Dickinson's Birds

A listening machine

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Navigation in the Archives


The Archives 

Delight is as the flight – —E. Dickinson, Fr317

Navigation in Dickinson’s Birds is designed to be intuitive, with every user finding their own singular way among its offerings.

Poem Archive

Poem Archive, Dickinson’s Birds

The default arrangement of the Poem Archive is alphabetical by first line. 

The chronology of Dickinson’s bird poems is discoverable via three search options: poem MSS dated to a certain year are searchable by year; poem MSS assigned to a specific season are searchable by season [1]; and poem MSS assigned to a specific month are searchable by month. 
The dates assigned here, derive, unless otherwise noted, from R. W. Franklin’s 1998 variorum The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Since the Poem Archive is an archive of Manuscripts rather than Works, moreover, the dates assigned are to each manuscript witness of a given work rather than to the work itself — i.e., the manuscript of a draft will bear the composition date, while the manuscript of a copy will bear the copying date, and the manuscript of a poem circulated to a recipient will bear the circulation date. 
Alternate search parameters allow users to arrange the poems via their material setting in or beyond Dickinson’s private archive. Users may search for bound manuscripts (and, further, by individual fascicle); unbound manuscripts in three forms (those designated by R. W. Franklin as part of the “sets”; those on loose sheets/leaves; and those on ephemeral substrates), and for circulated manuscripts by recipient/s. Finally, users may search for manuscripts including enclosures of biota or ecologically-oriented printed materials. 
Transcriptions of the poem manuscripts are fully searchable via key word searches in the Search Bar. 
More detailed bibliographic information on the poem manuscripts, including notes on state, medium, paper type, etc., though not currently searchable, appears on individual Poem Pages. From the individual Poem Pages users may also access all manuscripts affiliated with a given work, even if they are not among the primary manuscripts featured in this project (i.e., manuscripts alluding to birds). 

Bird Archive

Bird Archive, Dickinson’s Birds
Bird files are searchable by species’ common names, presence data in Amherst and the surrounding region for the 19th-, 20th, and 21st centuries; conservation status (when known) across these three centuries; and appearance on Dickinson’s ‘bird list’ — i.e., the list we have constructed out of the named wild songbirds appearing in her poems.  
More detailed information on the birds, including notes on habitat, nest materials, and, in cases of birds named by Dickinson, local field notes, appears on individual bird pages. Links on these pages allow users access to those manuscripts in Dickinson’s oeuvre linked with a specific bird species (“Affiliated Manuscripts”) and to “Further Data” from the primary C19, C20, and C21 bird lists we consulted for this project.


Dickinson in the Meshwork

The Flickering be seen – —E. Dickinson, Fr495


Orra White Hitchcock, “Crust of the earth”, 1828-1840, 184 x 187 cm., Pen and ink on linen. Courtesy of Edward and Orra White Hitchcock Papers, Amherst College Archives and Special CollectionThe Flickering be seen —E. Dickinson, Fr495

Environmental Phenomena in the Poem Manuscripts

Among other things, this experiment encourages attunement to the ways in which Dickinson’s poems evoke the world(s) around her and to her complex, sometimes uncanny experience of emplacement. Our mining  of the poems reflects their relationship to scale, place, motion, time, and sound. We began by inventorying the poems’ direct allusions to Universe/s, World/s, and Nature, also marking poems alluding to Supernatural realms (e.g., Heaven, Paradise, etc.). We reported poems’ references to Solar Systems and Bodies,Landforms, and Flora and Fauna. We considered their climates, marking the meteorological and atmospheric processes they recorded.  Finally, a separate search category allows a closer, more intimate focus on the avian behaviors reported in the poems.[2]
Our provisional tagging of Universe/s, World/s, Nature/s and Supernature/s; Solar Systems and Bodies; Landforms; Flora and Fauna; and Meteorological and Atmospheric processes resulted in the identification of many smaller, more individual phenomena in the poems: stars, suns, planets, seas, vales, hills, clouds, gales, flowers, hours, etc. These phenomena appear here in small data clouds streaming  out beside the poem manuscripts. Like the variant word lists often found drifting below Dickinson’s poems, some of which appear as “collapsing glosses” on the poems, these clouds refocus our attention on the manifold data of the world flowing in and out of the poems. They take the place traditionally reserved for transcriptions, which now open in another window when accessed by users. 


