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....

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.


Mozard, 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).


The song of owls

Falling Through Starlight by Catherine Hyde

The little woodland behind my studio is thick with owls. I hear their cries each morning as I start my work at the break of dawn. I hear them again at the midnight hour in our little house just down the hill, the song of owls slipping the bedroom window into my dreams. 

In this luminous passage from her book Dwellings, Chickasaw poet and novelist Linda Hogan follows the call of the owls who gather near her home in the American south-west:

Lightly Through the Darkness by Catherine Hyde"It was early in February, during the mating season of the great horned owls. It was dusk, and I had hiked up the back of a mountain to where I'd heard the owls a year before. I wanted to hear them again, the voices so tender, so deep, like a memory of comfort. I was halfway up the trail when I found a soft, round nest. It had fallen from one of the bare-branched trees. It was a delicate nest, woven together of feathers, sage, and strands of wild grass. Holding it in my hands in the rosy twilight, I noticed that blue thread was entwined with the other gatherings there. I pulled at the thread a little, and then I recognized it. It was a thread from one of my skirts. It was blue cotton. It was the unmistakeable color and shape of a pattern I knew. I liked it, that a thread of my life was in an abandoned nest, one that had held eggs and new life. I took the nest home. At home, I held it to the light and looked more closely. There, to my surprise, nestled into the grey-green sage, was a gnarl of black hair. It was also unmistakeable. It was my daughter's hair, cleaned from a brush and picked out in the sun beneath the maple tree, or the pit cherry where birds eat from the overladen, fertile branches until only the seeds remain on the trees.

First Star Gleaming by Catherine Hyde

After Midnight by Catherine Hyde

"I didn't know what kind of nest it was, or who had lived there. It didn't matter. I thought of the remnants of our lives carried up the hill that way and turned into shelter. That night, resting inside the walls of our home, the world outside weighed so heavily against the thin wood of the house. The sloped roof was the only thing between us and the universe. Everything outside our wooden boundaries seemed so large. Filled with the night's citizens, it all came alive. The world opened in the thickets of the dark. The wild grapes would soon ripen on the vines. The burrowing ones were emerging. Horned owls sat in treetops. Mice scurried here and there. Skunks, fox, the slow and holy porcupine, all were passing by this way. The young of the solitary bees were feeding on pollen in the dark. The whole world was a nest on its humble tilt, in the maze of the universe, holding us."

The Dark Orchard by Catherine Hyde

The Sleeping Earth

The art today is by fellow owl-lover Catherine Hyde, who trained at the Central School of Art in London and now lives and works in Cornwall. Catherine has published five books (The Princess’ Blankets, FirebirdLittle Evie in the Wild Wood, The Star Tree, and The Hare and the Moon), all of which I recommend. Her art is extensively exhibited in London, Cornwall, and father afield.

“I am constantly attempting to convey the landscape in a state of suspension," she says, "in order to gain glimpses of its interconnectedness, its history and beauty. Within the images I use the archetypical hare, stag, owl and fish as emblems of wildness, fertility and permanence: their movements and journeys through the paintings act as vehicles that bind the elements and the seasons together."

Please visit the artist's website to see more of her exquisite work.

1 by Catherine Hyde

The passage above is from one of my all-time favourite books, Dwellings: The Spiritual History of the Living World by Linda Hogan (W.W. Norton & Co, 1995), which I highly, highly recommend. The paintings are by Catherine Hyde. All rights to the text and art in the post reserved by the author and artist.


When women were birds

The Strayaway Child by Terri Windling

The quote above is from When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice by Terry Tempest Williams (Sarah Crichton Books, 2012) -- a sequel (of sorts) to Williams' equally beautiful book Refuge. Both books are meditations on family, art, voice, the natural world, and, yes, many many birds. The drawing is one of mine, called "The Strayaway Child." All rights reserved by the author and artist.


