My favorite time of day, no longer sleeping, but not quite awake, I am woken up in the morning by the avian chorus and enjoy listening during my liminal state. When the woodpecker starts to do her/his thing in one of the cottonwoods It is time for me to get up. I live in the city, but close to the foothills. Santa Fe is the oldest city in the US, and even though gentrification is in full swing like everywhere, the strict heritage rules ensures that the new houses mix in well with the historic buildings and old residential houses. Many of the residential roads are unpaved, giving the city a rural vibe, especially in absence of traffic these days. The bird calls can be received, loud and clear. The coyote’s call at night.

I am reminded of my work in Italy. Through a common interest in land-based knowledge, I met Dr. Almo Farina, who is many things, but most notably a specialist in ecoacoustics. Even more specific, he has been recording bird sounds to investigate the song patterns of birds: the time of day the sing, but also how birds manage not to interfere in each other’s communication channels. Super cool.

When we met, we started talking, and wondering whether such patterns would also be present in biochemical communication, the odors given of by flowers to attract bees and butterflies. Surely, some parts of the day, the season, must be better than others to do that. 

In the area I lived in Italy (Montefeltro), you can smell and see it, so many wildflowers, but not all blooming at the same time. It is harder to show the patterns of the aromatope however than the sonotope recorded by Dr. Farina, even in this wonderful smelling landscape, let alone in urban areas. Chemical transformation, sonic interference, it is all part of the game. Along with the loss of biodiversity, we also lose wonderful sounds and aromas.

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It was in one of our conversations on birds and smell that the Venice masks came up, You have probably seen them, the white masks, in the form of a bird beak, associated with Commedia dell’arte. Dr. Farina told me that those masks did not have a particularly festive function originally. These bird beak masks were stuffed with aromatics, to prevent any kind of swirling diseases from entering the respiratory system. The story stuck with me.

If you look closely to the Venice mask, it might have an inscription, Medico della Peste. 

In fact the mask was traditionally part of an outfit that furthermore consisted of an ankle length overcoat and was worn by plague doctors, also known as the ‘beak doctors’ in the 17th century. Especially in France and Italy, but also further north. The mask was shaped like a bird’s beak, and held in place by straps, with the main purpose to keep away bad smells, known as miasma. This ‘bad air’ was considered the cause of diseases.

Besides the mask and clothing,  the plague doctor was equipped with another essential item: the cane. This was used to examine patients without touching them, and to keep people at a distance.

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The mask technology remains basically the same, but surely we can now do better than the stick.

Even if it all sounds frighteningly similar, we now laugh at the idea of ‘bad air’ causing infections, because we know it is caused by germs. But I wonder, how much do we actually know, do germs give off odors, could we possibly smell them? Maybe we should not throw this baby out with the bath water. 

Strange times indeed, based on our current scientific insights, we comply with rules, directing us to keep a certain distances, and wear face masks in areas where closer contact is not always avoidable. Surreal, we speak with muffled voices, unless communicating through digital channels. I start wondering, would I not be more comfortable with a beak mask, instead of a muffled voice mask in the long term. One that I can stuff with aromatics, as long as they are still available, such as fresh rosemary and lavender. Maybe then we can become sources of ambrosia!!!

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