Senseless Displays of Death

gibbetting

One of my favorite poems about birds is “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire” by the American poet David Wagoner. It’s a short but powerful piece depicting in psychological imagery the clash of man with nature, specifically in this case a chicken farmer and the hawks he persecutes.

The poem (available from this link to the Poetry Foundation’s website) neither praises nature nor condemns it. Hawks kill animals and consume their flesh not out of choice but due to what the poem’s speaker refers to as an “ancient hunger.” To despise the birds for their livelihood is to misunderstand wildlife. The hawks are part of an ecological balance; they hunt not out of vengeance but from necessity. On the other hand, the farmer who shoots the hawks has options but acts with “nearsighted anger.” There are better ways to protect one’s fowl1 than by killing potential predators and hanging each out like a “bloody coat-of-arms.”

The Misguided Practice of Gibbeting

Displaying corpses as a deterrent, as the farmer has done in Wagoner’s poem, is known as gibbeting. It’s an ancient and barbaric form of intimidation that’s been inflicted upon both humans and animals alike.  The word generally conjures up morbid images of heads on spikes, impaled bodies, crucifixions, and hangings. Such brutality has occurred throughout history as a stark warning to enemies, criminals, trespassers, and undesirables: Beware, for you could suffer the same fate.

Similar treatment was once widely permitted for birds and other animals considered pests. (Roger Lovegrove’s Silent Fields: The Long Decline of a Nation’s Wildlife and John Lister-Kaye’s Gods of the Morning: A Bird’s-eye View of a Changing World are among the most recent books to discuss the horrible practice in Britain’s past of gamekeeper gibbets, vermin poles, and the like.) Landowners and their gamekeeper underlings, for example, used to shoot or trap unwelcome birds, especially raptors, hanging them on a line, fence, or board. Again, the basic idea was that exhibiting the corpses of so-called “vermin” would frighten away their living counterparts so that they would not harm desired game.

The problems with such approaches are many. One is that they are typically ineffective as deterrents. Even when the tactics initially work, the birds quickly adapt and return. This has been the age-old issue with traditional scarecrows. Recent real-world scenarios demonstrate similar results with the effigies of dead birds being used today to ward vultures off water towers2 and Canada geese away from ponds.3 Another problem is that many of the creatures killed and strung up in the past, such as crows, magpies, jays, kites, kestrels, and barn owls, posed little or no threat except to small birds and mammals.4

A Lesson in Empathy

Fortunately, wisdom prevails in Wagoner’s poem when the speaker invokes a dream upon the farmer, one in which he is transformed into a hawk that’s been shot and gibbeted. The turnabout in circumstances seems an almost apt illustration of the assertion from another poet (Percy Shelley) that “the great instrument of moral good is the imagination,”5 that is, to feel empathy toward another, one must dream of or imagine actually being that person or creature.6

We human beings do have the capacity for compassionate and reasonable response even when it involves beings outside our own kind, as demonstrated by the wildlife laws and regulations enacted to preserve endangered species and thwart harmful practices. By considering how these creatures live, as well as our mutual and often indirect impact on one other, we are able to reflect then act more skillfully. This process often begins out of a sense of wonder, and it can help us continue to cultivate an appreciation today for all wildlife, including for birds such as those despised in “To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire.”

Sources:

  1. Hygnstrom, SE, Craven, SR, “Hawks and Owls” (1994). The Handbook: Prevention and Control of Wildlife Damage. Paper 63. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/icwdmhandbook/63.
  2. Drumm, S (Associated Press). “Town Losing Battle with Vultures at Water Tower,” 7/20/2014. The Washington Times: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jul/20/town-losing-battle-with-vultures-at-water-tower/.
  3. Seamans, TW, Bernhardt, GE. “Response of Canada Geese to a Dead Goose Effigy.” USDA National Wildlife Research Center – Staff Publications. Paper 384. Davis, CA: Univ. of Calif., Davis, 2004. pp. 104–106. Digital Commons at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/icwdm_usdanwrc/384.
  4. Watkins, MG. “The Keeper’s Gibbet.” Longman’s magazine. Vol. 7, Issue 40 (Feb. 1886). London: Longman, Green and Co. pp. 430–438. ProQuest, 2007.
  5. The nineteenth-century British Romantic poet Percy Shelley writes, “A man, [sic] to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination; and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.” (See Shelley, PB. A Defense of Poetry. Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Editors: Reiman, DH, Powers, SB. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1977. pp. 487–488.)
  6. Obviously Shelley speaks of men in A Defense of Poetry, but the sentiment he expresses could apply to women, as well as to animals and other life-forms. After all, in his essay “On Love,” he writes of “the bond and the sanction which connects not only man with man, but with every thing which exists.” (See Shelley, PB. “On Love.” Shelley’s Poetry and Prose. Editors: Reiman, DH, Powers, SB. pp. 473–474.)

