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March 29th 2015 print

B.J. Coman


Wordsworth was right. Despite all sorts of recent proclamations about “ecologically sustainable development”, “maintenance of biodiversity”, “clean and green”, we have isolated ourselves from the natural world -- to its detriment and ours   Like the ancient Greeks, we formerly felt that birds had something to tell us. I suspect that, until we get back to such an understanding, none of the mechanist scientific solutions to restore environments and the like will achieve very much at all

bird bookThe district of Sutton Grange in central Victoria cannot be classed as a major tourist destination. There is a community hall and a church, an abandoned school, a small cemetery, a few houses, and, of course, a Soldiers Memorial. Indeed, unless you are particularly attentive, you could speed through the place without realising that it existed. There were far more people living there one hundred years ago than there are today. Nonetheless, for the locals still living there, Sutton Grange is the centre of the habitable earth—the Omphalos. And that’s how it should be. When pressed for evidence, they will start by giving you some version of that universal truth first recorded by Homer:

And I for one, know of no sweeter sight for a man’s eye than his own country … So true it is that a man’s fatherland and his parents are what he holds sweetest, even though he has settled far away from his people in some rich home in foreign lands.

After that, they will become more specific and might point to a couple of noteworthy local achievements or events. They will tell you how Thomas Walker, following in the footsteps of Major Mitchell, came through the district in 1838 and recorded in his journal: “I have not seen finer sheep land nor country more pleasing since I commenced my tour … we considered it worthy of the name of Australia Felix.” Then they might mention the invention of the sheep-drafting race in 1848 by William Lockhart Morton, an overseer on the Sutton Grange sheep run. For those unacquainted with sheep farming, I should explain that the drafting race enables a single person (with the aid of a good dog) to separate a mob of sheep into desired categories or types—ewes and lambs, fat lambs and “store” lambs, and so on. Fancy versions utilise two gates and allow a three-way separation, but you need good co-ordination.

For the locals though, perhaps the most significant piece of history associated with Sutton Grange revolves about a particular schoolteacher at the little granite school, Albert Cox. He taught at the school from 1920 until 1961. As far as I am aware, this record has been topped by only one other Victorian schoolteacher. Mind you, in other trades the service records can be far more impressive. There is a story about a local man up here who started at an engineering works when he was fifteen and was given his gold watch and heavy handshake fifty years later. Angry at his forced retirement, he began his farewell address with these words: “Had I known that this bloody job was only temporary, I would never have taken it in the first place.”

But it was not just his length of service at the little school that made Cox a remarkable schoolteacher. It was what he taught his students. In addition to the “three R’s”, the children learned a great deal of natural history, because Albert Cox was himself a keen amateur naturalist. Each day, the children were encouraged to make a note of what birds or other animal and plant life they had seen on the way to school. These observations were then written into the Observations Book, under the careful eye of the teacher. Records were entered into this book from 1926 through until 1960, with a break during the war years only. The following entry, made by Cox himself, tells its own story of the man’s love of the natural world about him and, more especially, of the way he saw the relationship between wild creatures and humans:

On the morning of the 26th September 1951 the thrush that had been for such a long period a friend of all at the Sutton Grange School was found dead beside the residence garden. This bird was well over thirty years old and had nested around the school residence all these years, many seasons being spent in an old billy hanging under the verandah. The bird had died of old age, being found lying with an insect still in its beak. It died in the middle of the nesting season leaving a mate to hatch out and rear a family.

Here was a man recording the death of an old friend. This friend and close neighbour had died at work. It had performed its duty as a parent right to the very last. The whole thing is intensely anthropomorphic, and modern animal behaviour experts would scoff at it. Birds, they will say, do not form these sorts of relationships with humans. It’s all down to “anti-predator strategy” or “territorial spacing behaviour” or some such. Doubtless, too, if Cox’s bird was the English song thrush, he would be castigated for harbouring a non-indigenous species.

That’s the sort of world we live in now. Magpies do not carol in the mornings because they are happy to see the sun rise. It’s simply a vocalisation to reinforce territorial rights. And kookaburras do not signal the end of the day to all the other creatures by giving their last laugh just at that moment when dusk turns to darkness. They, again, are simply letting neighbouring kookaburras know who is in control of the local territory. Creatures respond to external stimuli, or hormones, under a strict system of genetic coding. It’s the territorial imperative or the selfish gene, as popularised by Robert Ardrey and Richard Dawkins, although to be fair, Descartes started the whole idea of the mechanical animal hundreds of years earlier. Animals are just glorified CD players where you shove in DNA instead of a disc. Faced with this sort of bleakness, you can sympathise with Wordsworth:

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God! I’d rather be
A pagan suckled in a creed outworn.
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

And Wordsworth is right. We have progressively isolated ourselves from the rest of the natural world. Even as little as fifty years ago, when Albert Cox was teaching at his little school, we had a far closer feel for the natural world than we do today. And that’s despite all sorts of recent proclamations such as “ecologically sustainable development”, “maintenance of biodiversity”, “clean and green” and all those other modern mantras.

