The Idea of Nature in Revolt — Revisiting Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’
A shocking number of bird species are becoming endangered and/or going extinct all over the world. Next to amphibians, our feathered friends — often viewed as agricultural “pests” — are perhaps suffering most from an existential triple threat: climate change impacts, land use changes, and habitat destruction (all inter-related impacts), though some, such as red-winged black birds, crows, sparrows, and sea gulls, etc. are doing very well, considering the sorry eco-state of things.
But even these few species don’t all get through this brave new Anthropocene era unscathed; the USDA recently revealed that many of the black bird ‘die-offs’ that were happening in several U.S. states last year (2010-2011) were the result of an intentional, mass poisoning campaign (on behalf of agricultural interests, no doubt).
Sometimes, the primal part of me wishes that animal (and vegetable) nature would just say ‘enough’ and whip us into shape in a hurry. But that is not Nature’s way; Nature most often seems to take a ‘slow poison’ approach, but with punctuations of catastrophe. Still, sometimes I imagine that this is changing...somehow. Lately, the idea of Nature in Revolt keeps intruding on my thoughts.
There’s a popular cable TV show called When Animals Attack! which originally aired in the late 1990’s and is still shown today. This over-the-top yet compelling show is cleverly composed to convey the idea that Nature is pissed off and taking direct action against us. It’s not just ‘a menace’, but menacing. It matters not if it’s a petty grievance like accidentally interrupting coitus, or, a more serious threat like an attempted trophy kill…Make no mistake, the show implies, Animal Nature will confront you, or sneak up on you, and exact fast and ferocious revenge for these offenses, or, just because you were there.
But it was a recent late-night viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (only my third viewing of the film, but the first time in more than a decade) that prompted the main line of thinking in this analysis.
In the first few moments of the film, we are introduced to two main characters: Mitch, the successful big city lawyer (but from hard-working, rural roots), who commutes daily (or weekly), and, Melanie Daniels, the well-to-do and independent daughter of a big city newspaper magnate. He is middle age, successful, confident and wifeless. She is childless, in her thirties, educated, liberated and unattached.
They meet in a city pet shop in that oddly natural way familiar to Hitchcock’s plots, where upon, the woman becomes intrigued or infatuated with Mitch, and decides to take a trip out to the idyllic-seeming, fishing and farming community that is Bodega Bay, childhood home of Mitch who still lives there with his mother and much younger sister. Her expressed reason for doing this is to gift the daughter a pair of caged love birds for her birthday. The mother, of course, is initially suspicious and distrustful of such a bold and carefree woman.
Mitch’s old gal pal – Annie – had moved to the area from the city years before and is now the town’s only teacher (apparently). Early on in the film, when she first encounters Ms. Daniels (yet another woman who follows Mitch to his sleepy, untainted, sea-side hometown), she looks up to note the large flock of birds flying over head, asking: “ Don’t they ever stop migrating?” in an odd and soon-to-be-ironic moment (as the birds will indeed stop migrating, and start occupying, soon enough). She asks this question with some combination of earnest ignorance and passive antipathy towards them. She, and many others, will soon pay the price for this ignorance.
The pair of exotic love-birds are less ‘canaries in a coal mine’ than quaint creatures in a portable zoo — fully protected from the outside world. The colorful pair at first seem to be just another one of Hitchcock’s cryptic McGuffins, but as the camera cuts quickly back to them throughout the film, they become a more subliminal – but highly significant – metaphor for how we prefer to view Nature: in a cage…neat, controlled, defined. The birds remain in their cage, and remain mostly unflappable, so to speak, throughout the sporadic blitzkriegs of their feathered kin.
In one of the main locations – the only diner and bar in town — we meet an older, pipe-smoking woman who is the presumed, local naturalist (perhaps a retired academic) and is seemingly an expert on birds and Nature. She admires them, studies them (enough not to accept Ms. Daniel’s story), and refuses at first to accept the idea of deliberate attacks by birds: “Birds are peaceful animals!” she declares with scientific certainty. It is an odd thing for an ornithologist to say — never having seen, apparently, a bevy of tiny finches bombard a marauding blue jay that had strayed too close to their hatchlings’ nests with ill intent.
But we want to believe her; she sounds authoritative, and, the alternative — that birds are violent and wild…that these ancient avian critters are capable of being predatory — is not something we are yet ready to believe (perhaps again, Hitchcock’s genius understood, intuitively, that birds are descendants of dinosaurs — “terrible lizards” — though this was but an arcane theory back in 1963).
