March 22, 2021

Frank's Corpus

I am trying to account for the body of a bird I knew. Human metrics for bird bodies tend to be comparative, since their purpose is to discern an individual spotted in the field, perched at some distance or in flight. I should say I knew a passerine about robin-sized, with a long narrow tail like a mockingbird. Depending on the light, the angle, and the season, his feathers appeared blue-gray to electric blue, with a warm gray belly, white neck, dark gray capelet, and white eyebrows. He had a little love song but far more often he had a shout. He was a California scrub jay.

I used to dream that I was on a walk or on a river when I came to a gigantic oak tree filled, improbably, with all the birds I wanted to see: eastern and mountain bluebirds together, northern pygmy owl, whooping crane, dipper, condor, whip-poor-will, shrike.

I realized that I was interacting with an individual-at-home, not observing a generality, because his feathers were in the midst of a distinctive, catastrophic molt. He looked pretty messed up, for a scrub jay. I don’t know what I thought I was doing but I started to photograph him every day, and to think of him as Frank. This work (if it’s work — it’s not labor and I don’t know if it’s art) is ongoing. Today, for example, I’ve taken 115 photos that are of Frank’s corpus, even though Frank is long gone.

Frank, November 7, 2017.

The national spectacle is particularly grotesque of late, but life produces its minutia regardless.1 Peter makes cheeseburgers and after dinner we discuss corpus strategies. The biggest problem I have is that my birdpics are mixed up with the other photographs I take, and I want them, conceptually and practically, to be separate. I can’t seem to get my mind around this act of disentanglement. Peter doesn’t see my photographs as an emotional reservoir so much as a mathematical concept.

We know that I started Frank’s corpus on March 21, 2017. We know that I have taken 82,438 photographs since then, including today’s 115, whereas in all the digital years before that, I took 6,085 photographs. We know without question that since March 21, 2017, I have mostly taken photos of scrub jays. Therefore, according to Peter, “the average pic can be assumed to be a birdpic.” I select 82,438 photos and apply a keyword: corpus. It will be much easier to remove this keyword from what I imagine are about 2,000 non-birdpics. That part is just math.

There is a workflow. I’m asleep when a scrub jay starts making loud strafing runs out back. I get up, open the fire escape door, and make coffee. A scrub jay or two comes by and I take many pictures with my phone, sometimes focused through small binoculars. I give them peanuts though I know I shouldn’t. I drink my coffee and tweet some of the photos, captioned something like “gm,” or “sky report,” or “pretty amazing how he can make the miracle of flight look so dickish.” My phone fills with photos and when that becomes a problem I put them somewhere else.

Frank in his usual spot, July 27 to December 13, 2017.

The physical and digital boundaries of Frank’s corpus are porous. There is the amalgamated backyard with its various perches. There are at least 30,000 photos of Frank I took over the course of the two years I knew him. Frank looking cute on the fire escape, Frank looking watchful on the roof; the backgrounds shift with the weather and the bird molts and ages but the images are all very similar. My improvised binocular technique gets better so the quality improves slightly. There are other birds in the backyard, mainly crows. There is the heartbreak of Frank’s territorial overthrow by his presumed offspring, the Nufrank. There is a reluctant fondness for the Nufrank, and acceptance that his more acrobatic photos are part of Frank’s corpus.

At parties, when there were parties, people wanted to talk about Frank. In the early days I would tell the story eagerly and nervously — feeling on top of shyness the unwieldiness of my evident, strange behavior. That there is a bird, that I photograph him all the time, that I have a lot of photographs, that they are all the same photograph. At my friend Rose’s birthday party, I told my tale to Ward, a photographer who seemed to think my behavior was a project, relatable to other projects he knew of. Ward asked me if I did this to have the photographs or to take them.

I look up “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” Aldo Leopold’s essay from 1947 commemorating the extinction of passenger pigeons. “There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights[…]They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather. They live forever by not living at all.” When I read this for the first time as a teenager, I took it more seriously than personally.

It would be simpler if I were finished taking photos but I’m not. If I were finished, the birds would be gone.

On different occasions, crows left me a punctured and desiccated Cholula hot sauce packet,
two mystery nuts, and one small pile of burrito rice (not pictured) on the fire escape. Frank
left several of his feathers. My mother-in-law Natalie Teichman made this hooked portrait of
Frank for me after he disappeared.

There are ephemera: nine of Frank’s feathers I keep in a jar; the drawing I made imagining Frank denuded but for those feathers; my tweets, unfortunately, a sort of performance I don’t care to re-enact; (currently awaiting content, perhaps an archive); Christmas cards, protest signage, and GIF art; responses to Frank by other artists, god bless them; a drawing of Frank that I cut from a box a friend mailed me and that I keep by my spot at the window.