 

Advertisements

Ben Franklin v. the Bald Eagle

benfranklin

It’s an odd curiosity of early American history. In a letter to a family member, the coauthor of the Declaration of Independence decides to throw shade at his nation’s new symbol. Why he did this may seem a little perplexing at first. But context is important, especially here. So let’s try to better understand where Benjamin Franklin was coming from in his criticism of the bald eagle.

The Bald Eagle as a U.S. Symbol

The founding father’s 1784 missive was written only about a year and a half after the United States adopted the bald eagle as part of the country’s Great Seal.1 In a bit of historical trivia, Franklin served on the first of three committees dedicated to creating the design.2 Later, he used the seal while acting as a U.S. ambassador in France.3 However, during his post there is also when he penned that infamous letter to his daughter, Mrs. Sarah Bache.

In that piece of overseas correspondence, Franklin declares, “I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country.”4 Then the Philadelphian sage states three reasons for his objection, two specifically relating to the creature’s “bad moral character” and a third regarding the popularity and pervasiveness of eagles in general. Overall, he asserts (or appears to) that the bald eagle is an unfit symbol for a democratic republic free of monarchic rule and aristocratic ties.

Examining Franklin’s Case

For Exhibit A, he accuses the bald eagle of being a lazy cheat, apt to forcing the osprey, by means of harassment, to relinquish its catch. And, indeed, Franklin is right about the raptor’s behavior. Though bald eagles will hunt their own fish, they frequently bully food away from other birds. This is evident in the Grand Prize-winning photo from this year’s Audubon Photography Awards; that stunning picture captures a bald eagle ambushing great blue herons.

Thievery, however, is the smallest of problems Franklin has with the bald eagle. Moving on to Exhibit B, he seizes upon what he considers its greatest fault, calling the raptor a “rank coward,” prone to fleeing from “a little king bird, not bigger than a sparrow.” What Franklin meant by “king bird” is not clear,5 but there is some truth in his anecdotal statement. When mobbed by smaller feathered creatures, such as crows and sparrows, many raptors do choose to fly off rather than fight. Bald eagles and other avian predators have little to gain in these situations other than aggravation. Nevertheless, despite being rooted in some truth, Franklin’s description is still quite misleading and incomplete.

Bald eagles are generally aggressive birds. As the founding father acknowledges, they confront and hassle ospreys for their fish. Yet he conspicuously fails to mention that bald eagles also will tangle with their own kind. For instance, they are known to engage in bloody territorial battles. In addition, these raptors will assault other large birds. Not long ago, one attacked a Canada goose, the skirmish documented in a series of photographs.

Franklin’s last gripe regards eagles by and large, and could be related to the birds’ popularity as heraldic figures. His Exhibit C dismisses the bald eagle simply because eagles in general are “found in all countries.” Though he does not build on this point, what the founding father may be alluding to is the eagle’s extensive history as an emblem of ancient empires and aristocratic cultures. For Franklin, such imperial associations, though involving other species, possibly make the bald eagle—and even the golden eagle for that matter—an inappropriate symbol for a democratic nation.

Is There a Better Bird?

When dismissing the bald eagle, Ben Franklin looks to another bird, one he considers “much more respectable.” This is the turkey. Despite conceding the fowl “a little vain and silly,” Franklin asserts that it is fearless enough to defend its farmyard from “a grenadier of the British guards.” Sure, a laughable claim for some, but wild turkeys have indeed been known to attack humans, sometimes even going after mailmen and police officers. The domesticated variety aren’t as intimidating, but don’t underestimate them.

The gobbler has had its share of fans, John James Audubon being the most high-profile. He used the male wild turkey’s image, along with the motto “America My Country,” for his personal seal.6 Yet, unlike Franklin, Audubon had positive things to say about the bald eagle. In his Birds of America, he describes the raptor as a “noble bird” of “great strength, daring, and cool courage.”7 Why shouldn’t both the wild turkey and the bald eagle, large and formidable creatures found throughout much of the United States, be deserving of respect?

The bald eagle/turkey debate unfortunately has long taken on a life of its own. Many people want to choose sides; however, I’d highly recommend not doing so without considering the subject and context of Franklin’s letter. First, he never advocates replacing the bald eagle on the U.S. Great Seal with the turkey. Second, his missive was prompted not by an issue he had with the seal, but by a controversial plan of the Society of the Cincinnati, an American Revolutionary War veterans group. Franklin was concerned that this organization would become, in his words, “an order of hereditary knights.” His letter is devoted to this topic, and the tangents he makes (such as the one involving the bald eagle) are all related to his attack on the organization’s proposal.

What specifically provoked Franklin’s ire was the Society of the Cincinnati’s plan “of establishing ranks of nobility” by bequeathing membership and medals to the current members’ descendants. Like the Great Seal, the medals do feature an eagle. Perhaps Franklin would not have even aired his opinions on the bald eagle or the turkey if not for those medals. The reason he appears to bring up the matter at all is to concur with other critics that the group’s design “looks more like a turkey,” something—if you take Franklin’s words at face value—he actually favors. Perhaps, though, he was being facetious.