Explorations of agency and alterity are at the very core of all of Dickinson’s work and also at the core of these selected works.  Everywhere in her lyric oeuvre, we find encounters between “strange strangers”, the human and non-human, the organic and inorganic, sometimes colliding with one another, sometimes turning toward or becoming one another, sometimes just passing by but not touching each other. Although we do not attempt to mark the infinite traces of “strange strangers” in these works for fear of domesticating their movements and revolutions in form, we hope that our tagging will lead readers ever more deeply into the complex meshwork of Dickinson’s world and into an encounter with the questions — about poetry, about ecology, about identity and otherness — that flicker within it. 


The Firmament

And Firmaments – row –  E. Dickinson,Fr124

At the heart of the Listening Machine is the Data Firmament. In the Firmament  the traces of a site from the past — the atmospheric phenomena chronicled by the nineteenth-century keepers of the Connecticut River Valley’s weather records; the calls and songs of the birds whose names were noted by natural historians traversing the region before ornithology was recognized as a science; and those more fleeting sounds composed by the Valley’s pre- and post-Industrial Revolution technologies; the environmental phenomena reported in the poems — are translated into data visualizations and present sounds.

Data Visualizations

Upon first opening the  Firmament, there is only darkness and and silence. But by tapping the dark, the world materializes: in the sky-screen, a horizon line divides the space into day and night, world and no-world. In the space above the horizon, a firmamental arc marks the outer limit of the archive-world’s expanse; below the horizon, darkness streams. In the sky-screen above the horizon, the eternal “there is” of climate, time and weather, is composed out of the prevailing genres and directions of the winds, the percentage of clouds, the occurrence of rain and snow, and the average temperatures of the months. While above the horizon, lighting occasionally flashes, below the horizon, the fall of meteors, the shine of halos, the fluoresce of the aurora borealis are brief flares in the darkness. Since fluctuations of atmospheric events in the Northern Hemisphere vary from year to year, the data from 1864—the year when the weather of Dickinson’s work alters forever—represents the constant inconstant conditions of the climate.

To activate the Firmament and initiate the slow revolution of the archive-world’s seasons, the viewer taps the slide-bar below just below the horizon line. Now a small glowing wheel materializes., ready to make its circuit along the firmamental arc. As the wheel moves, the random pattern of winds is replaced by the singular wind- and weatherscape of each month in turn.

Birds, too, flow into the sky-screen above the horizon line, the patterns of their nineteenth-century migration cycles gradually revealed as the wheel makes its transit across the arc. In the scattergraph the data makes, small dots of varying sizes corresponding to the relative lightness and heaviness of individual bird species shine out, with one group, representing resident birds, spreading across in the lower sky of the firmament and a second group, representing migratory birds, moving in loose formations across the upper sky of the firmament and into the free space above it. Among the migrants, further configurations briefly materialize, with newly arriving birds clustering in the left zone of the sky-vault, migrants already present from earlier months gliding in the sky-vault’s middle zone, and departing migrants gathering in the far right zone of the sky-vault. A given bird-species’ incidence in the region of Amherst, Massachusetts is coded by color, with “common” birds appearing as cerulean blue dots, “uncommon birds” pulsing evenly as indigo dots, and “rare” birds appearing as randomly flickering gray dots. Together, they compose a strange new constellation, a moving stratigraphy of lights.

The weather and birds come not alone but accompanied by poems. In the sky above the horizon line, Dickinson’s poems, represented by the tiny “+”s or “x”s she used to mark pressure points of variance in her work, appear in the season of their composition or, in the case of “sent” poems, the season of their circulation.[1] While those poems that never left Dickinson’s private archive during her life shelter with resident birds above the horizon line but inside the upper arc of the sky-vault, those that circulated beyond that private archive share the realm occupied by the migrating birds, high in the firmament and sometimes breaching the upper arc. And like the birds, whose incidence in the region – common, uncommon, and rare – are marked by color, so the states of poem manuscripts are also marked, with fair copy witnesses represented by “+”s the color of Tyrian purple; draft witnesses represented by “+”s the color of Sepia / Raw Sienna, and lost witnesses represented by “+”s the color of silver.  The environmental phenomena mined from the poems appear in the empty space above the firmament, translated as a telegraphic stream of single words — suns, hills, birds, meteors, etc. — that form the arc marking the end of the archive-world’s atmosphere. Like sky-writing, the words are there and then gone: they suggest a mist-net of contingent connections among apparently disparate poems, new orders of poems.