Are my photographs of the gigantic gray cat who lives two yards over part of the corpus because I worry she might eat the Nufrank? Is a photograph of this essay’s editor reading her poetry at The Stud part of the corpus? The herbs I planted on the fire escape for Frank’s benefit? How can I accession my involuntary joy response to the sound of other scrub jays, my fear of the insect apocalypse? All my fears, really.

I surveilled Frank. Frank surveilled me. I surveil me, vis-à-vis Frank.

In Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques, T.R. Schellenberg wrote that an archive “must have been created or accumulated to accomplish some purpose.” That’s no problem, I created and accumulated the corpus to render Frank infinite. “They are preserved for use by bodies other than those that created them, as well as by their creators.” It bothers me that Frank or any other scrub jay cannot use his corpus. I don’t particularly want to use his corpus. I wonder if it might be of use to someone else.

A juvenile scrub jay, feathers frothy and mouth still pink at the corners, singing through its entire repertoire while hopping around on the fire escape, September 22, 2017. I wonder if this is the Nufrank a year and a half before he took over?

When arranged by date, the first record in Frank’s corpus is a photograph of the rectangular planter tray I rigged up to the fire escape railing, filled with rainwater and several peanuts. In the second entry, from March 24, 2017, a crow stands in the rain puddle that forms on the flat roof across the way. The same day, I did a pencil drawing of a peanut. On March 29 there is a young-looking scrub jay I don’t recognize, and another scrub jay, unquestionably Frank before his feathers started to look bad, shows up in a video a few minutes later.

I didn’t really get going until April 13, when I binoculared a photo of a peanut Frank wedged between an electrical casing and the strap lashing a pipe to the outside wall of our apartment building. He did this in front of me and I remember being astonished at his ability and his wit. This was before I knew that scrub jays have an advanced spatial memory that allows them to cache food throughout their home range to access later. Though they do a lot of re-sorting to confuse witnesses, these are true archives — useful to others who find and eat them, and to everyone when a forgotten acorn grows into an oak.

I try to think of Frank’s corpus as Frank might think of his caches. Can I visualize its spatial arrangement? Can I even picture 80,000 blank rectangles? I want an unfathomable pitch of files contained by a folder, contained by a drive — a deep time imaginary obscured by distance.

If I abandoned it, would something good happen?

The Nufrank, March 12, 2021.

I take Elaine Kahn’s poetry workshop and learn to write about ancestral Jewish farmers in the haunted forests of Belarus with my peripheral mind — because the direct way has been told over and over again by others and also because I’m more comfortable approaching a terrible situation with many unknowns from the side.2 I wonder if the corpus is Frank viewed peripherally, like the evidence of one crime or many.

How would Frank have accounted for himself? It embarrasses me that I persist in calling this bird Frank when I have no way of knowing how he thought of himself; naming him at all is an imposition of domesticity, when I should be aiming for the opposite. But this is how I say this bird is someone to me, and important — that every bird is worthy of attention, of obsession, of friendship, of being known as an individual, by me and by many. Every lingering of insects, everything that is useful to non-humans, is important; everyone has equal status. And still, I want to be one of those feral individuals who make better choices for themselves and others. My impulse to contain drives and bothers me.

In Animate Planet: Making Visceral Sense of Living in a High-Tech Ecologically Damaged World, anthropologist Kath Weston describes US Department of Agriculture attempts to identify and track every livestock animal in the country — first out of post-9/11 bioterrorism fears and later as a techno-utopic ward against diseases like mad cow. Daunting enough as whole bodies, when animals are slaughtered “the result is a kind of accounting allometry in which the parts to be tracked grow at a rate disproportionate to the body as a whole.” In other words: “To arrive at the godlike knowledge of animal movements to which they aspire, these technologies would have to cope with infinity.”

The database for the California Academy of Sciences’ ornithology archive — a collection of 11,000 egg and nest specimens and 96,000 bird bodies — is freely searchable online. I search for “family=Corvidae,” “Genus=Aphelocoma,” “Species=californica” and receive 694 records. I am overwhelmed by the thought of 694 cotton-stuffed scrub jays in flat file drawers — wings folded underneath in a state of repose though not their natural one — or entombed in long rows of jars filled with ethanol. I know that they are for science and a kind of math also.

I’m reading Joy Williams’s short story “Congress,” in which a woman who is in between things becomes attached to her boyfriend’s taxidermied lamp. Of this Miriam: “the odd thing was she had never been in love with an animal. She had just skipped that cross-species eroticism and gone right beyond it to altered parts.”

