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May 2020

One more post for the feathered ones

Bird Girls by Terri Winding

Bird Mother by Terri Windling
Why I Need the Birds
by Lisel Mueller (1924-2020)

When I hear them call
in the morning, before
I am quite awake,
my bed is already traveling
the daily rainbow,
the arc toward evening;
and the birds, leading
their own discreet lives
of hunger and watchfulness,
are with me all the way,
always a little ahead of me
in the long-practiced manner
of unobtrusive guides.

By the time I arrive at evening,
they have just settled down to rest;
already invisible, they are turning
into the dreamwork of trees;
and all of us together --
myself and the purple finches,
the rusty blackbirds,
the ruby cardinals,
and the white-throated sparrows
with their liquid voices —
ride the dark curve of the earth
toward daylight, which they announce
from their high lookouts
before dawn has quite broken for me.

   

"Why I Need the Birds" is from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems by Lisel Mueller, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Having long been one of my favourite poets, I was saddened to learn of Ms. Mueller's death earlier this year, at age 96. The New York Times obituary noted that her "elegant work drew on nature, her experiences as a parent, folklore, and history, including her own flight from Nazi Germany as a teenager." I particularly recommend her folklore poems ("Why We Tell Stories," "Reading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny," etc.), but the full range of her work is quietly devastating in its power.

Some years ago I plucked up the courage to write for permission to reprint one of her poems in my Armless Maiden anthology (raising money for at-risk children) -- and she responded by writing and donating a beautiful new poem instead. Her kindness will never be forgotten. May her memory be a blessing.

Bird Sisters by Terri Windling

Lisel Muller photographed by Lucy Mueller

Words: Alive Together: New and Selected Poems was published by Louisiana State University Press, 1996; all rights reserved by the author's estate. Pictures: The paintings and drawing above are by me today. All rights reserved.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

Photograph by Sophie Hale

As a follow-up to last week's music, here are a few more songs with the rustle of wings, dedicated to the birds who fill the quiet of pandemic lockdown with glorious song.

Above: "Seven Hundred Birds" by Monika Gromek's band Quickbeam, from Glasgow, Scotland. The atmospheric video was filmed in the hills of Cumbria. 

Below: "Starlings" by Welsh composer and guitarist Toby Hay. The song first appeared on his Birds EP -- five songs inspired by starlings, ravens, curlews,  and red kites. It can also be found on his fine album The Gathering, which came out last year.

Above: "The Lark" performed by singer/songwriter Kate Rusby, from South Yorkshire, with Nic Jones, based here in Devon. The song appeared on her album The Girl Who Couldn't Fky (2005).

Below: "Hour of the Blackbird" performed by Ninebarrow (Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere), from Dorset, accompanied by Lee Cuff (from Kadia) on cello. The song appeared on their album The Waters and the Wild (2018).

Above: "The Sweet Nightingale" performed by folksinger and fiddle/viola player Jackie Oates, from Staffordshire. The song appeared on her album Saturnine (2010)

Below: Lal Waterson's "The Bird," performed by Oates on her album The Joy of Living (2018).

Above: "What's the Use of Wings," written by Brian Bedford, performed by Jackie Oates and Megan Henwood, a singer/songwriter from Oxfordshire. Oates and Henwood are accompanied here by video clips of starling murmurations, and Pete Thomas on double bass.

Below: "The Wren and the Salt Air" by Scottish singer/songwriter Jenny Sturgeon (of Salt House), inspired by the wildlife and human history of St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides. (St. Kilda was discussed in a previous post here.) I also recommend Sturgeon's album Northern Flyway with Inge Thomson (from the Shetland Isles): a musical exploration of birdsong, ecology, folklore, and themes of migration (discussed in a previous post here).

Above: "The Cuckoo" performed by British folk duo Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker on their EP The Birds (2017).

Below: "Hushabye" by the great Northumbrian piper Kathrine Tickell, and her band the Darkening. It's from their new album Hollowbone (2020), with a new video by Marry Waterson.

Starling Murmuration by Sophie Hale

Images above: Starling murmurations on the Isle of Wight, photographed by Sophie Hale, 2019. (All rights reserved by the artist.)


Wild Communion

Charlotte by Laurence Winram

In yesterday's post, I recommended Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a marvelous book about Mozart's bird companion (Star), the writer's own pet starling (Carmen), and reflections on this common bird, widely detested in North America for being nonnative and invasive. Today, I'd like to quote a beautiful passage from the latter chapters of the text looking at the nature of our wild relationships with the more-than-human world, a subject that often comes up in our discussions in the Mythic Arts field.