A Winning Verdict

Since Franklin’s letter heavily mingles wit, charm, and wisdom, it is questionable at times whether he is being wholly serious or, in parts, satirical. Consider, too, that he was living an ocean away from his fellow citizens. Isn’t it possible that he may have attempted to stir some controversy over the Great Seal to maximize attention to his letter? After all, he clearly had a much more important matter in mind than avian emblematic figures.

Ultimately, let’s not make too much out of Franklin’s commentary on the bald eagle and the turkey. Both are beautiful birds in their own ways and worthy of celebration year-round and during the Fourth of July!

Sources:

  1. U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Public Affairs. “The Great Seal of the United States.” Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of State, 2003. p. 1: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/27807.pdf.
  2. U.S. Dept. of State, Bureau of Public Affairs. p. 2.
  3. Anderson, SH. The Most Splendid Carpet. Philadelphia, PA: National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1978: https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/inde/anderson/chap5a.htm.
  4. Rising, G. “Benjamin Franklin Talks Turkey” [article includes Franklin’s letter in its entirety]. Nature Watch University at Buffalo: http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~insrisg/nature/nw98/franklinturkey.html.
  5. The “king bird” and similar epithets (e.g., “regulus” and “little king”) have been used since antiquity to describe wren species. However, a better candidate in this case is the eastern kingbird. Since Franklin is also using the term as a metaphor for the British king, he could have had some other bird in mind.
  6. Rhodes, R. John James Audubon: The Making of an American. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. p. 273.
  7. Audubon, JJ. “White-headed Eagle,” The Birds of America. National Audubon Society: http://www.audubon.org/birds-of-america/white-headed-eagle.

 

Lovey-Dovey Duck Lips

ducklips

“Your mouth makes a pointy beak.…
the shape… / left me feeling slightly lyrical.”
—Kate Kilalea, “You Were a Bird”

“Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize…”
—Ted Roethke, “I Knew a Woman”

We are more like birds than some of us may realize. Even in the simplest and most mundane of ways. For instance, have you noticed that when people kiss, their lips become “pursed,” slightly protruding into a “pointy beak”? I must admit that I had never given much thought to this until recently when rereading the above lines.

Neither Kilalea nor Roethke explicitly refer to kissing. However, the human mouths described in their poems, one regarding a dinner date and the other about lovemaking, conjure images for me of canoodling. Of course, poetry typically approaches its subjects indirectly, as Emily Dickinson reminds us, “tell it slant.” In poet Jane Hirshfield’s book Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, she notes, “Not everything will be given—some part of a poem’s good weight will be found outside the poem, in us.” (1) With poetry, we frequently need to read between the lines.

Traditional Birds of Love

As to why poets have long included birds in love poems makes abundant sense. Few creatures of such beauty exemplify courtship and reproduction the way our feathered friends do. They fly thousands of miles to nesting grounds, an observation elegantly described in Pablo Neruda’s poem “Migration,” an ode to birds and “the erotic urgency of life” (2). The euphemism “the birds and the bees” is a common phrase related to this biological principle.

The way we use language today indicates that birds typically accompany conversations on love. Occasionally, before a “peck” on the mouth or cheek, one lover may affectionately giggle at the other’s “duck lips.” Sometimes one may jokingly call an affectionate couple of friends “lovebirds” or say they seem just “lovey-dovey,” expressions that tap into associations first culturally embedded thousands of years ago.

Avian imagery has a long history of widespread associations with sensual desire and romance. Several winged favorites once affiliated with the Greek and Roman goddesses of love, Aphrodite and Venus respectively, include the dove, sparrow, partridge, and goose (3). References to these birds, too, abound in Renaissance works playfully devoted to the goddess and her acolytes. In ancient China, the wild goose was also considered a bird of love (4), as it was, too, in eleventh-century India for the poet Bilhana:

I remember her:
deep eyes’ glittering pupils
dancing wildly in love’s vigil,
a wild goose
in our lotus bed of passion. (5)

The waterfowl here is a symbol of the speaker’s mistress in Balhana’s Caurapancasika, just one of many works throughout the world that uses avian metaphors to express the primal power of lust and the emotional significance of love.

“Like Amorous Birds of Prey”

Though many poets have relied on doves, sparrows, and geese—those traditional birds of love—Andrew Marvell proves in his “To His Coy Mistress” that less conventional ones can also provide for moving similes:

Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball.

Passion’s illicit, consuming nature is expressed poignantly here by Marvell’s choice of raptors. Amazingly, this suggestively rousing poem was composed in the seventeenth century, during the same time that John Milton lived. An earlier love poem that features birds of prey—specifically eagles—is Geoffrey Chaucer’s much tamer, late fourteenth-century “The Parliament of Fowls.”

