Transcendental Whistling

You just put your lips together, and blow — Lauren Bacall

When’s the last time you heard casual public whistling? People used to whistle, but they don’t seem to do that anymore. At least not in North America. In the neighbourhood where I grew up, older folks would often whistle a tune as they worked on their minor chores. Someone walking along the sidewalk downtown passing by whistled so beautifully people would comment to each other. My grandmother was a very good whistler, she could really hit the high notes.

With no technology whatsoever, not even so much as a reed flute, music can be made. I used to whistle during less entertaining stretches of long drives, but it occurred to me the other day that I almost never do that anymore (which realization prompted this blog post). At first I was one of those public whistlers. Then I limited myself to whistling alone, too shy in the newly whistling-unfriendly society to let anyone hear me.

When I do whistle musically, I can whistle steadily onward through a full three octaves, plus a few more strained high notes over the top of the highest octave if I reposition my lips and the muscles of my throat just so. I can whistle the melodies of Bach and Prokofiev, or if I’m in a boldly American mood, John Philip Sousa. I don’t whistle when I’m in a bad mood. Or maybe whistling improves my mood (it does).

I have a special whistle to call Buki to me when she’s gone away too far. It’s a different whistle (three short low notes and a longer rising fourth) than Purple’s “cuckoo whistle”, which I retired when she died. It didn’t seem proper to use her special whistle for another dog. For Ravena the Raven, I have another whistle to call her and Rowan to feeding time, one with one short low note followed by a long smoothly rising and then descending note. Or just to be conversational with Ravena, I whistle melodies and random notes while she cocks her head side to side in a dog-like way, listening, processing what she’s hearing.

Whistling is powerful magic. If you stop talking and start whistling, you might feel a sense of entering another plane…wait, that’s not so far-fetched, many cultures around the world have held the act of whistling apart from ordinary daily life, reserving it for shamanistic or other spiritual practices, or for moments of superstition (good luck or bad). Whistling sailors could induce the wind to blow harder, the wind joining the breath of their whistling to really make the sails billow. But careful with that whistle, sailor, you might bring on a gale or a hurricane. In stage theaters, which commonly employed out-of-work sailors to operate the complex backstage ropes and knots, no whistling was allowed, lest the vengeful spirits of dead sailors be called back for a haunting. Whistling as a means (accidental or intentional) of summoning ghosts or evil spirits is common among traditional societies around the world. Whistling may bring poverty, ruin crops, or portend a death. Or on the other hand, whistling can simply convey a happy mood and encourage others to cheer up.

Extremely good whistlers can mimic complex bird songs, adding fingering to the manipulation of air flow and vibration through the lips. Whistlers’ bird mimicry isn’t just for communicating a secret signal between comrades in arms and thieves, but also it’s an art, and for busking on the street and for tourists’ coins. There are traditions of bird whistling in various cultures around the world. I once heard such whistling in an old television program about the piratical Malayan cultures. It was astonishing to hear, and I wished I could do that myself.

Whole languages use only whistling to make words, a useful mode of communication across opposite sides of deep canyons and from mountain to mountain. Whistle languages are of cultural conservation concern, disappearing from their places of use in Turkey, Mexico, the Canary Islands and elsewhere. That too…why must all the magic fade away?

I wonder if there are still practitioners of the Daoist practice of 長嘯 (long whistling, or “transcendental whistling”). The characters are pronounced chángxiào, a rising tone on the chang, like drawing in a deep breath, and a falling tone on the xiao, like exhaling in a great loud whistle. Long whistlers were known for their masterful control of their breathing and of their 氣 (pronounced qì, flow of energy). A long whistle could be heard a kilometer away, and had power over spiritual beings, animals, and weather. 阮籍 (Ruǎn Jí, b. 210, d. 263), one of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, was a long whistler. To quote Wikipedia’s article on him:

Ruan Ji was one of that kind of people, who themselves made their life a masterpiece. In the Chen Shou’s History of Wei Dynasty the mentioning of Ruan Ji was more than modest: “… highly talented, having an ability to avoid the chains of court morality and traditions, but unbalanced and undisciplined; he was eager to banish his temptations. Ruan Ji honoured the ancient Daoist sage Zhuangzi.” The History of Jin Dynasty describes Ruan Ji’s appearance and personality: “Ji’s appearance was uncommon, stubborn and self-willed, tempered, proud and independent. Following only the gusts of soul … Sometimes he would wander away on the hills and forget to return, and at length come back crying bitterly; at other times he would shut himself up with his books and see no one for months. He read a lot, especially liking Laozi and Zhuangzi. He drank a lot, he possessed the skill of transcendental whistling and loved to play on the qin (琴). Once inspired by an idea, he forgot about everything in the world. Many considered him to be a madman.”

And, referring to the era in which the famous Ruǎn Jí lived and to further quote Wikipedia, from the article on Transcendental Whistling:

Su calls the Six Dynasties (222–589) the “golden age of whistling”. Xiao seems to have permeated all strata of Six Dynasties society, and practitioners included persons from almost all walks of life: recluses, hermit-scholars, generals, Buddhist monks, non-Chinese foreigners, women, high society elite, and Daoist priests. “In general, poets, hermits, and people of all types in the Six Dynasties utilized whistling to express a sense of untrammeled individual freedom, or an attitude of disobedience to authority or traditional ceremony, or to dispel suppressed feelings and indignation.”

OK, so why am I writing about whistling in the EdgewoodWild website, anyway? What’s it got to do with the living world? This is a blog series about natural history, not culture and spirituality. Well, I’m getting old and nostalgic, and it grieves me to see so much cultural as well as natural loss; the differences between the world of my childhood and the world now are so sad, angering, and disappointing. Our cultures were so rich and varied until mass production, marketing, consumerism, Hollywood, and “high tech” all joined forces and swept away most of the power of traditions. Cultural diversity and biodiversity are twins.

Past cultures were all too often brutal and tribalistic and warlike. But through the primitive shone a lot of beauty. The people of diverse living cultures can learn a lot from each other. We can learn from our mutual traditions ways of living in a truly living world. Or we can learn from all our electronica the lie that we don’t need the living world. Or that the living world doesn’t exist, only a virtual world does.

Whistling is so out of place in the smartphone world that to hear a whistler walking along the sidewalk would seem jarring, even scary. Maybe that unexpected encounter with the past and with someone who’s walking along with half their presence in a transcendental plane might help jar us out of our unhappy complacency with the plans big tech has for us all. Spiritual power is weird. Luck and superstition are weird. Using whistling to communicate with other species is weird. Even just a whistler’s outward expression of simple happiness might seem weird now (it wasn’t when I was growing up). When society behaves that way, suppressing the magical, it’s time to bring out the “untrammeled individual freedoms”. So, be a Ruǎn Jí, be weird, astonish people, and whistle while you work!

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