Storks in the spring

Hans Christian Andersen's The Storks illustrated by William Heath Robinson

As we end our second month in the UK lock-down, here's something to celebrate: wild white storks have hatched in southern England for the first time in six centuries. Isabella Tree, co-owner of the estate where the storks are nesting, says: "There’s something so magical and charismatic about white storks when you see them wheeling around in the sky, and I love their association with rebirth and regeneration. They’re the perfect emblem for rewilding. A symbol of hope. It’s going to be amazing to have them back in the British countryside, bill-clattering on their nests in spring -- perhaps even setting up nests on our rooftops like they do in Europe. When I hear that clattering sound now, coming from the tops of our oak trees where they’re currently nesting at Knepp, it feels like a sound from the Middle Ages has come back to life."

In Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit, poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming tells us: 

Ba (the soul) bringing sustenance"Stork stories go back millenia, crossing the cultures that the birds have crossed in their flight along their pilgrimage through time. Stork is a hieroglyph that transcends death in ancient Egypt, where the bird is depicted as Ba, an untranslatable concept according to Egyptologist Louis V. Žabkar, who published the first extensive study of the Ba in 1947. Ba is not unlike the Judeo-Christian idea of the soul, a duality between the material and the spiritual. It is not a constituent part of the human, but 'one of various modes of existence in which the deceased continues to live.' Ba is considered to 'represent the man himself, the totality of his physical and psychic capabilities.' In gods, Ba is the embodiment of the divine powers; in kings, the  embodiment of kingly powers; and in citizens Ba is the embodiment of vital force.

"Ba has a quantum strangeness, interweaving the very notions of living and dead. It frees itself of the body at death but maintains contact. The Ba of the deceased man, depicted as a stork on the papyrus of Nebqed, flies down the shaft of the tomb to deliver food (a whole fish!) and drink to sustain his very own mummy. In this context 'living' and 'dead' conflate and confuse like 'particle' and 'wave' in the study of light. Elsewhere Bas are depicted as falcon-headed humans attending as servants or as a human-headed stork perched calmly on the arm of a scribe. But it is the image of the story as Ba flying down the shaft of the tomb to bring life-giving nourishment to the dead that owns me. The Ba flies on the papyrus on stairs that are flanked by rows of a scribes careful hieroglyphic inscriptions. I imagine the hand that inked that bird, the scribe who chose to make everything else on the page -- hieroglyphs, sarcophagus, cheetah pelt -- clear and heavily inked, while this Ba, performing the most important task of bringing the promise of the renewal to the realm of the dead, is inked with so delicate a hand that the image is barely perceptible. Such is the challenge of speaking of the 'soul.'

The Storks by Dugald Stewart Walker

"Stork is a fable of moral instruction in ancient Greece. Aristotle wrote that 'it is a common story of the stork that the old birds are fed by their grateful progency.' Stories tell that a stork will carry an aged parent on its back when it has finally lost its feathers and is unable to fly, a lesson in filial duty. Aesop, or the unnamed scribe who gathered the tales attributed to that name, tells the tale of the bird catcher and the stork. The bird catcher has set his nets for cranes, and he watches from a distance. A stork lands amid the cranes and the bird catcher captures her. She begs him to release her, saying that far from harming men, she is very useful, for she eats snakes and other reptiles. The bird catcher replies, 'If you are really harmless, then you deserve punishment anyway for landing among the wicked.' The moral: 'We, too, ought to flee from the company of wicked people so that no one takes us for the accomplice of their wrongdoing.' This particular fable had some legal backup. In ancient Thessaly, a law prohibited the killing of storks because of their usefulness in killing snakes.

The Storks by Harry Clarke and Aesop's The Fox & the Stork illustrated by Milo Winter

"In another Aesop fable, the fox and the stork are on visiting terms and seem to be very good friends. So the fox invites the stork to dinner. For a joke he serves her soup in a shallow dish from which the fox can easily lap but the stork can only wet the tip of her long bill. 'I am sorry,' says the fox, 'that the soup is not to your liking.'

The Fox and the Stork by Randolph Caldecott"'Pray do not apologize,' says the stork.

