The Unphotographabe: Walt Whitman on Birds Migrating at Midnight
By Maria Popova
Sometimes, a painting in words is worth a thousand pictures. I think about this more and more, in our compulsively visual culture, which increasingly reduces what we think and feel and see — who and what we are — to what can be photographed. I think of Susan Sontag, who called it “aesthetic consumerism” half a century before Instagram. In a small act of resistance, I offer The Unphotographable — a lovely image in words drawn from centuries of literature: passages transcendent and transportive, depicting landscapes and experiences radiant with beauty and feeling beyond what a visual image could convey.
There is singular magic to seeing a mass of creatures move in unison along the vector of a common purpose, as if commanded by a single mind. In those ultimate instances of unselfing, we are reminded that all of nature is one grand synchrony, in which we are mere particles existing in conviviality and consanguinity with every other particle.
A century and a half before Richard Powers painted in words the majestic migration of sandhill cranes, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) channels one such spectacle of humbling grandeur in Specimen Days (public library) — the exquisite collection of prose fragments that also gave us his reflections on democracy, music, and the wisdom of trees.
Under the heading “BIRDS MIGRATING AT MIDNIGHT,” Whitman writes:
Did you ever chance to hear the midnight flight of birds passing through the air and darkness overhead, in countless armies, changing their early or late summer habitat? It is something not to be forgotten. A friend called me up just after 12 last night to mark the peculiar noise of unusually immense flocks migrating north (rather late this year.) In the silence, shadow and delicious odor of the hour, (the natural perfume belonging to the night alone,) I thought it rare music. You could hear the characteristic motion — once or twice “the rush of mighty wings,” but oftener a velvety rustle, long drawn out — sometimes quite near — with continual calls and chirps, and some song-notes. It all lasted from 12 till after 3. Once in a while the species was plainly distinguishable; I could make out the bobolink, tanager, Wilson’s thrush, white-crown’d sparrow, and occasionally from high in the air came the notes of the plover.
Complement with Whitman, shortly after his paralytic stroke, on what makes life worth living and his eternal advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, then revisit other enchanting Unphotographables: Henry Williamson on the transcendence of a winter storm; Jack Kerouac on the self-revelation of the windblown world; Georgia O’Keeffe on the grandeur of Machu Picchu; Iris Murdoch on the sea and the stars; an Alpine transcendence with Mary Shelley; an Alaskan paradise with Rockwell Kent.
Published February 4, 2023