Haupt writes:

"When I set out to follow the story of Mozart and his starling, I saw in its center a shining, irresistible paradox: one of the greatest and most loved composers in all of history was inspired by a common, despised starling. Now I muse upon the many facets of this tale, and it is wonderful, yes, even more wonderful than I had imagined. But looking back at the trail that I have wandered with these kindred birds -- one in history and one in my home -- I see also that, as both humans and animals so often are, I have been tricked by my attraction to the shiny little object. For in the end, it is not the exceptionality of this story that is the true wonder. It is its ordinariness.

"In the creatures that intertwine with our lives, those we see daily and those that watch us from urban and wild places -- from between branches and beneath leaves and under eaves and stairwells and culverts and the sides of walks and pathways -- we share everything. We share breath, and biology, and blood. She share our needs for food and water and shelter. We share the imperative to mate and to give new life and to keep our young safe and warm and fed. We share susceptibility to disease and the potential to suffer and an inevitable frailty in the face of these things. We share a certain death. We share everything, constantly, every moment of the day and night, across eons. And in this shared earthly living, when we give our attention to it, we find the basis of our compassion, and our empathy for other creatures....

Each creature has its particular ways and wiles. Each being has its own presence, voice, silence, song, body, place. We are bound by our sameness and uniqueness in equal measure -- both spring from our shared being on a vital, conscious earth. This is wild communion. And it is in this recognition that we move beyond simple compassion to a more certain, more essential sense of relatedness, of kinship.

Mihaela 1 by Laurence Winram

"Mozart felt this, I know. Like me, he was drawn at first to the shiny thing -- in his case it was Star's singing back to him the song he himself had written. But in his elegy poem [written upon Star's death] we see that a different relationship evolved. The bird's mimicry is not once mentioned. This is a poem to a kindred creature whose presence brought play, sound, song, joy, and friendliness to the maestro's life. And in the work that Star inspired, this is what we see too. A shared sense of mischief, music, and delight. The word kinship comes from the Old English -- of the same kind, and therefore related. Kindly and kindness also grow from this root -- the bearing toward others that kinship inspires.

Nikita II by Laurence Winram

"I have always thought of all creatures -- all organisms really -- as relations. Whether wandering alone in deep wilderness or just leaning against a tree growing beside an urban sidewalk, I have no difficulty feeling, as if in a dreamtime, the roots of our relatedness -- ecologically, yes, but also with an overlay of the sacred, the holy. Starlings, though pretty, were a rift in this vision. They fluttered outside this wholeness. But my thinking has evolved. Ecologically, it is true -- starlings do not belong in this country, this city; but relationally, it is not true. We live together in a tangled complexity. I listen to the starlings mimic back to me my own profound ecological shortcomings. Carmen is a creature with a body, voice, and consciousness in the world. In this, we are sisters. And all these unwelcome starlings on the grassy parking strip? Yes, they are my relations too.

Charlotte 1 by Laurence Winram

"The Cartesian belief in the absolute separateness of lives, bodies, and brains maintains a foothold in the traditions of our modern culture. We see it in the ways we are pitted against one another in commerce, in education, and in the small, daily jealousies of our own minds. We see it in the ways that we continue to find it culturally acceptable to diminish animals in agriculture, in entertainment, and in scientific experimentation. And yes, when we are attentive, we find that we are not separate, not alone. We are not isolated little minds wandering on a large, indifferent earth. We are surrounded by our kin, by all of life, beings with whom we are wayfarers together. Instead of walking upon, we walk within, and this within-ness brings our imaginations to life. We are inspired -- literally "breathed upon" -- together.

"Our creativity and our connection to other beings is tangled in a beautiful etymology. The words creative and creature spring from the same Latin root, creare, "to produce, to grow, to bring into existence." It was Ged, Ursula Le Guin's beloved young wizard of Earthsea, who learned after the fall of his individual pride that the wise person is "one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the slow gestures of trees." Through such understanding we arrive at a new wholeness. We become more receptive and free in body and imagination, and our unique potential for creative magnificence is enlivened. We become the listening artists of our own lives and culture."

Yes, indeed.

Fiona I by Laurence Winram

The art today is by Scottish photographer Laurence Winram. The imagery here is from his Shadow, Conemen, and Mythologos series. Please visit Winram's website and blog to see more.

"The ancient Greeks made sense of their world not only by logic but by myth too," says the artist. "They saw it was necessary to view things in these opposite ways in order to have a balanced understanding of their lives. I feel we have moved out of that balance, unconsciously letting go of that mythic element to our lives. As a result we've lost touch with our own personal vision and creativity. We let a dogmatic scientific perspective rule everything, from our dreams to our notions of the spiritual.

"I try to reflect on this, creating images that sometimes imagine a world where logic has been sidelined by the mythic, or images that mock our need to analyse and break down those parts of our life that we should truly respond to more intuitively."