"She returns the dinner invitation. When the fox arrives, the meal is brought to the table contained in a long-necked jar with a narrow mouth, into which the fox cannot insert his snout. All he can do is lick the outside of the jar.

"'I will not apologize for the dinner,' says the stork. 'One bad turn deserves another.' It is a tale of skillful means.

The Fox and the Stork by Walter Crane

"Lessons in skillful means, or, in Sanskrit, upāya, come from Mahāyāna Buddhism, a school of Buddhism that originated in India. And it is no surprise to see the spirit of ancient India embodied in an ancient Greek fable, because Aesop gathered stories from the same sources as did The Panchatantra, India's age-old treasure trove of animal stories that came up through the oral tradition and were first recorded some fifteen hundred years ago. This tradition influenced Aesop's and La Fontaine's fables, the tales of the Arabian Nights, and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. They are stories of 'wise conduct' meant to 'awaken the intelligence.' Storks and stories share the same migratory urge. 

The Marsh King's Daughter by William Heath Robinson

Stork drawing by William Health Robinson"Storks in the great American marketplace carry forward one of the most pervasive associations with the bird: its relationship to the arrival of human babies. Baby announcements, greeting cards, wrapping paper, baby lawn ornaments and diaper services all boast the brand. Stork carries a newborn in a downy sling draped from its long bill. German folklore tells that storks find babies in caves or marshes then carry them in baskets on their backs or in their beaks into human houses. Sometimes the babies are dropped down the chimney. If a baby arrives disabled or stillborn, the stork may have dropped it on the way to the house. Households could leave sweets on the windowsill to give notice they wanted a child. Slavic folklore tells of storks bringing unborn souls from the old paradise of the pagan religion in spring. 

"In spring, white storks, flying from Africa and over Mecca, arrive in eastern Europe during the season when the old pagan fertility rituals of pole dancing and wreath strewing and forest coupling would be performed. Call it synchronicity that great and graceful white birds would arrive and join the joviality each each year, making it easy for imagination -- that great coupling force between inner and outer reality -- to fuse the bird with the love of life and promise of resilience that is what spring means and has meant in temperate climes for aeons."

William Heath Robinson

The Storks by William Heath Robinson

Zoologies by Alison Hawthorne Deming

Words: The passage above is from  Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorn Deming, whose gorgeous work comes from the edgelands between the arts and sciences. Zoologies was published by Milkweed Editions (2014); all rights reserved by the author. 

Pictures: Hans Christian Andersen's "The Storks" illustrated by William Heath Robinson (1872-1944), Ba (the soul) bringing sustenance on an ancient Egyptian papyrus, "The Storks" illustrated by Dugald Stuart Walker (1883-1937), "The Storks" illustrated by Harry Clarke (1889-1931), Aesop's "The Fox and the Stork"  illustrated by Milo Winter (1888-1956), "The Fox and the Stork" illustrated by Walter Crane (1845-1915), two illustrations from Hans Christian Andersen's "The Marsh King's Daughter" and two other stork drawings by William Heath Robinson. 

Related posts: Swans Maidens & Crane Wives and The Folklore of Birds.


Following the birds

Blackbirds & Berries by Angela Harding

Still thinking about birds, I love the following description from Through the Woods, the story of a year in an English woodland by H.E. Bates (1905-1975). He's writing here about the busy, beautiful, bird-filled months of the passage from winter to summer:

Blackbird Stealing Red Currants by Angela Harding"And now, with the cherry in full blossom, the primroses at their fullest floppy lushness and the dark smoke of bluebells obscuring and finally putting out the fritillary lamps of the anemones, there is no longer any doubt about the wood or the spring. They have become synonymous, full of tree blossom and ground blossom and the ceaseless passion and passage of birds. The wood is alive as it will never be again. It is still a month from the edge of summer, trees are still more branch than leaf and all day long the birds have no interval of silence at all. And if the fullest frenzy of song, with nightingales and blackbirds mad in the drowsy hay-noons of June, has not been reached, there is a clarity and a shouting of bird life everywhere that is like a silver mocking of winter. The wood is full of it.