As noted in a previous post, Chaucer was the first to combine St. Valentine’s Day, romantic coupling, and birds all together into one poem, themes that have since collectively resurfaced in other works, notably Elizabeth Bishop’s “Three Valentines,” John Donne’s “An Epithalamion, or Wedding Song,” and Michael Drayton’s “To His Valentine.”

For those of you interested in the history and symbolism of birds in love poetry and works of fiction, I highly recommend Leonard Lutwack’s Birds in Literature. He devotes an entire chapter to “Birds and the Erotic.”(6) While he does not mention anything about duck-lipped smooches, he covers a wide range of Western writers, from Catullus to D. H. Lawrence.

Sources:

  1. Hirshfield, J. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. HarperCollins Publishers, 1997. p. 115.
  2. Neruda, P. “Migración”. Schmitt, J. (translator). The Poetry of Pablo Neruda. Stavans, I, et al (editors and translators). pp. 743–749.
  3. Armstrong, EA. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Collins, 1958. p. 47.
  4. Armstrong, EA. pp. 42, 47.
  5. Miller, B.S. Phantasies of a Love Thief: The Caurapancasika Attributed to Bilhana. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971. p. 19.
  6. Lutwack, L. Birds in Literature. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994. pp. 187–230.

 

Wheel of Birds and Religions

Mandela

Finally finished! The series of posts on the fine and feathered in religions is now complete. To celebrate, here’s the full-view mandala. Each panel represents one of the following:

To see any of the posts, please click on the hyperlinked text (not the image).

Many thanks to everyone who has been reading this summer. Also, I am especially grateful to my wife for the beautiful illustrations. More of her artwork and blog posts are available at Red Newt Gallery. Have a wonderful week!

Birds in Indigenous Tribal Religions

tribal_bird

For years, floodwaters submerged the earth. If not for Raven and Loon, humans would never have recovered. Loon persuaded Great Spirit, the powerful cloud-dwelling deity, to help restore the world, and then Raven led the people to land. Thanks to these two birds, civilization prospered again.

This story comes from the Haida, aboriginal residents of western Canada’s coastal region (1). Still central to their culture, the raven acts as a major tribal crest and totem (2, 3). In fact, native people from eastern Siberia (4) through Alaska (5) and down into northwestern parts of the United States (6) continue to venerate ravens and crows. Other indigenous cultures of the world have incorporated these birds into their lore. Crows, for instance, appear in several just-so stories of the Australian Aborigines (7), while southern Africa’s Masai people have a tale about a crow seducing and marrying a woman (8). Numerous myths like these exist. Regardless of the source, portrayals frequently acknowledge this bird’s clever “trickster” nature.

Loons, found in the arctic regions of North America and Asia, are also ascribed significant roles by the indigenous peoples of these areas. Sometimes this creature’s functions are comparable to those of the raven. Both birds in the Haida story, for example, are linked to the formation of the earth and the advancement of humanity. A common figure in creation myths, the loon is imagined as fetching mud from the ocean bottom and amassing the collected sediment into land. The creatures also are often regarded as healers (9); however, depictions of this waterfowl occasionally adopt a “trickster” theme. In one Eskimo story, for example, a loon takes on human form so as to deceive a beautiful maiden, sweeping her away to his frigid island (10). Obviously, birds of all sorts—not just loons and ravens—turn up in indigenous lore all over the world. Creation myths, just-so stories, and trickster tales are just the “tip of the iceberg.”

One Fell Swoop                  

The subjects of tribal culture are immense, even when considering only current populations. Estimates identify more than 5,000 tribes of indigenous people exist throughout the world (11). Climate and geography separate most of these groups, as do language and traditions. Nevertheless, when taken as a whole, the beliefs and customs of these communities exhibit several common features. Paramount among these: the broad integration of all aspects of a village’s surroundings into the group’s social and religious practices, ranging from familial connections to bonds forged with wildlife. After all, for such cultures, survival is based on the understanding and appreciation of mutual relationships (12). Thus, the individual is closely aligned with his or her tribe, and the tribe with its natural environment.

In such societies, little separation is perceived to exist between people and other creatures. Animals, in the forms of deities and spirits, generally possess anthropomorphized features. Some communities even regard themselves as descendants of such beings. In this way, Siberia’s Buryat claim lineage from the eagle and the swan (13). Similarly, Australian Aboriginal tribes associate themselves with specific animals, so that one clan claims a totemic connection to the kangaroo, another clan to the emu, and yet another to a species of cockatoo (14). Such cultures largely acknowledge a plurality of divinities and nature spirits who represent different tribal communities and non-human creatures.

Lots of deities and spirit beings have ties to the avian world. Ravens and loons, as noted previously, inhabit tales of several cultures. According to Africa’s Tsonga, the “first man” sprang from an egg laid by the bird-like deity named N’wari (15). For the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island, the god who reigns over frigatebirds, sandpipers, terns, petrels and native avian fauna is also credited with creating the world. This immortal figure goes by the name of Makemake (16). Kane, a god associated with the albatross, holds similar roles for the indigenous people of Hawaii, Tahiti, and other Pacific islands (17). And, of course, the mythical thunderbird, a powerful supernatural creature akin to a gigantic eagle, remains popular in native North American legends (18).