But to the interloper Ms. Daniels, who was attacked by a see gull (giving her a cut on her head) upon first setting foot on the town dock, and who has already witnessed one mass attack, the expert is grossly out of touch with reality. At one point, after hearing of this, the ornithologist proclaims that multiple species of birds “don’t flock together, or attack together!” There’s a bit of anti-science going on here, as we know that the lady ornithologist is normally correct, but we also know that Ms. Daniels is speaking the truth. It is her experience of Nature versus the older woman’s learned knowledge of Nature — and the latter comes up short; fear will soon grip the community thanks to these “peaceful”, non-communal creatures.
Later, as the largest avian attack is underway, Ms. Daniels takes shelter in the town diner, where she encounters a group of patrons huddled inside, scared, and not a little angry. The town drunk is there babbling about it being a “sign of the Apocalypse” (proving again that apocalyptic fear-mongering enjoys waves of popularity, then, as now). The mother of two young children – whom we met earlier during the first conversation about the birds – is there also, trapped with a dozen other towns folk. She steps forward, frightened and shaking, and accosts the blond Ms. Daniels, sputtering: ‘You! You’re the cause of all this! Everything was fine until you showed up!’
This charge is clearly irrational – how could one person bring so many birds bent on human destruction? She is clearly a metaphor, or rather, through her, Hitchcock reveals his thriller to be an allegory. In my interpretation, Ms. Daniels represents the ceaseless encroachment of human urbanization and development into every last wild place…Even back then, the pace/growth of development was worrying; Hitchcock may have been more prescient that most others on this issue.
Only in this context can we understand the film as anything other that a cinematic, proto-version of When Animals Attack!. She is “from the city” and is “thinking about coming here more often…” She is urbanization itself, or perhaps, the embodiment of its spread and sprawl. To be sure, Hitchcock also insinuates a more socially stereotypical role for Ms. Daniels. She raises not a few eyebrows being so care-free, and wealthy, and unattached to a man, or the local environment. There is an oblique questioning of her “values”, though these are never clearly expressed…we just know what they mean…It is an unspoken judgment of her character that is expressed initially through Mitch’s mother. Although worthy of discussion, this element of the story seems to be secondary to the main plot and theme.
At one point mid-way into the film, we learn that there’s a bizarre barnyard rebellion afoot: at Mitch’s home, we hear his mother having a troubling phone conversation with one of the neighboring farmers. Seems his chickens are refusing to eat the farm feed (and not the same feed as Mitch’s mother was using, also unsuccessfully). No, it’s not a problem with the feed (we are told)…it’s something else, but what?
Again, Hitchcock makes his allegorical tale clear: here, a rebellion against domestication, in the form of rejecting the scientifically calculated and concocted commercial chicken feed. And we sense, somehow, that this barnyard revolt is connected to the larger, more ominous movement amassing all around them.
In the final scene, as the family speeds off in Mitch’s tiny sport car (love birds included, safe in their cage), far down the only road out of town, we see birds everywhere –– on every telephone pole and wire and every structure and square foot of land in site. We learn via the car’s radio that the entire town has been “quarantined”, safely encaged, like those exotic, out-of-place love birds.
Had animal Nature driven off the humans? Upon deeper reflection, I began to see that the mass, avian takeover of Bodega Bay by gulls, crows, swallows, and sparrows was not an overt act of expulsion (of Adam and Eve, and family, from paradise, as it were) – for such a thing would imply some type of mass-consciousness or intent — but rather, as an instinctive act of mass re-appropriation – Nature taking back what rightfully belonged to it.
And, Nature will not be so easily caged-in (or off).
Indeed, as the bruised and bloodied family zooms away, we also hear the radio newscaster speaking, ominously, of “other communities” having experienced similar mass attacks. As the film ends, we are left with one clear impression: the revolt of Nature is spreading...and coming to a community near you!
To be sure, the idea of Nature in Revolt has deeper roots in our culture (and many others). The 1950’s era sci-fi horror classic Them! comes to mind, and of course, there is H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. But in these tales, Nature’s “pests” and beasts causing horror is a direct consequence of the misuse of Nature by blind Science; the creatures (ants) and creations (engineered animal chimeras) are responding directly to an abuse of scientific knowledge (atomic energy, biological manipulation, respectively). Whereas, in Hitchcock, we have our horrific narrative dictated by the curious caprices and animal instincts of wild Nature: hundreds of thousands or millions of birds of every stripe come together, driven by some unseen imperative or impulse.