"The trees, just full enough in leaf to form a light sound canopy, seem to take the sound of singing and fluting and pinking and scissoring and throw it down the aisles and ridings until it is magnified through a new crescendo into a new beauty. One thrush fills a whole wood with a clash and jingle of silver. One pigeon moans and moans it into an almost summer slumber. A solitary cuckoo beats it with a bold and endless double note into an echoing monotony. The wood now is never silent. There is a constant mad rushing of blackbirds, low and fierce in flight, from place to place among the hazels, a sudden spring laughing of woodpeckers in the treetops. Noons are as noisy as mornings, evenings even fuller of clamour than afternoons. That summer break for silence, the hot bird-stifled uncanniness of June and July, is still a long way off. There is an everlasting restlessness everywhere. "

Y is for Yellow Hammer by Angela Harding

But it's not, Bates writes, until a few weeks later (when the bluebells, campions and orchis are in full bloom) that the wood looks its best, and sounds its best:

"Cuckoo and blackbird and nightingale, by the middle of May, are calling together, the blackbird all day long and in spite of everything, the cuckoo and the nightingale passionate in the warm spells, shy and almost silent at the slightest turn to cold and wet. The cuckoo mocks everything in the too bright early mornings and is himself mocked to silence before noon by wind and cloud. He goes with the weather like a cock on a church. He is all clatter of arrogance in the sunshine, charming us to death, monotonously cuckooing us into wishing him silent. The suddenly he shuts up, vanishes. All through the spell of cold and wet we hear him from some mysterious distance, as though he had found, somewhere, an inch of summer for himself.

Owl and Moon by Angela Harding

"The nightingale is also fickle, but on a different plane. He seems amazingly temperamental. Far up in the thickening oaks, nothing but a slim bud himself, he is hard to see; also, like the cuckoo, he often vanishes completely, effaced by wind and wet into silence. But when he sings at last, there is no mistaking it. There is a notion that, since he is so named, he sings only by night. It is quite mistaken. He sings all day and, at the height of passion, all night.

Marsh Owl by Angela Harding

"It is a strange performance, the nightingale's. It has some kind of electric, suspended quality that has a far deeper beauty than the most passionate of its sweetness. It is a performance made up, very often, more of silence than of utterance. The very silences have a kind of passion about them, a sense of breathlessness and restraint, of restraint about to be magically broken.

"It can be curiously seductive and maddening, the song beginning very often by a sudden low chucking, a kind of plucking of strings, a sort of tuning up, then flaring out in a moment into a crescendo of fire and honey and then, abruptly, cut off again in the very middle of the phrase. And then comes that long, suspended wait for the phrase to be taken up again, the breathless hushed interval that is so beautiful. And often, when it is taken up again, it is not that same phrase at all, but something utterly different, a high sweet whistling prolonged and prolonged for the sheer joy of it, or another trill, or the chuck-chucking beginning all over again."

Two for Joy by Angela Harding

For me, the challenge in writing fantasy fiction springing from the myths and folklore of the land is to evoke the numinous world of nature with such precise yet poetical language. Others have done it. Hope Mirrlees, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Patricia McKillip, Diana Wynne Jones, Jane Yolen, Alan Garner, Robert Holdstock, Graham Joyce...to name just a few. Not all fantasy does this, of course. It's a very broad form of literature, containing many different approaches to the "lands beyond the fields we know." But this is the kind of fantasy that thrills me best, and the tradition I want to follow. Whether writing rural stories or urban stories, whether set in this world or wholly imaginary lands, I want to go further and further into the green....

Following the birds.

Snape Bird and Nest by Angela Harding

The art today is by printmaker and painter Angela Harding, from Rutland, in the East Midlands of England. "For the past 10 years," she says, "I have worked solely at my art practice in the village of Wing -- which is very apt for a women inspired by birds. My studio is at the bottom of the garden and houses all I need to make my work, including a recently acquired Rochat Albion press. The studio overlooks sheep fields surrounded by gentle sloping hills. It’s not a dramatic landscape but somehow a comforting one and to me feels very much like home. The Rutland countryside does have a wealth of animal and bird life that is a constant inspiration for my work. Rutland Water is just over the ridge which attracts a great diversity of bird life that is world renowned."

