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An essay by Vernon Lee

Acquaintance With Birds

Title:     Acquaintance With Birds
Author: Vernon Lee [More Titles by Lee]

One of the things I should have liked, I said to myself to-day, as I rode past one of the dreadful little fowling-places on the ridge of our hills, would have been to become acquainted with birds....

The wish is simple, but quite without hope for a dweller in Tuscany, where, what with poverty and lawlessness, peasants' nets and city 'prentices' guns, there are no birds whose acquaintance you can make. You hear them singing and twittering, indeed, wherever a clump of garden ilexes or a cypress hedge offers them protection; but they never let themselves be seen, for they know that being seen is being shot: or at least being caged. They cage them for singing, nightingales, thrushes, and every kind of finch; and you can see them, poor isolated captives, in rows and rows of cages in the markets. That is the way that people like them: a certain devout lady of my neighbourhood, for instance, whose little seventeenth-century house was hung round with endless tiny cages, like the witches in the tale of Jorinde and Jorinel; a wicked witch herself, no doubt, despite her illuminations in honour of the Madonna, who should have taught her better. Another way of liking singing-birds is on toast between a scrap of bacon and a leaf of sage, a dainty dish much prized by persons of weak stomach. Persons with bad digestions are apt, I fancy, to lose, and make others forego, much pleasant companionship of soul.

For animals, at least, when not turned into pets, are excellent companions for our souls. I say expressly "when not pets," because the essence of this spiritual (for it is spiritual) relation between us and creatures is that they should not become our property, nor we theirs; that we should be able to refresh ourselves by the thought and contemplation of a life apart from our own, different from it; in some ways more really natural, and, at all events, capable of seeming more natural to our fancy. And birds, for many reasons, meet this requirement to perfection. I have read, indeed, in various works that they are not without vices, not a bit kinder than the other unkind members of creation; and that their treatment of the unfit among themselves is positively inhuman--or shall I say human? Perhaps this is calumny, or superficial judgment of their sterner morality; but, be this as it may, it is evident that they are in many respects very charming people. It is very nice of them to be so æsthetic, to be amused and kept quiet, like the hen birds, by music; and the tone of their conversation is quite exquisitely affable.

My own opportunities of watching their proceedings have, alas! been very limited; but, judging by the pigeons at Venice, they are wonderfully forbearing and courteous to each other. I have often watched these pigeons having their morning bath at the corner of St. Mark's, in a little shallow trough in the pavement. They collect round by scores, and wait for room to go in quite patiently; while the crowd inside ruffle, dip, throw up water into their wings and shake it off; a mass of moving grey and purple feathers, with never an angry push or a cry of ill-temper among them. So I can readily believe a certain friend of mine who passes hours in English brakes and hedgerows, watching birds through special ten-guinea opera-glasses, that time and money could not be better spent.

One reason, moreover, why all animals (one feels that so much in Kipling's stories) are excellent company for our spirit is surely because they are animals, not men; because the thought of them relieves us therefore from that sense of overcrowding and jostling and general wordiness and fuss from which we all suffer; and birds, more than any other creatures, give us that sense of relief, of breathing-space and margin, so very necessary to our spiritual welfare. For there is freedom, air, light, in the very element in which birds exist, and in their movements, the delightful sense of poising, of buoyancy, of being delivered from our own body and made independent of gravitation, which, as a friend of mine wisely remarks, Sir Isaac Newton most injudiciously put into Nature's head. Indeed, there is a very special quality in the mere thought of birds. St. Francis, had he preached to fishes, like his follower of Padua, might have had as attentive an audience, but we should not have cared to hear about it. Aves mei fratres--why, it is the soul's kinship with air, light, liberty, what the soul loves best. And similarly I suspect that the serene and lovely quality of Dante's Francesca episode is due in great part to those similes of birds: the starlings in the winter weather, the cranes "singing their dirge," and those immortal doves swirling nestwards, dal disio chiamate, which lift the lid of that cavern of hell and winnow its fumes into breathable quality.

Perhaps (I say to myself, being ever disposed to make the best of a bad bargain), perhaps the scantiness of my acquaintance with birds, the difficulty about seeing them (for there is none about hearing them in Tuscany, and I shall be kept awake by vociferous nightingales in a month's time), gives to my feeling about them a pleasant, half-painful eagerness. Certainly it raises the sight of birds, when I get out of this country, into something of the nature of a performance. Even in Rome, the larks, going up tiny brown rockets, into the pale blue sky above the pale green endless undulations of grass, and the rooks and magpies flocking round the ruins. And how much in Germany? Indeed, one of Germany's charms is the condition, or, rather, the position, the civic status, of birds and small creatures. One is constantly reminded of the Minnesinger Walther's legacy to the birds of Wurzburg, and of Luther's hiding the hare in the sleeve of his tunic. One of my first impressions after crossing the Alps last year was of just such a hare, only perfectly at his ease, running in front of my bicycle for ever so long during a great thunderstorm which overtook us in the cornfields between Donaustauff and Ratisbon. And as to birds! They are not merely left in liberty, but assiduously courted by these kindly, and, in their prosaic way, poetical Teutons. Already in the village shop on the top of the Tyrolese pass there was a nest of swallows deep down in a passage. And in the Lorenz Kirche at Nuremberg, while the electric trams go clanking outside, the swallows whirr cheerfully along the aisles, among the coats-of-arms, the wonderfully crested helmets suspended on high. There was a swallow's nest in the big entrance room (where the peasants sit and drink among the little dry birch-trees and fir garlands from the Whitsuntide festivities) of the inn at Rothenburg; a nest above the rows of pewter and stoneware, with baby swallows looking unconcernedly out at the guests. But the great joy at Rothenburg was the family of storks which still inhabit one of the high, pointed gatehouses. I used to go and see them every morning: the great cartwheel on the funnel-shaped roof, wisps of comfortable hay hanging over it; one of the parent storks standing sentinel on one leg, the little ones raising themselves occasionally into sight, the other stork hovering around on outspread wings like tattered banners. To think that there were once storks also in Italy, storks' homes, the old Lombard name Cicognara meaning that; and cranes also, whom the people in Boccaccio, and even Lorenzo di Medici, went out to hunt! The last of them were certainly netted and eaten, as they used to eat porcupines in Rome in my childish days.

Speaking of cranes reminds me of the pleasure I have had also in watching herons, particularly among the ponds of my mother's old home.

"Would you like to see one near? I'll go and shoot it you at once," said my very kind cousin.

How odd it is, when one thinks of it, that mere contemplation seems so insufficient for us poor restless human beings! We cannot see a flower without an impulse to pick it, a character without an impulse to, let us say, analyse; a bird without an impulse to shoot. And in this way we certainly lose most of the good which any of these things could be to us: just to be looked at, thought about, enjoyed, and let alone.

[The end]
Vernon Lee's essay: Acquaintance With Birds