Practical but Spiritual

In the world’s major religions, birds generally serve as symbols. Tribal beliefs employ these kinds of associations as well. The Maori of New Zealand liken the migratory birds proceeding out from Spirits Bay, especially a type of godwit, to souls making their way to the afterworld (19). For some Siberian peoples, the loon is deemed a psychopomp (20). Some folks in the Yucatan region of Mexico still speak of Yum Cimil, a Mayan deity of the underworld connected with the owl (21, 22). As a bird of the night, the owl also is linked to Masau’u, an important and complex Hopi / Pueblo god known as “Skeleton Man,” whose dominion includes both death and fertility (23, 24).

Avian life, however, resonates with indigenous peoples in approaches extending well beyond symbolic representation. This is evident when individuals and clans identify with birds as spiritual guides and totems. An assortment of other examples abound. Practices of South America’s native peoples utilize fat from flamingos, cormorants, and other birds for healing purposes (25). The Kwanga from the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea fashion daggers from the claw bones of cassowaries, associating the birds’ lethal strikes with the weapons (26). And the customs of North American Great Plains tribal communities require specific kinds of feathers for ceremonial dress (27). Regarding the latter, an old Cheyenne story explains how a chief in his youth learned from eagles to properly use their feathers in making warbonnets (28). On the whole, a convergence of the tangibly practical with the spiritually meaningful prevails among native cultures.

Summary

Tribal communities generally regard their winged neighbors with a reverence unseen in much of today’s industrialized world. A key reason for this is likely due to the familiarity indigenous cultures have with wildlife, an intimacy that fosters a sense of kinship with nature. Unfortunately, all of this could change. The rapid rise of global technology and market forces may eventually deluge the remaining tribal peoples and their ways of life. If this happens, how will they respond? Will they abandon their heritage? Or can they look to birds—like their forebears—to guide them through the sweeping tides of “progress” towards another new beginning?

Sources:

  1. Meyers, EC. Totem Tales: Legends from the Rainforest. Blaine, WA: Hancock House Publishing, 2008. pp. 5–8.
  2. Holm, B. Spirit and Ancestor: A Century of Northwest Coast Indian Art at the Burke Museum. Seattle: Burke Museum, University of Washington Press, 1987. p. 180.
  3. Werness, HB. The Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in Art. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004. p. 151.
  4. Hultkrantz, A. The Religions of the American Indians. Setterwall, M. (translator). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981. p. 36.
  5. Hunn, ES, Thornton, TF. “Tlingit Birds: An Annotated List with a Statistical Comparative Analysis.” Tidemann, S, Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology. Washington, DC: Earthscan, 2011. pp. 183–185.
  6. Hultkrantz, A. p. 36.
  7. Tidemann, S, Whiteside, T. “Aboriginal Stories: The Riches and Colour of Australian Birds,” Tidemann, S, Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology. Washington, DC: Earthscan, 2011. pp. 161–162, 171–173.
  8. Hollis, AC. Masai Myths, Tales and Riddles. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003. pp. 26–27.
  9. Armstrong, EA. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., 1958. p. 68.
  10. Yolen, J. (editor). Favorite Folktales from Around the World. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. pp. 105–107.
  11. “Who Are Indigenous Peoples,” First Peoples Worldwide: http://www.firstpeoples.org/who-are-indigenous-peoples.
  12. “How Our Societies Work,” First Peoples Worldwide: http://www.firstpeoples.org/who-are-indigenous-peoples/how-our-societies-work.
  13. Armstrong, EA. p. 58.
  14. Lawlor, R. Voices of the First Day: Awakening in the Aboriginal Dreamtime. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1991. pp. 279–283.
  15. Allan, T, Fleming, F, and Phillips, C. World Mythologies: African Myths and Beliefs. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2012. p. 39.
  16. Wilkinson, P, Philip, N. Mythology. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 2007. pp. 258–259.
  17. Beckwith, M. Hawaiian Mythology. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1976. p. 92.
  18. Cooper, G. World Mythology. Willis, R. (editor). New York: Henry Holt and Company, First Owl Books Edition, 1996. p. 225.
  19. Ibid 17. pp. 90-91.
  20. Andrews, T. Animal-Speak: The Spiritual & Magical Powers of Creatures Great & Small. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 2000. p. 164.
  21. Bowers, AL, Perez, RC. Birds of the Mayas: A Collection of Mayan Folk Tales. Big Moose, NY: West-of-the-Wind Publications, 1964. p. 19.
  22. Alexander, HB. The Mythology of All Races (Volume XI: Latin-American). Gray, L.H. (editor). Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1920. pp. 138-140.
  23. Andrews, T. p. 173.
  24. Tyler, HA. Pueblo Gods and Myths. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964. pp. 3-48.
  25. Tidemann, S, Chirgwin, S., Sinclair, R. “Indigenous Knowledges, Birds that Have ‘Spoken’ and Science,” Tidemann, S, Gosler, A. (editors). Ethno-ornithology. Washington, DC: Earthscan, 2011. p. 9.
  26. Kjellgren, E, et al. Oceania: Art of the Pacific Islands in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. O’Neill, JP. (editor). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007. p. 61.
  27. Werness, HB. p. 151.
  28. Edmonds, M, Clark, EE. Voices of the Winds: Native American Legends. New York: Facts on File, 1989. p. 186.