To see more of her beautiful work, please visit her website and online shop -- which includes a "Bird Alphabet" series of wood engravings, and her illustrated RSPS Bird Book.

And one last thing: I hope you all know the Singing With Nightingales project by folksinger, folk song collector, and environmental activist Sam Lee and The Nest Collective. If not, please do follow the link and have a listen....

 

Blackbirds and Mulberries by Angela Harding

Words: The passage quoted above is from Through the Woods by H.E. Bates (Little Toller Books edition, 2011). Pictures: The images are identified in the picture captions. (Hold your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artist and author's estate. 


The folklore of birds

The Wicked Witch of the Oeuf by Ione Rucquoi

Birds have been creatures of the mythic imagination since the very earliest times. Various birds, from eagles to starlings, serve as messengers to the gods in stories the world over, carrying blessings to humankind and prayers up to the heavens. They lead shamans into the Spirit World and dead souls to the Realm Beyond; they follow heroes on quests, uncover secrets, give warning and shrewd council.

The movements, cries and migratory patterns of birds have been studied as oracles. In Celtic lands, ravens were domesticated as divinatory birds, although eagles, geese and the humble wren also had their prophetic The Seven Ravens by Arthur Rackhampowers. In Norse myth, the two ravens of Odin flew throughout the world each dawn, then perched on the raven-god's shoulder to whisper news into his ears. A dove with the power of human speech sat in the branches of the sacred oak grove at Zeus's oracle at Dodona; a woodpecker was the oracular bird in groves sacred to Mars.

According to various Siberian tribes, the eagle was the very first shaman, sent to humankind by the gods to heal sickness and suffering. Frustrated that human beings could not understand its speech or ways, the bird mated with a human woman, and she soon gave birth to a child from whom all shamans are now descended. In a mystic cloak of bird feathers, the shaman chants, drums and prays him- or herself into a trance. The soul takes flight, soaring into the spirit world beyond our everyday perception. (Great care must be taken in this exercise, lest the wing-borne soul forgets its way back home.)

From Ashes and Snow by Gregory Colbert

Shadow Play by Susan Seddon Boulet

Likewise, the shamans of Finland call upon their eagle ancestors to lead them into the spirit realms and bring them safely back again. Shamans, like eagles, are blessed (or cursed) with the ability to cross between the human world and the realm of the gods, the lands of the living and the lands of the dead. Despite the healing powers this gives them (the "medicine" of their bird ancestry), men and women in shamanic roles were often seen as frightening figures, half-mad by any ordinary measure, poised between co-existent worlds, fully present in none. The Buriats of Siberia traced their lineage back to an eagle and a swan, honoring the ancestral swan-mother with migration ceremonies each autumn and spring. To harm a swan, or even mishandle swan feathers, could cause illness or death; likewise, to harm a woman could bring the wrath of the swans upon men.

The Children of Lir by John Duncan

A swan-maiden was the mother of Cuchulain, hero of Ireland's Ulster cycle, and thus the warrior had a geas (taboo) against killing these sacred birds.  In "The Children of Lir," one of the Three Great Sorrows of Irish mythology, the four children of the lord of the sea are transformed into wild Wild Swans by Milo Winterswans by the magic of a jealous step-mother. Neither Lir himself nor all the great magicians of the Tuatha De Danann can mitigate the power of the curse, and the four are condemned to spend three hundred years on Lake Derryvaragh, three hundred years on the Mull of Cantyre, and a final three hundred years off the stormy coast of Mayo. During this time, the Children of Lir retain the use of human speech, and the swans are famed throughout the land for the beauty of their song. The curse is ended when a princess of the South is wed to Lairgren, king of Connacht in the North. The swan-shapes fall away at last, but now they resume their human shapes as four withered and ancient souls. They soon die, and are buried together in a single grave by the edge of the sea. For many centuries, Irishmen would not harm a swan because of this sad story -- and country folk still say that a dying swan sings a song of eerie beauty, recalling the music of the Children of Lir...and echoing the ancient Greek belief that a swan sings sweetly once in a lifetime (ie: a "swan song"), in the moments before it dies. (More swan tales can be found here and here.)