Have you ever wondered why Sir David Attenborough speaks in a whisper when he is describing the lives of creatures? It’s because he is on the outside looking in, and it is almost embarrassing. He is a bit like a voyeur peeping through the keyhole. And you will note, if you listen to his commentary carefully, that everything is down to scientific principles of behaviourism and genetics. All is neatly packaged as cause and effect. His animals are glorified machines to be marvelled at like the intricate, jewelled workings of a Swiss watch. Granted, there is some sense of wonder, but that wonder is built on the complexity of things, not simply on the existence of things. Even Disney’s outrageously contrived world of nature was better. His animals in the early television nature shows, all decent, God-fearing American citizens circa 1960, at least had some sense of not being pre-programmed.

It’s almost as if the Fall of Man is still going on. Christians tend to read the account of the Fall in Genesis as an historical event. But part of it may not be. One of the consequences of the Fall was a destruction of that harmony which previously existed between humans and all other life on earth. Perhaps the process of estrangement is a long-term business and we are not at the end of it yet. When you examine history, that proposition certainly seems to carry some weight.

Since we started this discussion with a quotation concerning a dead thrush, let us stick to the world of birds and to the history of their interactions with humans. There is a name for that interaction. It is called birdlore.

For us in the West, the place to start is the Greece of Homer’s time. Anything earlier is mere conjecture and anything later runs a poor second to the richness of Homer’s descriptions. For him, birds are not only closely associated with humans, certain of them are also particular favourites of the gods. The scene at Calypso’s cave will suffice to make the point:

The cave was sheltered by a copse of alders and fragrant cypresses, which was the roosting place of wide-winged birds, horned owls and falcons and cormorants with long tongues, birds of the coast, whose business takes them down to the sea … It was indeed a spot where even an immortal visitor must pause to gaze in wonder and delight.

There is something of a parallel here with the situation for the Aranda Aborigines in Central Australia, early last century. In their account of the Aranda (formerly known as Arunta), Baldwin Spencer and F.J. Gillen indicate that the sacred sites where the Spirit Ancestors live (the Ertnatulunga) are a haven for all sorts of wild animals, including birds. Spencer and Gillen would want us to believe that the birds and animals cluster around the sacred sites because they are not hunted at or near those spots. The Aranda would regard this as ridiculous. The birds and animals are there simply because the sites are sacred—richness of fauna is one of the manifestations of sacrality.

But, going back to ancient Greece, the most important relation between birds and humans is one of language. Humans who can understand the language of birds are seers. The birds have important things to tell us. Indeed, one of the Greek words for divination is oionopolia or ornithomanteia—“bird language” or augury. Both Pliny the Elder and Aelian tell us that the seers or augurs are not just skilled at interpreting the language or the actions of birds, they are also skilled in natural history. So, for instance, Aelian says:

I have heard that some people practise divination by birds and devote themselves to their study and scrutinise their flight and quarters of the sky where they appear. And seers like Teiresias, Polydamas, Polyeidus, Theoclymenus and many another are celebrated for their knowledge of this art …
[On the Animals VIII.5]

Now, before you dismiss augury as so much nonsense, it pays to remember that this and other forms of divination were of the utmost importance to both the Greek and the Roman empires at the height of their respective powers. For instance, Pliny gives us this account of the importance of poultry in imperial Rome:

These are the birds that give the Most-Favourable Omens; these birds daily control our officers of state, and shut or open to them their own homes; these send forward or hold back the Roman rods of office and order or forbid battle formation, being the auspices of all our victories won all over the world; these hold supreme empire over the empire of the world, being as acceptable to the gods with even their inward parts and vitals as are the costliest victims. [Natural History. Book X xxiv 49]

But we should not suppose that divination of this sort was regarded as some species of magic or that it was necessarily divinely inspired. Pausanias’s (second century AD) view of Greek religious practice is that of a “moderate realist”. That is to say, his criteria for what to believe and what not to believe concerning these matters certainly involved a notion of religious faith, but they largely involved human observation and human reason:

This poetry [that of Iophon of Knossos on Amphiaraos, the famous seer] of his had an intoxicating attraction to common people, but in fact apart from those who suffered Apollonian madness none of the soothsayers in antiquity was a prophet; they were good at exegesis of dreams, the diagnosis of flights of birds, the scrying of holy entrails.