How One Man Forever Changed How We See the Albatross

albatross

Chances are you’ve never glimpsed an albatross in the wild. What you likely know about this bird instead persists from other sources, namely Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a widely influential poem based loosely on a historical maritime event.

One of Literature’s Greatest Symbols

Perhaps no bird resonates more as a literary symbol than the albatross. Since these creatures spend the majority of their time at sea, people rarely see them. The same cannot be said of crows, ravens, owls, and hawks—birds with a rich symbolic tradition as well—but who are far from elusive. The scarcity of sightings is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the albatross’s enduring mystique.

For many of us, at least in Europe and North America, the thought of this sea bird instantly conjures associations with Coleridge’s famous late eighteenth-century poem. Again, this may be due to the fact that many of us don’t have opportunities to see an albatross for ourselves outside of photographs and documentary films. Oddly enough, even the poet who impacted the way so many people view this creature today never actually saw one! (1, 2)

Yet Coleridge’s poem has continued to shape our cultural view of the albatross as a benign emblem of nature transgressed. Not surprisingly, we come across references and allusions to the British Romantic poet’s albatross later in other major literary works, such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Snake” (3). Coleridge’s albatross, thus, remains larger than life, continuing to live on in our collective imagination. Yet it’s also a symbol as relevant today, if not more so, than when first introduced over two centuries ago.

The Poet’s Cautionary Tale

The power of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” lies in how it exists as an amalgam of so many things. A story within a story about a sailor’s incredible journey, the poem takes the reader back in time with its archaic language to a cold, remote location near Antarctica. There, in narrative verse evocative of a ballad, we encounter superstition and haunting supernatural imagery, punctuated with a strong moral made possible by a bird metaphor.

After weeks of suffering through a storm, the ancient mariner and his crew spot an albatross through the fog. Its appearance strangely coincides with the dense clouds of smoke-like vapor. Welcomed for days by the sailors with “food and play,” the bird lingers along with the ship. However, as the troublesome fog endures, the old grey-bearded sailor eventually grows exasperated. Blaming the albatross for the horrible weather conditions, he decides to take down the bird with his crossbow. Unknowingly with this act, the mariner unleashes problems unlike any encountered before.

The old man of the sea may have been right about the albatross’s link to the fog, but he didn’t anticipate that the creature was also responsible somehow for the breeze that once filled his ship’s sails. As the winds stall, the crew’s morale falters. The sailors eventually turn on the ancient mariner (“what evil looks / Had I from old and young”), as if forcing him to wear the slain bird (“Instead of the Cross the Albatross / About my neck was hung”) (4, 5). And later, plagues ensue. Only after a change of heart towards other non-human forms of life around him and many, many travails at sea, does redemption at last come. But such salvation has its limits, for that same change of heart must also occur in all of humanity—the reason why the mariner continues to share his story.

Coleridge’s message is quite clear. Any reader could easily take his poem as an environmental cautionary tale: be warned that tampering with nature for a small group’s narrow-minded, selfish interests can provoke unintended consequences.

Based on an Actual Event?

One important source of inspiration for Coleridge included the account of Captain George Shelvocke’s early eighteenth-century global expedition, a long voyage beset with numerous problems. Early on, Shelvocke’s ship, the Speedwell, was separated during a storm from his larger companion vessel. By the time the skipper’s vessel had advanced beyond the Le Mair Strait, near the southern tip of South America and not far from the Antarctic Peninsula, the crew faced a horde of challenges: frigid temperatures, harsh tempests, and a lack of available fish (6).

At this point, Shelvocke recounts how his second captain, Simon Hatley, decided to shoot a black albatross. This poor lone bird had been deemed an omen, targeted for both its color and hovering by the ship for several days (7). Interestingly, Hatley seemed to have a propensity for taking to the seas on voyages that somehow would later inspire major works of literature. The Guardian’s Vanessa Thorpe notes from Robert Fowke’s The Real Ancient Mariner, a biography of Hatley, that the sailor oddly enough also had connections to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (8).