Hazel Flew by Laurence Winram

Otto's Flight II by Laurence Winram

The passages above is from Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown & Co., 2017); all rights reserved by the author. Thanks again to William Todd Jones (via composer Hillary Tann) for passing the book on to me; and to Steve Toase for recommending Laurence Winram's work. All rights to the photography above reserved by the artist.


Mozart, starlings, and the inspiration-wind

A Luminosity of Birds

From Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt:

"People always ask how I get ideas for by books. I think all authors hear this question. And, at least for me, there is only one answer: You can't think up an idea. Instead, an idea flies into your brain -- unbidden, careening, and wild, like a bird out of the ether. And though Starlingthere is a measure of chance, luck, and grace involved, for the most part ideas don't arise from actual ether; instead they spring from the metaphoric opposite -- from the rich soil that has been prepared, with and without our knowledge, by the whole of our lives: what we do, what we know, what we see, what we dream, what we fear, what we love....

"And as a writer, of course, I live by inspiration. I watch it come and go; when it's missing, I pray for its reappearance. I light a candle and put it in my window hoping that this little ritual might help inspiration find its way back to me, like a lover lost in a snowstorm. The word itself is beautiful. Inspire is from the Latin, meaning 'to be breathed upon; to be breathed into.' Just as I ponder the migrations of birds, I ponder the migrations of inspiration's light breeze. If it's not with me, where has it been? Who has it breathed upon while it was away, and when, and how? Over and over again, I have come to terms with the sad truth that inspiration never visits at my convenience, nor in accordance with my sense of timing, nor at the behest of my will. Most of all, the inspiration-wind has no interest whatsoever in what I think I want to write about."

Haupt is an ecophilosopher and naturalist who has has studied birds for much of her life; she has also worked as a raptor rehabilitator, and once this history became known in her neighborhood, "it seemed that all the injured birds within a fifty-mile radius had a way of finding me." So it's no surprise that birds are the focus of several of her books, including Crow Planet, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent, and Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds. What did surprise her was when inspiration came in the form of a starling.

Crested Nattadon Bird Fairy

In conservation circles, she explains, starlings are easily the most despised birds in all North America: a ubiquitous, nonnative species that has invaded sensitve habitats and outcompetes native birds for food and nest sites.  One day as she sat at her desk, she looked out the window and saw "a plague of starlings" on a strip of grass beyond the house. Other birds find starlings intimidating, so Haupt pounded on the window to make them leave. This had little effect. "So I rapped the window harder," she writes, "and again they lifted. But this time, they turned toward the light and I was dazzled by the glistening iridescence of their breasts. So shimmery, ink black and scattered with pearlescent spots, like snow in sun. Hated birds, lovely birds. In this moment of conflicted beauty, a story I'd heard many times came to mind.

"Mozart had kept a pet starling."

Bird Children from my sketchbooks

"Mozart discovered the starling in a Vienna pet shop," Haupt explains, "where the bird had somehow learned to sing the motif from his newest piano concerto. Enchanted, he bought the bird for a few kreuzer and kept it for three years before it died. Just how the starling learned Mozart's motif is a wonderful musico-ornithological mystery. But there is one thing we know for certain: Mozart loved his starling. Recent examinations of his work during and after the period he lived with the bird shows that the starling influenced his music and, I believe, at least one of the opera world's favorite characters. The starling in turn was his companion, distraction, consolation, and muse. When his father, Leopold, died, Wolfgang did not travel to Salzburg for the services. When his starling died, two months later, Mozart hosted a formal funeral in his garden and composed a whimsical elegy that proclaimed his affinity with the starling's mischievousness and his sorrow over the bird's loss."

A starling

"What did Mozart learn from his bird? The juxtaposition of the hated and sublime is fascinating enough. But how did they interact? What was the source of their affinity? And how did the starling come to know Mozart's tune? I dove into research, making detailed notes on the starlings in my neighborhood. But gaps in my understanding of starling behavior remained and niggled, and within a few weeks I reluctantly realized that to truly understand what it meant for Mozart to live with a starling, I would, like the maestro, have to live with a starling of my own." And so she did.

The book and the starlingThe resulting book is Mozart's Starling, which I highly recommend: a skillful blend of musical history, natural science, and personal memoir, with meditations on creativity, migration, and so much more.

"Following Mozart's starling, and mine," Haupt relates in the Introduction, "I was led on a crooked, beautiful, and unexpected path  that would through Vienna and Salzburg, the symphony, the opera, ornithological labs, the depths of music theory, and the field of linguistics. It led me to outer space. It led me deep into the natural world and our constant wild animal companions. It led me to the understanding that there is more possibility in our relationships with animals -- with all the creatures of the earth, not just the traditionally beautiful, or endangered, or loved -- than I had ever imagined. And in this potential for relationship there lies our deepest source of creativity, of sustenance, of intelligence, and of inspiration."

Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Words: The passages above are from Mozart's Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Little, Brown & Co., 2017); all rights reserved by the author. Many thanks to William Todd Jones (via composer Hillary Tann) for passing the book on to me.

Pictures: My collage "The Luminosity of Birds" and a various "bird children" from my sketchbooks. All rights reserved.


Life as bird

Arthur Rackham 1

In his introduction to Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children's Literature, Irish ecologist and poet Liam Heneghan writes this touching passage about the imaginative connection between children, birds, and animals:

Arthur Rackham 2"Newly arrived in the United States and setting foot on the red soils of Georgia for the very first time, Fiacha, our eldest and then a three-year-old, perched himself on top of a fire ant mound. It's a rare child who makes that mistake a second time since fire ants sting ferociously. We had moved into a small ranch house a few miles from the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens, where I was to work for four years. The house was aesthetically unremarkable. There were parched lawns to the front and rear, both of which hosted innumerable fire ant mounds. In the front yard, right outside the door, grew two desiccated shrubs. What that neighborhood lacked in conventional wildlife it made up for with feral dogs. They howled all night and packed together in the morning, leisurely hunting the neighborhood for those who, like me, were foolish enough to go walking in the early hours. It was in this unpromising location that Fiacha -- an Irish name that means 'raven,' and whose second name is Daedalus, the father of Icarus -- became a bird.

Arthur Rackham 3

"The care and feeding of a bird who is morphologically and physically human, though psychologically somewhat avian, is not an entirely trivial undertaking. While he was in motion, there was little inconvenience to us -- he simply flapped his featherless wings as he migrated from place to place.

Arthur Rackham 4"He was something of a restless bird: now in the living room, now the kitchen, and now perched in his bedroom. Whenever and wherever he perched, the primaries on his wings would tremble, occasionally he would ruffle the length of his wings, and, at times, he would fold them back and tuck them close to his little body. We learned to live with the concerned glances of strangers. Feeding time could be a little strenuous, although we could entice him with shredded morsels that he would grab by his 'beak' and toss back into his mouth. Sometimes he would disappear from the house, and after those initial panicked occasions where we searched high and low for him, we knew he could be found sequestered in one of those forlorn-looking shrubs in the front yard. He would cling to a lower branch, peering out at the world through the patchy foliage. At least he was safely out of the reach of the packs of dogs and of the fire ants.

"In those early years, we read a lot about birds, looked at a lot of birds, and drew a lot of birds; and by sketching birds on folded pieces of paper and then cutting them out, we made innumerable models of birds. It lead to a later interest of his in dinosaurs, then aircraft, then military history, after which there was another thousand twists and turns in his interests. That bird now studies philosophy, but he remains an avid birder. He admitted to me recently that he occasionally writes with a quill. To this day if you look at him long enough, you may still spot his flight feathers flutter ever so slightly, even on windless afternoons."

Arthur Rackham 5

Heneghan goes on to explain that Beasts at Bedtime was written for the parents, teachers, librarians and guardians of children who might think they are birds:

Arthur Rackham 6"It's possible, of course, and not at all uncommon, that your child might assume themselves to be a cat or a dog; this is a book for those families also. It's also for the family of a child I've learned of recently who alternates between a crocodile, a rhino, and a snake. When she was quite young, a friend imagined herself to be a gorilla. A child of another friend thinks he is a deep-sea shrimp that scares predators who get too close by squirting out a glowing substance. He alternates this with being a porcupine. You should give this child wide berth....

"Some children do not identify with being any animal other than the higher primates they already are. The stories that I write about here will be instructive to guardians of these children also, for it is a rare child who is not already inclined to nature.

"Central to the task of caring for your little creature is to create the most nurturing environment for them. This, quite obviously, is not as simple as attending to their peculiar physical needs. It requires a careful tending to their spirits. This later task can be assisted by the stories you tell and read to them. To help with the task, this book is intended to illustrate the thematic richness of children's stories. There is a surprising depth of environmental information in many of the titles that children find immensely appealing." 

Arthur Rackham 7

Heneghan's text covers pastoral stories, wilderness stories, urban stories, and "children on wild islands" -- ranging from fairy and folk tales to Peter Rabbit and Pooh -- and then onward to White's Forest Sauvage, Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Le Guin's Earthsea, and much more. I loved re-visiting favorite tales through the eyes of an ecosystem ecologist, and heartily recommend this charming, informative, bird-filled and beastly book.

Arthur Rackham 8

Beasts at Bedtime by Liam Heneghan

Arthur Rackham 9

Words: The passage quoted above is from Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children's Literature by Liam Heneghan (University of Chicago Press, 2018). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The illustrations above are by the great Golden Age book artist Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), from editions of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie, The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Aesop's Fables, and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Related posts: Kissing the Lion's Nose (on children and animals) and Finding the way to the green (on children and nature).