Pausanias clearly believes that true prophecy is very limited and he makes a clear distinction between inspiration and exegesis. For him, there is no “magic” or divine intervention in the case of augury—it is simply a matter of correct diagnosis. I should mention in passing that Pausanias himself was a great bird lover. In his old age he took to bird watching and travelled far and wide to catch sight of different species. No doubt he kept a bird list like any modern ornithologist.

Mind you, in order to make the correct diagnosis, you need to understand the birds, and the granting of that power is a much trickier business for us to understand. For one thing, in ancient Greece, that power seems to have been often mediated by snakes! The famous seer Melampus saved the young of two dead snakes. Later, when he was asleep, these young snakes licked his ears. When he awoke, he found he could understand the language of birds. Snakes also licked the ears of Kassandra and Helenos, giving them the power of the seer.

In other cases, the gift of understanding birds seems to come by direct association with the gods. Thus, Parnassos, the inventor of divination by birds, had the nymph Kleodora for his mother and Poseidon as his father. Likewise, Teiresias was the son of the nymph Chariklo, and Phineus, another blind seer, was also the son of Poseidon. One could quote many other examples from the ancient literature.

But why should birds be important as bringers of knowledge? Part of the answer may have to do with their ancestry. In ancient Greek mythology, birds often begin as humans transformed by gods. Perhaps the most famous example is Alcyone. She was the daughter of Aeolus (king of the winds) who found her husband, Ceyx, drowned and, overcome with grief, cast herself into the sea where she drowned. The gods rewarded her devotion by turning her into a kingfisher, and Aeolus (or, perhaps, Zeus) forbade the winds to blow during the “Halcyon Days”, the seven days before and the seven after the winter solstice, when legend has it that the kingfisher lays its eggs. Pliny gives us a detailed account:

They breed at midwinter, on what are called “the kingfisher days”, during which the sea is calm and navigable, especially in the neighbourhood of Sicily. They make their nests a week before the shortest day, and lay a week after it. Their nests are admired for their shape, that of a ball slightly projecting with a very narrow mouth, resembling a very large sponge; they cannot be cut with a knife, but break at a strong blow, like dry sea foam; and it cannot be discovered of what they are constructed … They lay five eggs. [Pliny, Natural History, X.xlv.90-91]

Ceyx was also changed into a bird, but the love between the two remained. As far as I can ascertain, taxonomists still recognise both the genus Halcyon and the genus Ceyx amongst our kingfishers. In Australia, bird books still list Ceyx azureus as the Azure Kingfisher but our Sacred Kingfisher is no longer in the genus Halcyon. In ancient times members of the two genera were commonly thought to fly together. The story of Alcyone led both Henry Purcell and Eric Coates to write musical pieces (Halcyon Days) on the theme.  Perhaps we can take this as proof that birds continue to inspire us!

This early Greek notion of the human origin of many bird species has close parallels in other cultures. The totemic spirit ancestors of the Aborigines, for instance, were often bird-men. In their study of the Aranda, Spencer and Gillen report that the spirit ancestors are so intimately associated with plants and animals, the name of which they bear, that an Alcheringa (Dreamtime or primordial time) man of say, the emu totem, may be spoken of either as a man-emu or emu-man. One can begin to understand from this just how close was the relationship between the Aborigines and the world of nature around them.

By the time we get to Plato (circa 400 BC), city folk are already losing interest in the bush and its denizens. As far as we know from Plato’s account, Socrates only went voluntarily outside the city wall on one occasion, and even then it was not to admire the birds (Phaedrus). He seemed a lot more interested in a young boy (interestingly, Sixty Minutes has not followed up on this case). When he is asked about the spirits of nature, he gives this reply:

Now I have no leisure for such inquiries; shall I tell you why? I must first know myself, as the Delphian inscription says; to be curious about that which is not my concern, while I am still in ignorance of my own self, would be ridiculous. And therefore I bid farewell to all this; the common opinion is enough for me … I am a lover of knowledge, and the men who dwell in the city are my teachers, and not the trees or the country.

But, of course, Plato is by no means divorced from the world of birds. Indeed, he supposes that the noblest of human souls can be reincarnated in birds, whereas less deserving souls will choose lower animals.

