Talking the Talk

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

A friend sent me a video of a woman gathering her cows using the ancient Scandinavian herding vocalization, Kulning. Perhaps you’ve seen the video. (see the video at the end.) It’s quite touching to watch. You see the cows in the field, in the distance. The woman begins her call and, as the cows pick up on the haunting, high-pitched music, they begin to walk serenely towards the caller.

There are a number of YouTube videos of cows responding to the kulning song. The video I received, however, included a series of captions that described the history and culture surrounding kulning. And this post is my response to the final caption, which reads:

A stunning example of humans interacting with nature?

Humans don’t interact with nature. Humans are a part of nature. Humans are nature, in the same way that the birds, the animals, all living things are nature. The human in the video is interacting with cows – not with nature – in a rudimentary form of interspecies communication. The human calls in a way that speaks to the cows. The cows come, communicating calm and willingness.

Without realizing, we take this kind of interspecies communication for granted. Our pets, for example, engage us in conversation all the time. We train our dogs to follow verbal commands. We let them know when we are pleased or displeased with them. And they tell us when they want to eat or are happy or when they are sad. Even our cats have the ability to talk to us through their many different verbalizations. And, when they care to, cats will even respond to our words.

Parrots, because of their ability to mimic and laugh and act goofy, have become, for some, a source of entertainment, and might be considered not too smart. But these are intelligent birds that produce a variety of non-human sounds that communicate feelings such as happiness and contentment or anger. This, combined with their ability to produce human language, opens up all kinds of possibilities for human-parrot communication. I’ve never had a parrot for a pet, so I can only imagine the enjoyable conversations that must go on in a household where there is a parrot.

Parrots are also one of the six groups of language learning animals. That means that, through experience, they must develop their ability to interact socially through their verbal language. The only other animals that are language learners are whales, dolphins, songbirds, bats, hummingbirds, humans and other primates. All other animals are born with the ability to produce the vocalizations of their species.

Vocalizing animals are endowed with a range of calls that serve in different circumstances. A call of alarm. A mating call. Calls to make contact. Calls to protect turf. These are but a few. In social animals, vocalizations additionally are an important element for expressing emotions and strengthening social interactions among group members.

Researchers have even found evidence that some animals learn to recognize differences in threats, and make calls appropriate to that threat. An example mentioned in the article, Vocal Matching in Animals is the vervet monkey, who will make one call when a snake approaches and a different call if it’s a hawk.

In a case of interspecies communication, researchers have found a lemur in Madagascar who can recognize the distress calls of other animals. Here’s how it was described:

It works like this: During the day, when the nocturnal lemurs are dozing in tree holes, part of their brain remains alert to the sounds neighboring birds are making. When the birds are warning each other that snakes or other potential killers are near, lemurs wake up and start scanning their surroundings for trouble. When the birds signal the all-clear, they go back to their snoozing.

With regard to interspecies communication between humans and non-human animals, there are several examples of situations where researchers have taught, or have attempted to teach, non-human animals to communicate in human language. There’s a TED Talk that describes seven cases. But the thinking about interspecies language learning is shifting among scientists to consider that real communication with non-human animals would involve humans learning to understand non-human language. If we can do it in dogs and cats. Why not other animals?

 Here is the kulning video:

Kulning Cow Singing

This woman summons cows with her voice! 😲🐮 Sound ON!! 🔊

Posted by Culture Trip on Sunday, September 2, 2018



Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

I want to talk about friluftsliv (Pronounce it like it’s spelled. Three syllables). It’s a Norwegian term that combines the words for ‘free’, ‘air’, and ‘life’, and refers to an ancient Nordic philosophy of outdoor living.

The first time the word appeared in print was 1859 in a poem by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. In this poem Ibsen tells the story of a young man who spends a year trekking through the mountains trying to find out what he was meant to do with his life. The term appears in the last line of the poem. Here is the translation of the last four lines:

In the deserted cottage

My abundant catch I gather

There is hearth, a stool, a table

Friluftsliv for my thoughts

In the one hundred fifty years since the word was first published, the philosophy of friluftsliv has become embedded in the Norwegian way of life, one that emphasizes a ‘free-air life’ of exploration and appreciation of nature. According to the friluftsliv philosophy, any piece of land, whether public or private, is open to anyone for walking, camping, fishing, riding bicycles, or for any other form of recreation that causes no harm to the environment.