Although “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” came later—in 1798 as part of Lyrical Ballads, a collection of verse from both Coleridge and his friend William Wordsworth—Hatley’s role in the poem was more crucial than in those earlier works by Swift and Defoe. Also, Wordsworth, who had been recently reading Shelvocke’s account, seems to have been the one to have suggested the incident to Coleridge during one of their walks (9). As ornithologists Roger Lederer and Noah Strycker have noted, Coleridge never encountered a living albatross (10, 11). It’s ironic that the poet, perhaps best known for his connection primarily to this one particular bird, never actually got to see his subject gliding in all its glory over the ocean.

“A Sadder and a Wiser Man”

Due to the popularity of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” many people today think that killing an albatross was universally considered bad luck by sailors, a surefire way to curse your voyage. But this was definitely not the case. For some seafarers, yes, harming an albatross was taboo. For others, though, killing these birds was far from prohibited, as demonstrated by Shelvocke’s account, and also by the 1857 French poem “L’Albatros” (“The Albatross”) by Charles Baudelaire. Reasons for taking down these birds included superstition, but also practical matters, as their meat could be eaten, certain bones could be made into stems for smoking pipes, and their foot webbings could be turned into tobacco pouches (12, 13). With one poem, Coleridge eventually revamped the general public’s perception of this elusive bird and our relationship with it.

In his book Birds in Literature, scholar Leonard Lutwack discusses the popular theme involving the “wanton killing of sacramental or totemic animals” and the “atonement” necessary for this aggression against nature (14). It’s a motif that occurs in several works about birds, in plays such as Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck and Anton Chekhov’s Seagull, as well as in other poems such as Robert Penn Warren’s “Red-Tail Hawk and the Pyre of Youth” and Gwen Harwood’s “Father and Child” (15). Lutwack notes all of these and more, including several works by Coleridge that revisit the theme most poignantly expressed in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

“Both Coleridge and Melville,” Lutwack explains, “are stating the ecological principle that our survival depends on our recognition of the worth and interrelatedness of all living things” (16). That message, as many of us continue to discover, is one of growing significance in a world with the decline and disappearance of many species. Fortunately, the albatross is still around today, and lives as a poetic reminder that not only conservationists—but all of us—have lots more work to do.

Sources:

  1. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 13.
  2. Strycker, N. The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 2014. p. 259.
  3. Lutwack, L. Birds in Literature. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1994. pp. 178, 180–181.
  4. Coleridge, S.T. “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere.” Wordsworth, W., Coleridge, S.T., Owen, W.J.B. (editor). Lyrical Ballads. Second Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. pp. 7–32.
  5. Coleridge, S.T. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Literature Network, Jalic Inc.: http://www.online-literature.com/coleridge/646/.
  6. Shelvocke, G. A Voyage Round the World by the Way of the Great South Sea: Performed in a Private Expedition during the War, which broke out with Spain, in the Year 1718. Second Edition. London: Printed for W. Innys and J. Richardson, M & T Longman, 1757, pp. 75–76.
  7. Shelvocke, G. pp. 75–76.
  8. Thorpe, V. “Uncovered: the man behind Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner,” 1/30/2010. The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jan/31/man-behind-coleridges-ancient-mariner.
  9. Coleridge, S.T. p. 135.
  10. Lederer, R. p. 13.
  11. Strycker, N. p. 259.
  12. Barwell, G. Albatross. London: Reaktion Books Ltd., 2014. pp. 59, 95–96.
  13. Armstrong, E.A. The New Naturalist: A Survey of British Natural History – The Folklore of Birds: An Enquiry into the Origin & Distribution of Some Magico-Religious Traditions. London: Willmer Brothers & Haram Ltd., Birkenhead for Collins Clear-Type Press, 1958. p. 214.
  14. Lutwack, L. pp. 177–178.
  15. Lutwack, L. pp. 181–186.
  16. Lutwack, L. p. 180.

WANTED: The “Real” Robin

robins

Just about everything—no matter its size, location, or value—has a name. After all, the process of getting to know something involves identifying it. Your street and city have names. Days, months, and years have them, too, as do galaxies, stars, planets, rocks, plants, atoms, viruses, etc.

Obviously, some folks more than others need a precise and well-established system of naming things. This is true in particular for those working in scientific fields, such as ornithology. As specialists studying birds, many of which migrate from one region to another, ornithologists around the world must be in agreement on what to call a particular bird; otherwise, misunderstandings are bound to ensue. Below is a look at just how easily problems can occur.

A Case of Stolen Identity?

Confusion easily arises when two different species of birds have the same common name. This happens more often than you may think. The popular robin is a prime example. The one chirping in the backyard of an American home is not the same robin singing around the English countryside. In fact, as far as birds go, they’re not even closely related. The American robin—on the left in the line-up above—belongs to the thrush family, while the European robin—the one on the right—is considered a chat (1). This means that nineteenth-century poets Emily Dickinson and John Clare, both well-known for their poems involving robins, were actually referring to two different kinds of birds.