When we move into the Christian era, we can still find evidence of a close relationship between humans and birds. Consider, for example, the enormous popularity of the medieval “Bestiary” (and the closely related “Aviary”). These were collections of lore in animal allegory which serve to illustrate Christian ideas in a simple way such that they might have appeal (to those lower orders of the Church and the laity) where heavy theological treatises would not. The common ancestor of these medieval bestiaries is thought to be the Physiologus—a text which may date back as early as the second century AD and whose author is unknown. Here, each animal is given a chapter in which its physical and behavioural characteristics (real and imagined) are presented and moralised for a Christian audience. The later bestiaries of the medieval period follow this model, often drawing from a wide range of sources including the Bible itself, Aristotle, Pliny, and other Greek and Roman authors of antiquity.

That these works were designed to give moral instruction to the unlettered is made abundantly clear in the Prologue to Book One of Hugh of Fouilloy’s Aviarium (circa 1150) where he says:

Desiring to fulfil your wishes, dearest friend, I decided to paint the dove … and by a picture to instruct the minds of simple folk, so that what the intellect of the simple folk could scarcely comprehend with the mind’s eye, it might at least discern with the physical eye; and what their hearing could scarcely perceive, their sight might do so. I wished not only to paint the dove physically, but also to outline it verbally, so that by the text, I may represent a picture; for instance, whom the simplicity of the picture would not please, at least the moral teaching of the text might do so.

In the Aviarium, some thirty bird species are presented and, for each, certain biological information is used to draw an analogy to the proper conduct of a Christian life. Thus, for instance, part of the entry for “The Goose” reads:

There are two varieties of geese, that is to say, the tame and the wild. The wild ones fly aloft and in an order, and denote those who, far from worldly affairs, preserve an order of righteous living. The domestic ones, however, live in villages; they cry out frequently; they tear at themselves with their beaks. They signify those who, even though they love the monastery, have time nevertheless for loquaciousness and slander.

Whether these moralising allegories had the effect of giving heightened respect for animals is a difficult question. Certainly, many of the species chosen were farm animals, routinely slaughtered for food. It is difficult to imagine, however, that such a reverse anthropomorphism did not lead to some special consideration for the species involved. When the medieval peasants saw, in the great cathedral or church, an image of the pelican (representing Christ—the pelican was thought to nourish its young with its own blood), it is hard to imagine that they could not have some lingering association when the real pelican was sighted on the lake.

In another sense, we know that the sort of associations given in these moralising accounts went deeper than mere allegory. Even in this writer’s memory of living in a small rural community in Victoria, it was considered improper (bringing bad luck at the very least) to destroy the nests of swallows, even when such nests on house walls caused a good deal of fouling with faecal remains. For a more powerful example, we need look no further than Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, where the killing of an albatross has truly terrifying consequences. Nor is this mere poetic fancy. In Melville’s Moby Dick, the author gives us (in a footnote) his actual experience on first sighting an albatross at close quarters:

I remember the first albatross I ever saw … I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and with a hooked, Roman bill sublime. At intervals, it arched forth its vast archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. Wondrous flutterings and throbbings shook it. Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as some king’s ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible, strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God … I cannot tell, can only hint, the things that darted through me then.

What Melville attempts to express here is an experience of the Numinous—what Professor Rudolph Otto calls the ganz andere—the “totally other”. We should not suppose that such experiences came only with Enlightenment learning or Romanticism. It is much more likely that close encounters with living, wild animals have evoked these sorts of responses from time immemorial.

Not long ago, I read of a new report on the state of the environment in Australia. The outlook is not good. It is forecast that, by the end of this century, Australia may have lost about half of the species of birds known to have existed at the time of European settlement.

No doubt, all sorts of valid scientific reasons will be put forward in support of this bleak forecast. Equally, the sorts of solutions proposed will be scientific solutions—ecosystem rehabilitation, and the like. I cannot help but wonder, though, whether the first requirement might simply be a return to that earlier sense of awe that we had for the feathered world. Birds were not just sophisticated bio-mechanical machines whose behaviour was genetically controlled.

In my youth, the black-faced cuckoo-shrike was called the “summer bird”, because when it appeared, you knew that summer had set in. Its appearance was a matter of good fortune, not of blind mechanical necessity. Likewise, the pallid cuckoo was the welcome harbinger of spring. It need not have come. Indeed, spring need not have come. And birds sang (these days they only vocalise) because they were happy or sad, or grateful, not because of some theory of B.F. Skinner or E.O. Wilson.

Like the ancient Greeks, we did feel that birds had something to tell us. I suspect that, until we get back to such an understanding, none of the proposed scientific solutions will encourage the birds to return.

B.J. Coman’s next book, Against the Spirit of the Age, will be published by Connor Court later this year.
He dedicates this article to the memory of Jack Gray, the Homer of Sutton Grange.