By encouraging freedom to roam under the guidelines of good behavior, in its essence, friluftsliv becomes a pathway to spiritual connection and belonging. And with that comes the beginning of a sense of responsibility towards caring for one’s surroundings.

When I think about friluftsliv, however, I can’t help but think about our country and about the difference in our philosophy of outdoor management. Under our system of private enterprise, and in consideration of the strict separation we maintain between private and public lands, it would seem that the free-air lifestyle of friluftsliv is impossible.

Yet we have the same need to connect with and take care of nature. We have the same need to roam freely on the land. So how can we reconcile the rift created between our purely economic basis of land management and the need for human connection with nature?

In 1949 environmentalist Aldo Leopold proposed the establishment of an ethic related to the land. With economics as the only guideline for behavior, Leopold said, privilege comes, yet there are no obligations. With an ethic, however, behavior is constrained and grounded in principle and conviction.

Leopold considered the land ethic as the third step in the evolution of the human ethical experience as introduced in the Bible: the first was the Ten Commandments, which placed constraints on individuals in our struggle to relate morally to one another; the second, The Golden Rule, which set down a framework for the struggle for the moral relationship between the individual and society.

This third ethic Leopold envisioned as an ecologic one based on the premise that all members of nature, including humans, are interconnected and interdependent. As such, it would lay out the parameters for the moral relationship of man to all the land, including the soils, waters, plants, and animals.

A more current philosophy of a land ethic is ecospirituality, a global, sacred, nondenominational movement aimed at strengthening our spiritual connection to nature, at changing our very view of what nature is. Ecospirituality affirms the holiness and inherent value of all of nature. By pairing spirituality and religion with science, ecospirituality seeks to transform the human relationship to the land into a healing force for our degraded Earth.

And that brings me back to friluftsliv.

True. Friluftsliv is an ancient philosophy. But within the simple notion of freedom to roam lies the potential for connection and spiritual oneness, a cutting edge idea. Perhaps friluftsliv can be a model for an ecospiritual strategy for healing the earth and for bringing the environment back into balance.

Is it possible, then, that it is time for us, in this country, to rethink our priorities when it comes to managing the land? Trust us. Give us the space, and we shall take care of the land.


What Makes a Piano a Piano?

Posted by Marcia Penner Freedman

A couple of months ago I purchased a digital piano. I brought it home and began to play around with it, exploring the different features and the different sounds available to me. It was fun, and I discovered I could create some very nice effects with it.

But when I pulled out some of my classical pieces, say, for example, the Chopin Prelude in E Minor (opus 28, #4), and played straight piano with no effects, it became clear to me that something was not right.

That particular prelude has a lovely melody in the right hand which is supported by a continuous movement of chords in the left hand that change subtly throughout the piece. The ever shifting harmonies complement the melody in a beautiful and haunting manner.

What I noticed as I played through the piece was that, even though the notes of the chords were clear and had a nice sound, they lacked warmth and felt empty. My usual emotional response to the piece was missing, and I was disappointed.

It then occurred to me that there must be something inherently different between the sound created by an acoustic piano and that of a digital piano, something that could account for the difference in the effect of the sound each produces. Actually, I started to wonder if they are even the same instrument.

A DISCLAIMER: The science and engineering associated with sound production and perception is very complicated. The following touches on only one basic characteristic of acoustic and digital sound that contributes to the way it is perceived and experienced: harmonics.

Acoustic instruments, like a piano or guitar, a saxophone or trumpet, are fashioned out of natural products such as wood or metal. The sound produced by an acoustic instrument occurs within its casing, with a range of natural harmonics available. The “warmth” or “richness” of a sound created on an acoustic instrument results from its having been produced in a particular natural setting – different for each instrument – where the harmonics develop freely.

Digital sound is synthetic and unnatural. It does not include harmonics and is unaffected by the space or the atmosphere in which is it produced. Although technicians have devised ways to add harmonics, it is not possible to replicate the harmonics created in an acoustic environment.  Thus, the perception of “cold” or “empty” sound; particularly in a piece of music that is meant to be played on an acoustic instrument.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that, even though the digital keyboard sounds like a piano, looks like a piano and feels like a piano, it does not act as a piano. A digital keyboard offers performers and composers endless possibilities for creating and combining sounds. The music created on a digital keyboard can be exciting and interesting. But it’s not real sound. It’s not a piano.

As for an acoustic piano, it is limited in its range of possibilities of sound variation. Yet, the acoustic sound, based in natural law, has the power to touch us at the deepest part of the human psyche.

Following are article referenced in this post.