Hitchcock peals away the pretty facades of modern, sheltered life and shows us the power of Nature in its sheer numbers, its ability to congregate – seemingly by some invisible code – in massive, unstoppable quantities.
To my mind, that all sounds plausible enough, but The Birds is a work of cinematic fiction…Are there any examples in the “real world” of Nature, of a numbers of animals, attacking or taking over what was appropriated by humans?
If there was a ‘Hitchcockian’ version of The Undersea World of Jacque Cousteau, it would be jellyfish taking over, perhaps, whose populations have exploded in recent years, wreaking havoc on small fish stocks, invading new habitats, and clogging water in-take valves to power plants.
Interestingly, the inspiration for the film most likely came from a 1961 incident in Capitola, California in which residents awoke to tens of thousands of dead birds littering every street, yard and rooftop in town. The mass die-off was attributed to poisoning via domoic acid-tainted shellfish, which the birds had presumably feasted on just prior. Hitchcock must have sensed in this incident something bigger, more sinister even, and requested press coverage of the incident the same year he commissioned the script for The Birds (which was loosely based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier).
In one astounding and terrifying scene, a second attack transpires in the quaint and tiny town’s center: a single bird, at first, triggers a chain reaction of explosive havoc on its structures and workers, bloodying and killing several, and with our lead actress seeking slim shelter in a shattering glass-door phone booth.
In seeing this scene again after so long, I was reminded of the stories – reported not too many years back — about “rogue” male elephants rampaging through villages, causing destruction, drinking and eating up stores of alcohol and sugar, and trampling many. Their attacks seemed coordinated and targeted at the villages. The images of the marauding and carousing rogue elephants — which I had formed upon reading these more recent news stories — played in my mind as I simultaneously watched several co-mingling flocks of birds turn bucolic tranquility into screaming, fiery chaos. In retrospect, it was a telling superimposition of imagery.
Now, one might ascribe this destructive behavior to being an example of elephantine delinquency due to the young males’ “rogue” status (and most males do leave their family group at some point anyway). They had simply formed a gang which promoted their survival. But this view is circular in reasoning. Further, they were not forced out of the herd by their own kind when they had come of age…These were elephants that were orphaned, at one time, quite young — too young, say the biologists who study them.
Investigations revealed that their parents and extended family members were decimated by ivory poachers, leaving them without the crucial bonding needed for healthy/adaptive survival and, most importantly, the preservation of the species. They had become ‘personality’-disordered pachyderms because of us humans. Surely, this phenomenon qualifies, on some level, as ‘Nature in Revolt’, or, Nature taking revenge against us.
There are no doubt many other such tales out there. The “fringe” naturalist, historian, and writer Charles Fort made it his life’s great passion to report on such strange and over-whelming mass phenomena. In his The Book of the Damned (1914) we have copious documentation of Nature run amok. It’s unsettling but also engrossing reading.
For sure, we “love” Nature. We depend on Nature (despite out living in denial so much of the time) …but we also fear Nature. Those of us who study Nature prefer to call this respecting Nature. Those who embrace Nature call it obeying Nature. When we disobey Nature, or deny its fundamental reality, we pay the price, sometimes horrifyingly.
But to my thinking, there is an important question to be asked: Is it possible, that massive numbers of animals could, on some level (if not conscious, then on some deep limbic, or reptilian, level), recognize an existential threat and take coordinated action to stop or reverse it?
Perhaps the idea of ‘Nature in Revolt’ is just some metaphorical projection of our fear of Nature…it’s disorderliness, its unalterable destructiveness…but my studies of Nature have taught me that such fears are often grounded in reality and sometimes in biological memory, however remote in the past they may have been imprinted…then passed on to future generations.
At some point in our diverse, tribal pasts, we experienced this revolt, on some scale (and certainly, insect plagues destroying plant life are a nearly universal and ancient example of Nature “taking over” ). The memory is there, repressed most of the time, but yet emergent in our Myths and Arts, to remind us: we are not the masters of Nature; we are always subject to its rules…and its ruthless repercussions.
It matters not if we can’t say scientifically that wild, Animal Nature, collectively, can manifest intentional, coordinated action to correct, or extirpate, a destructive pest; the continuous, human disruption of natural cycles, and the unintentional consequences of self-organizing, animal species – be they birds, bees or beasts — will guarantee such “strange, sudden, and unexpected” events. It’s all in the timing…
From a wizened but still anthropocentric view, perhaps we need some Nature-induced terror, from time to time, to remind us, and re-align us, with Nature… with our true place and being in this world.