The two songbirds do possess similar characteristics, mainly the red breast amid an otherwise dark-feathered body. The likeness in their appearance is primarily why the American bird came to be known by the same moniker as another across the Atlantic. Overall, European explorers and settlers encountered lots of birds overseas that were unfamiliar to them. And in many cases, these folks referred to the New World creatures with Old World labels, based primarily on similarities in how the birds looked (2). Unfortunately, the American robin is just one of several birds with a borrowed name.

Borrowed Names Hatch Confusion

In Europe, the yellowhammer is a bunting known for its golden color and erratic flight. The poet John Clare wrote at least a couple poems about the bird, including “The Yellowhammer’s Nest” where he describes the female creature’s most peculiar attribute, laying what looked like “pen-scribbled” eggs (3). On the other hand, when reading Clark Ashton Smith’s short poem “Boys Rob a Yellow-Hammer’s Nest”, one can’t help but notice a critical discrepancy—he describes the eggs as “porcelain-white” (4).

It’s as if the two men are writing about two different types of birds. And, in fact, they are. Though better known today as the yellow-shafted northern flicker of the woodpecker family, the creature in Smith’s poem is also often regarded in the U.S. as the yellowhammer—perhaps in part due to the hammering sounds produced by the wood-pecking bird. Alabama, nicknamed the “Yellowhammer State”, has even named this flicker its official bird (5, 6). However, these two creatures, just like the aforementioned robins, are not closely related.

More Birds in Name—but Not the Same

As with the yellowhammer, New World versions of orioles, warblers, and blackbirds belong to different families than their Old World namesakes (7). For a couple common examples in literature regarding the latter, the North American subject of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” is different from the thrush “blackbird” of the popular English nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence.” But despite issues such as these, the most confusing instance in identification has to lie with the nightingale. This is because that name has been applied on several continents to a host of different birds.

The songbirds mentioned in the poems of John Keats, Ryokan, and Hafiz of Shiraz are all called nightingales, yet each are from different avian families. A chat’s “plaintive anthem” inspires a terminally ill Keats to write what perhaps is his most famous ode (8). This is the bird we here in the West, of course, still commonly regard as the nightingale. Meanwhile, the uguiso, a Japanese warbler renowned as well for its vocals, is the nightingale cited in the verse of Ryokan, a contemporary of Keats (9). And then there’s the bird featured in the work of Hafiz, the fourteenth-century Persian poet. His nightingale is the bulbul, a songbird in the Middle East celebrated as the unrequited lover of the rose (10, 11).   And to further complicate matters, some Americans have thought of the virtuoso mockingbird as a “nightingale” (12). Interestingly, seventeenth-century English ornithologist Francis Willughby even refers to the cardinal as a “Virginian Nightingale” in his Ornithologiae libri tres (13).

Some Simple Solutions

One can easily see that a nightingale is not always the same nightingale another person may have in mind! Location, of course, dictates language, but less so when global communication is at stake. For worldwide conversations, relying on common names can be problematic. But what’s one to do, outside of learning the Latin-based scientific nomenclature? Well, one helpful approach entails cultivating an awareness of possible discrepancies in usage when looking back at historical documents, literature, art, and the like. This method particularly seems feasible for dealing with past occurrences in writings.

For present-day usage, many people, especially scientists, have introduced another solution. To help thwart the confusion that has arisen due to such nomenclature issues, the International Ornithologists’ Union has established a standard set of common English names for all birds (14). This group’s recommendations ensure that no two birds end up sharing the same name. Overall, the uniform standards are helpful. I’m still acclimating myself to the guidelines, a few of which I may continue to skip (e.g., capitalizing names). Nevertheless, at least there’s some clarity available when attempting to speak about two different birds with the same common moniker.

Next week, we will look a little bit deeper at bird names, exploring some of their more unusual and humorous aspects.

Sources:

  1. Wells, D. 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2001. pp. 212-214.
  2. Wells, D. p. xiv of introduction.
  3. Clare, J. “The Yellowhammer’s Nest.” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179904.
  4. Smith, C.A. “Boys Rob a Yellow-Hammer’s Nest.” PoemHunter.com: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/boys-rob-a-yellow-hammer-s-nest/.
  5. Wells, D. p. 72.
  6. “Official Symbols and Emblems of Alabama: State Bird of Alabama.” Alabama Dept. of Archives and History: http://www.archives.state.al.us/emblems/st_bird.html.
  7. Wells, D. pp. 12-14, 156-157, 263-266.
  8. Keats, J. “Ode to a Nightingale.” Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173744.
  9. One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan. Stevens, J. (translator). New York: Weatherhill, Inc. 2004. p. 40.
  10. Ingersoll, E. Birds in Legend, Fable, and Folklore. New York: Longman, Green and Co., 1923. p. 49.
  11. Wells, D. p. 151.
  12. Wells, D. pp. 147, 150.
  13. Page, J. and Morton, E.S. Lords of the Air. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 1989. p. 49.
  14. Gill, F. and Donsker D. (Editors). 2014. IOC World Bird List (v 4.4). doi: 10.14344/IOC.ML.4.4.: http://www.worldbirdnames.org/.