A photograph from the Sarawak Museum:
28th of June, 1961
A black and white photo of a young man in a white tshirt holding a microphone to the sky. He wears headphones, one hand operating a reel to reel recorder from a large black box in front of him. In front of the recorder, long grasses nestle around a 16mm camera. He kneels on the rocks, staring at the sky intently, the shadow of his arm across his face against the sunlight. Behind him, a calm sea, we could imagine deep turquoise. Above his head, flecks of grey / artefacts of dirt on the negative.
In grey handwritten pencil, the caption says:
Wahat of Radio Sarawak
Recording man at Pulau Tukong Ara.
In red pencil, someone has corrected his name to Wahit, then crossed out the word “man” and replaced it with “bird’s noises”.
(the index of a movement)
Wahit of Radio Sarawak
Recording bird noises at Pulau Tukong Ara.
The centre, no longer him, Wahat the recording man, but Wahit in the process of his work, not only the birds in the background but the bird’s noises, his eyes focused on their movements and calls around him / or, posing for the camera.
It’s the gerund, says a friend. Recording. Recording as a constant
Pulau Tukong Ara is designated a wildlife reserve to protect the Bridled terns and Black-naped terns who lay eggs on bare rocks on this outcrop then disappear when the monsoon arrives. Some terns get blown into the coast by north-east monsoon winds, others circulate to the Natuna islands and Riau. A gutteral jangly note gurrr-grr-kr-kuss, alarm kee-errr-krrr, like the noise made by a Pekinese dog –
(a curator says)
On 9 September 1958 I saw about 100 birds, singly, sitting on flotsam about twenty miles off the coast midway between Cape Po and Kuala Rajang.
The noises of Bridled terns in Queensland, Australia, and Black-naped terns in Sulawesi Utara, lifted from the website xeno-canto.
Not Wahit’s recordings. Not the sound of Pulau Tukong Ara and its seas and winds and Wahit’s hand on the microphone and the direction his torso twisted as his eyes track terns flying above him. The rock is streaked with bird shit. The sea air sinks soundlessly into magnetic tape.
Tom Harrisson quoted in The Birds of Borneo. ed. Smythies, Bertram E. Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh: UK, 1960.
Black-naped terns recorded by Ross Gallardy, XC413931. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/413931.
Bridled terns recorded by Simon Elliott, XC589067. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/589067.