Sounding Possible Worlds: Past, Present, Future

The wheel’s circuit across the firmamental arc stirs the sounds of nineteenth-century Amherst — or, rather, the descendants of those sounds captured by recording technologies from the twenty-first century — from the silence into which they have sunken in our collective unconscious, stirring too something akin to our memory of another world where all still seemed well and where the sound of the Anthropocene was still a sub-sub song in the bright Book of Nature. In the Ring’s twelve tracks sounding the months of the year, each month sounds for a duration of two minutes; each season for six, and a year’s revolution sounds in just twenty-four, the number of hours in a solar day.

Two sets of sound files for each month of the year 1864 — data-choirs and sound-ways —  allow us access to the auditory imaginary, the deep and buried sonic networks of possible past, present, and future worlds [3]:

  • Each month’s data choir is compiled out of sample sounds – calls, songs, wingbeats – of every bird observed in that temporal zone by nineteenth-century natural historians of the region, and the duration of each bird’s sounding and the interval between soundings is determined by an algorithm based on those same natural historians’ classifications of each bird as “common,” “uncommon,” “rare,” or “accidental.” Like the first, raw recordings made by nineteenth-century field researchers of the voices of isolated wild species, the birds of the data-choirs seem to sound only in the anechoic chamber of their own inner worlds, sans all cultural references as well as all other environmental sounds or stimuli. Yet the apparently “pure” sound of the choirs is also the sound of the data of the world distorted by the technologies — analog, digital — of our creation. Jarring, beautiful, alien— the birdsong of the data-choirs registers as something that may be heard forever in the mind of nature and like no sound on earth.

[Data Choir: December] [Data Choir: January] [Data Choir: February] [Data Choir: March] [Data Choir: April] [Data Choir: May] [Data Choir: June] [Data Choir: July] [Data Choir: August] [Data Choir: September] [Data Choir: October] [Data Choir: November]

  •  In contrast to the data choirs, each month’s sound-way was produced not via the application of the algorithm described above but rather by the speculative commingling of nineteenth-century accounts of bird sounds and weather found in the fragmentary records left by the region’s early naturalists with our present, affective experience of these sounds in the lower atmosphere. Initially imagined as “scapes,” we later re-conceived the acoustic meditations we were composing as “ways” to evoke something of their mobile, wandering nature, their temporal plurality, and their ontological openness.

“In sound I am in depth,” writes phenomenologist Salome Voegelin. [4] Both data-choirs and sound-ways enjoin us to dwell in depth, in the life-of-things through the sound-of-things; both, moreover, seek to open in the sonic subject a lively wonderment about the world. Yet while the data-choirs accomplish this end via our estrangement from “time” and “nature,” the sound-ways do so by proposing our intimate, if transient enmeshedness in both. To preserve their alienness, the data-choirs remain unaccompanied by any formal explanation. The sound-ways, however, are harmonzied by spare narratives (“liner notes”) documenting the peregrinations of a human listener inside the seasons of weather and birds, sometimes as part of those seasons, sometimes far apart from them. In a late poem beginning “In many and reportless places,” Dickinson wrote, “We feel a Joy – / Reportless, also, but sincere as Nature / Or Deity – [. . .] // Profane it by a search – we cannot – / It has not home – / Nor we who having once inhaled {waylaid} it – / thereafter roam.” (Fr1404A). In place of a positivistic cartography of the listener’s passage across space and time, the notes provide a sense of their wavering attunements and contingent inhabiting of a world/time outside Dickinson’s west-facing writing window.