The Fairies' Tiff with the Birds by Arthur Rackham

The Tuatha De Danaan, the fairy race of old Ireland, were known to appear in the shape of white birds, their necks adorned with gold and silver chains; alternately, they also took human shape, wearing magical Hank by Carson Elliscloaks of feathers. The Celtic islands of immortality had orchards thick with birds and bees, where beautiful fairy women lived in houses thatched with bright bird feathers.

Crows and ravens are also birds omnipresent in myth and folklore. The crow, commonly portrayed as a trickster or thief, was considered an ominous portent -- and yet crows were also sacred to Apollo in Graeco-Roman myth; to Varuna, guardian of the sacred order in Vedic myth; and to Amaterasu Omikami, the sun-goddess of old Japan. The ancestral spirits of the Maratha in India resided in crows; in Egypt a pair of crows symbolized conjugal felicity. In the Aboriginal lore of Australia and the myths of many North American tribes, Raven appears as a dual-natured Trickster and Creator God, credited with bringing fire, light, sexuality, song, dance, and life itself to humankind.

The Seven Ravens by Lisbeth Zwerger

In Celtic lore, the raven belonged to Morrigan, the Irish war goddess -- as well as to Bran the Blessed in the great Welsh epic, The Mabinogion. Tradition has it that Bran's severed head is buried under the Tower of London. A ceremonial Raven Master still keeps watch over the birds of the Tower; an old custom says that if Bran's birds ever leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall.

Raven Girl by Audrey Niffeneger

Woman with Raven by Pablo Picasso

The owl is a bird credited with more malevolence than any other, even though its reputation for wisdom goes back to our earliest myths. In Greece, the owl (sacred to both Athena and Demeter) was revered as a prescient creature -- yet also feared, for its call or sudden appearance could foretell a death. Lilith, Adam's wife before Eve (banished for her lack of submissiveness) was associated with owls and depicted with wings or taloned feet.

Troll Witch by Brian Froud

In the Middle East, evil spirits took the shape of owls to steal children away -- while in Siberia, tamed owls were kept in the house as protectors of children. In Africa, sorcerers in the shape of owls caused mischief in the night.

Slova Sova by Rima StainesTo the Ainu of Japan, the owl was an unlucky creature -- except for the Eagle Owl, revered as a mediator between humans and the gods. In North America, the symbolism of the owl varied among indigenous tribes. The Pueblo peoples considered them baleful; the Navajo believed them to be the restless, dangerous ghosts of the dead. The Pawnee and Menominee, on the other hand, related to them as protective spirits, and Tohono O'Odham medicine singers used their feathers in healing ceremonies. When we turn to Celtic traditions we find that the owl, though sacred, is an ill omen, prophesying death, illness or the loss of a woman's honor. In the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogion, the magician Gwydion takes revenge upon Blodeuwedd (the girl he made out of flowers, who married and then betrayed his son) by turning her into an owl and setting her loose into the world. (I highly recommend two novels inspired by this fascinating myth:Owl Service by Alan Garner and The Island of the Mighty by Evangeline Walton.)

The Decision and The Nightingale by Steven Kenny

The Crane by Steven Kenny

The crane is another bird associated with death in the British Isles. It was one of the shapes assumed by the King of Annwn, the Celtic underworld. To the druids, cranes were portents of treachery, war, evil deeds and evil women...yet the bird enjoyed a better reputation in other lands. It was sacred to Apollo -- a messenger and a honored herald of the spring. The pure white cranes in Chinese lore inhabited the Isles of the Blest, One for Sorrow by Fred Hallrepresenting immortality, prosperity, and happiness. In Japan, the crane was associated with Jorojin, a god of longevity and luck. In the folktales of Russia, Sicily, India and other cultures the crane was the "animal guide" who led the hero on his adventures; and tales about cranes who marry human men can be found throughout the far East.

