He looked exactly like the others: long black overcoat, white shirt, side locks and black hat. He fitted in.
“Sure. They can do that. My wife would divorce me. I’d have to go, but there would be nowhere to go.”
Despite his fears, Aaron kept watching television and then, unable to stop himself, started talking to his wife. “I said that some guys at work claimed that TV was not always a bad thing. She went nuts: this is horrific, go straight to the rabbi. Confess!”
He did no such thing. Instead he persuaded his wife to try TV herself and make up her own mind. “I spent weeks trying to figure out what to let her watch.” In the end, he decided they should sit in the car one evening and enjoy a movie. “It took me a long time, but I chose Home Alone.”
I chuckled. The plot, for anyone who hasn’t seen it, is simple. A defenceless human being (Macaulay Culkin playing an innocent eight-year-old called Kevin) is accidentally left alone in a large family house that has been targeted by criminals. When the evil outside world tries to break in, Kevin fights back, and wins. Perfect. It was tailor-made to be acceptable to someone who had spent their entire life trapped inside a very similar narrative.
He laughed. “She loved it. She really loved it. And afterwards she began to wonder what else the rabbis had lied about. They had never seen television, of course. They were just taking the word of some other guy.” He sighed. “That month after watching the movie was the best. I mean, our marriage was great. We were together. We knew something. We’d shared something.” He made a face. “The truth, I guess.”
I sensed that this was not going to end well. I was right.
“But I was over-confident. I didn’t spend enough time choosing the second movie. I just jumped right in. One month later in the car. I went for Rocky.”
“Always a bad move.”
“There was a scene, y’know, where Rocky’s friend’s sister is in his room and he takes off her hat to look at her hair. That was bad enough, but then he kisses her, a girl he clearly ain’t married to. My wife went crazy. ‘What is this filth? How dare you show me pornography? Turn it off NOW!’”
She could not be placated and insisted he go to the rabbi and confess. Word spread. No one would talk to him, including his wife. After a harrowing two weeks, it was agreed he could stay as part of the community, but he had to destroy the television and be under strict surveillance.
“Did you destroy it?”
“I did. But after a year or so I bought another one.” He shrugged. “I just keep it to myself now.”
‘What’s your relationship with your wife like?”
He shrugged like only a New Yorker can. “I miss that buzz we had, after Home Alone.”
I kept in touch with Aaron for a couple of years by email. He would tell me what movies he had watched in his car. But then one day he didn’t answer and I never heard from him again. I wondered if he had been caught, or denounced. I cannot imagine what it must be like to live in a world where watching Rocky is an act of courage. I hope he is alright, wherever he is.