While the Data Firmament seeks to disseminate the bare data and sonic fragments of birds and weather and poems from 150 springs ago, it cannot offer a documentary sense of place. The fleeting sounds from the past remain ambiguous signifiers, evacuated on “billows of circumference” before we ever fully get our bearings.If, in moments, the Firmament unfurls galaxies of birds moving in the perfect meters and measures of a lost world, so at others it fathoms the ecological distances, the utterly changed meters between Dickinson’s world and our own. In the Firmament, relations between and among weather and birds and poems cannot be conceived and plotted in advance of our encounters with them but become manifest through our attunement to their circulations, inherent variance, strange strangeness. Fathom measure. Measure fathom. Rather than giving proof or promise “against our vanishing,” the Firmament’s sounds more often evoke a new climate, a spectral spring where the song-souls of birds long since extinct cross the northern hemisphere alongside those whose vanishing is an unimaginable inaudibility still approaching us. In the Data Firmament, the momentarily re-wilded birds and poems are vital guides to a chaology of orders, a roaming, contingent knowledge of a moving, numinous, extensional world. They offer us both a sudden intuition of the long durée in which the soundings of Dickinson’s world reverberate against the soundings of a world outside the precincts of human history and memory and a heightened experience of the present moment in which our finger-falls onto a keyboard are part of the manifold and ephemeral data of the world we listen to and create. Through this attunement via touch and hearing, Dickinson’s lyric oeuvre and the world beyond it are both disclosed as entropic places in which the smallest, most vulnerable, and most ephemeral of things—poems and birds, thoughts and sounds—attain their infinity in the moment of their de-archivization.

Liner Notes

To preserve their alienness, the data-choirs are unaccompanied by any formal explanation. The sound-ways, however, are accompanied by spare narratives documenting the peregrinations of a human listener inside the seasons of weather and birds, sometimes as part of those seasons, sometimes far apart from them. In a late poem beginning “In many and reportless places,” Dickinson wrote, “We feel a Joy – / Reportless, also, but sincere as Nature / Or Deity – [. . .] // Profane it by a search – we cannot – / It has not home – / Nor we who having once inhaled {waylaid} it – / thereafter roam” (Fr1404A). In place of a positivistic cartography of the listener’s passage across space and time, the notes provide a sense of their wavering attunements and contingent inhabiting of a world/time outside Dickinson’s west-facing writing window.


[1] The distribution of the poem-data is determined by the following coordinates: those poem manuscripts that can be associated with a specific month appear with the other data for the specific data or month; those poem manuscripts that can be associated with a specific season appear evenly across the months of the season within the other realm in which they fall (retained; circulated); and those poem manuscripts that can be associated only with a specific year appear randomly across the months of the whole year within the other realm in which they fall (retained; circulated). Seasons in the Poem Archive are defined as follows: spring=March, April, May; summer=June, July, August; fall=September, October, November; winter=December, January, February.  Manuscripts dated by Franklin to the “second half” of a given year are marked as belonging to either “summer” or “fall”, depending on internal and external evidence, while manuscripts dated by Franklin to the first half of a given year are marked as belonging to either “winter” or “spring”, also depending on additional internal and external evidence.

[2] Jefferey Simons (Department of English Philology, University of Huelva) gifted his research materials for his essay “Dickinson’s Lyric Ornithology” to this project. The exquisite notes on the avian behaviors described in Dickinson’s poems are his distinctive contribution to this archive. His essays on Dickinson have appeared in European Journal of American Studies (2017), The Emily Dickinson Journal (2019), and Amerikastudien / American Studies (2020). Other essays on the poetry and prose of James Joyce have appeared in Joyce Studies Annual (2002, 2013, 2018), European Journal of English Studies (2007), Genetic Joyce Studies (2010), and James Joyce Quarterly (2014).  

[3] All bird sounds come from the archive xeon-canto.org (www.xeno-canto.org),  a website for sharing recordings of wildlife sounds from all across the world. started in 2005 by Bob Planqué and Willem-Pier Vellinga and  maintained by a small team of admins (Bob, WP, Sander Pieterse, Jonathon Jongsma and Rolf de By) with crucial assistance from Naturalis Biodiversity Center, especially Ruud Altenburg, and all of the xeno-canto community. Xeno-canto is run by the Xeno-canto foundation (or officially Stichting Xeno-canto voor natuurgeluiden), a charity (Dutch “ANBI”) from the Netherlands.Weather sounds and sounds from the anthrophony were collected from open sources online or recorded by us.

[4] Salome Voegelin. Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. (London: Continuum, 2010), 133.