In Celtic lore, the magpie was a bird associated with fairy revels; with the spread of Christianity, however, this changed to a connection with witches and devils. In Scandinavia, magpies were said to be sorcerers flying to unholy gatherings, and yet the nesting magpie was once considered a sign of luck in those countries. In old Norse myth, Skadi (the daughter of a giant) was priestess of the magpie clan; the black and white markings of the bird represented sexual union, as well as male and female energies kept in perfect balance. In China the magpie was the Bird of Joy, and two magpies symbolized marital bliss; in Rome, magpies were sacred to Bacchus and a symbol of sensual pleasure. In England, the sighting of magpies is still considered an omen in this common folk rhyme: "One for sorrow, two for joy; three for a girl, and four for a boy. Five for silver, six for gold, and seven for a secret that's never been told."

Irish Wren BoysThe wren is another "fairy bird": a portent of fairy encounters, and sometimes a fairy in disguise. The wren was sacred to Celtic druids, and to the Welsh poet-magician Taliesin, thus it was unlucky to kill the wren at any time of year except during the ceremonial "Hunting of the Wren," around the winter solstice. In this curious custom (still practiced in some rural areas of the British Isles and France), "Wren Boys" dress in rag-tag costumes, bang on pots, pans and drums, and walk in procession behind a wren killed and mounted upon a pole decorated with oak leaves and mistletoe. In some areas, Wren Boys also appear on Michaelmas, 12th Night, or St. Stephen's Day carrying a live wren from cottage to cottage (in a small "Wren House" decorated with ribbons), collecting tributes of coins and mugs of beer wherever they stop. The wren is known as the king of the birds, an honorific explained in the following story: All the birds held a parliament and decided that whoever could fly the highest and fastest would be crowned king. The eagle easily outdistanced the others, but the clever wren hid under his wing until the eagle faltered -- then the wren jumped out and flew higher.

Captive's Return by Henry Ryland

The Dove and the Snake (Aesop's Fables) by Heidi Holder

The dove is a bird associated with the Mother Goddesses of many traditions -- symbolizing light, healing powers, and the transition from one state of existence to the next. The dove was sacred to Astarte, Ishtar, Bird of Peace by Sulamith WulfingFreyja, Brighid, and Aphrodite. The bird also represented the external soul, separate from the life of the body -- and thus magicians hid their souls or hearts in the shape of doves. Doves give guidance in fairy tales, where (in contrast with their usual gentle image) they show a marked penchant for bloody retribution. White doves light upon the tree Cinderella has planted upon her mother's grave, transforming rags to riches so she can go to the prince's ball. These are the birds who warn the prince of "blood in the shoe!" when the stepsisters try to fit into the delicate slipper by hacking off their heels and toes. The birds eventually blind the treacherous sisters, pecking out their eyes. Murdered children in several fairy tales reappear as snow-white doves, hovering around the family home until vengeance The Nightingale by H.J. Fordis finally served. Likewise, the white dove in the Scots Border ballad "The Famous Flower of Serving Men" is also a human soul in limbo: a knight cruelly murdered by his mother-in-law. He flies through the forest shedding blood-red tears and telling his story. The woman is eventually burned. (See Delia Sherman's Through a Brazen Mirror and Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer for literary adaptations of this tale.)

The mysterious song of the nightingale has also inspired several classic tales; most famously: "The Nightingale" by Denmark's Hans Christian Andersen and the tragic story of "The Nightingale and the Rose" by England's Oscar Wilde. (I recommend Kara Dalkey's lyrical novel The Nightingale, based on the former.)