There are holes in Frank’s corpus. I have no record of his life before I started seeing him, though unlike me he is surely from San Francisco, and based on his appearance, behavior, and success in raising offspring (a skill that would bite him in the butt), I suspect he was an older bird. I take photographs more often than videos or audio recordings, which is regrettable because scrub jays are mostly sound and appreciation of movement through air; their bodies are barely there at all. I do not document what the scrub jays do elsewhere, when it rains too hard to come by, or at night in one of the trees out back, feet anatomically dispositioned to clasp while they sleep. Aside from a brief period at the beginning of Covid when the Nufrank jumped onto my head a lot and I took selfies of us, there is very little imagery of me taking my photos. In an archive of bird bodies, it’s the perspective of the bird that’s unknowable.

Drawing of the Nufrank as I imagined him the day I spatchcocked a chicken, April 8, 2020.

I turned my avoidant behavior into information. I have a thousand pics of a headless bird I can’t delete. I picture myself acquiring Frank’s biometric data. I step on the scale with him in my grasp, then let go.

My phone died as soon as I started to write this. You should always back up your important files, but as for me, at various times I’ve kept the photos only on my phone or partly on a drive, my laptop, and another drive somewhere.3 The latest schema is to open an app that uploads the photos to the cloud. I don’t like doing this, so two months of photos weren’t up yet when my phone died. I know I said all the photos are the same, but they aren’t — this span included the Nufrank’s gratifying late-summer molt and, devastatingly, the photos I took on September 9, 2020, the day that San Francisco was deep dark orange from wildfire smoke. I hate these photos because the Nufrank looks terrified, which is why I need them. Confirmation, at least, that I am not so ambivalent about my project.

Aldo Leopold thought that if the situation were reversed, the pigeons wouldn’t remember the humans at all, and took that as a mark of our superiority. I’m not convinced. There are nine passenger pigeon records in the California Academy of Sciences database, and I have eighty-some-thousand impressions of scrub jays in Frank’s corpus. They are to say, “this bird was here,” and when I post them to the internet I mean, “I would like to tell the truth, though often I confuse witnesses.” And now I wonder, how much evidence do I need?

I love the word corpus, how flexible it is: the body, the collected knowledge, the container itself. Is it alive or is it dead? Frank was his own corpus, and my photographs are his corpus, and in a way I’m his corpus.4 I wouldn’t want to pretend that my body is separate from all the other bodies, even though it might be comforting to think so.

Peter finds another backup I forgot about, my little burial of adoration and dread.

September 9, 2020.

In my dream, the Nufrank has become caught up in a flower box on the fire escape. I extract him as carefully as I can, but his body deflates in my hand.

Many people helped me think through the problem of having made Frank’s corpus and how to describe it. Thank you Claudia La Rocco for lots of things but especially for encouraging me to understand the corpus as a performance that could be perpetuated by writing a score. Thank you Peter Teichman for always being my first and last reader and for making me look at things straight on, and Simon Crafts, who gives me permission to think of things like a poet might. I am also grateful to Megan Riley, who helped me understand what an archive is, and Grace T. Weiss, who clarified that since I’m an artist it can be a little loose. Thank you Frank for changing the way I see everything. I hope you wouldn’t mind what I’ve done.

  1. Email from Claudia, January 28, 2021: I saw this tweet from you "i can do this forever ppl. drown out the stocks one birdpic at time" and it made me think that there is something important here, as relates to your use/usefulness musing in the piece ... that this would be the use of it, yes, to situate yourself, and perhaps others, in what is real, what is immediately around us, versus the soup of geopolitics that most of us don't fully grasp and feel impotent to change in any "real" way ... and at the same time what you are doing is mediated for you through technology and sometimes social media, and for those who receive it largely through social media ... it's an interesting tension ... at least for me! There are so many simplistic binaries about real/mediated, indeed I am trafficking in it now with this email: I both believe it and feel it is much more complicated ... thinking of ways in which what you are doing plays with that.
  2. Email from Simon, February 9, 2021: This is sort of a question of history or "witness" as I think you call it. Like how will history judge your project and how will it judge us with climate collapse impending. This is hinted at earlier with the suggestion of the "peripheral poem" that demonstrates a crime. I think I might push that little aside further and ask what would be morbid about witnessing the Jewish farmers more directly in your poem? I feel like there is violence there that you are paralleling with how your Frank project could possibly be seen by people in the future? I would just maybe be more explicit about that connection. I love that section though.
  3. Note from Claudia, February 13, 2021: A cache!
  4. Note to Claudia, February 25, 2021: Peter thinks I have to explain this but I don't want to. But if I had to it would be something like "I contain the memory of Frank, maybe as much as the Nufrank does." Reply from Claudia, February 26, 2021: Mobile body archive! I think … this is a kind of brilliant note, it could be an entire footnote. And also you don’t have to explain it — as your editor I outrank Peter! Sorry Peter …

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