The Goose Girl by Rie Cramer & The Heron Girl by Danielle Barlowe

Geese were holy, protected birds in many ancient societies. In Egypt, the great Nile Goose created the world by laying the cosmic egg from which the sun was hatched. The goose was sacred to Isis, Osiris, Horus, Hera, and Aphrodite. In India, the goose -- a solar symbol -- drew the chariot of Vishnu; the wild Tibetan Goosehead Dakinigoose, a vehicle of Brahma, represented the creative principal, learning and eloquence. In Tibet, gooseheaded women can be found among the dakini,  which are volatile female spirits that aid or hinder one's spiritual journey. In Siberia, the goddess Toman shook feathers from her sleeve each spring. They turned into geese, carefully tended and observed by Siberian shamans. Freyja, the goddess of northern Europe who travels the land in a chariot drawn by cats, is sometimes pictured with only one human foot and one foot of a goose or swan -- an image with shamanic significance in various traditions. Berchta, the fierce German goddess (or witch) associated with the Wild Hunt, is also pictured with a single goose foot as she rides upon the backs of storms. Caesar tells us that geese were sacred in Britain, and thus taboo as food -- a custom still existent in certain Gaelic areas today. Goose-girls, talking geese, and the goose who lays golden eggs are all standard ingredients in the folk tales ("Mother Goose" tales) of Europe. The phrase "silly as a goose" is recent; Ovid called them "wiser than the dog."

Mother Goose Rhymes illustrated by Jessie Wilcox Smith

Storks by Józef Marian Chełmoński

The stork is another Goddess bird -- sacred to Hera and nursing mothers, which may be why it appears in folklore carrying newborn babies to earth. The pelican is symbolic of women's faith, sacrifice, and maternal devotion -- due to the belief that it feeds its young on the blood of its own breast. Kites and gulls are the souls of dead fisherman returned to haunt the shores -- a tradition limited to the men of the sea, not their daughters or wives. "The women don't come back no more," explained one old English fisherman to folklorist Edward Armstrong. "They've seen trouble enough." The lark, the linnet, the robin, the loon...they, too, have engendered tales of their own, winging their way between heaven and earth in sacred stories, folktales, fairy tales, old rhymes and folkways from around the globe.

The Fates by Gretchen Jacobsen

Thumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerger

Guided by Sulamith Wulfing

The following prayer comes from the Highlands of Scotland, recorded (in Gaelic) more than one hundred years ago:

The Great Egg by Fidelma Massey

Power of raven be yours,
Power of eagle be yours,
Power of the Fiann.
Power of storm be yours,
Power of moon be yours,
Power of sun.
Power of sea be yours,
Power of land be yours,
Power of heaven.
Goodness of sea be yours,
Goodness of earth be yours,
Goodness of heaven.
Each day be joyous to you,
No day be grievous to you,
Honor and compassion.
Love of each face be yours,
Death on pillow be yours,
And God be with you.

“I pray to the birds," says Terry Tempest Williams (in her gorgeous book Refuge) "because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.”

From Ashes and Snow by Gregory Colbert

The art above is identified in the picture captions (run your cursor over the images to see them). All rights reserved by the artists and photographers, who are: Ione Rucquoi, Arthur Rackham (1867-1939),  Gregory Colbert, Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997), John Duncan (1866-1945), Milo Winter (1888-1956); Carson Ellis, Lisbeth Zwerger, Audrey Niffenegger, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Brian Froud, Rima Staines, Steven Kenny,  Fred Hall, Henry Ryland (1856-1924), Heidi Holder, Sulamith Wulfing (1901-1989), H.J. Ford (1860-1941), Rie Cramer (1887-1997), Danielle Barlow, Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935), Józef Marian Chełmoński (1849-1914), Gretchen Jacobsen, Lisbeth Zwerger, and Fidelma Massey.

For more bird lore, I recommend: Secret Language of Birds by Adele Nozedar, The Language of the Birds edited by David M. Guss, The Healing Wisdom of Birds by Lesley Morrison, The Folklore of Birds by Edward A. Armstrong, and Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore by E. Ingersoll.