My father was quiet and resolutely gentle. When he was gardening, robins (European Robin, Erithacus rubecula) would come on to his hand to feed. Those were precious moments, away from the cares of the human world, when his face would light up, and ‘spirit’, for want of a better word, shone through him. A brief inscription in his wartime copy of Birds of the Wayside and Woodland reads: ‘from D + B, 6/8/40. Replacement of one lost in the “Lancastria”.’ As was so often the case with that generation of men, so much was left unsaid.
He first turned to birdwatching during the mayhem of the Second World War in France. Amid the chaos of the battlefield he managed to see Buzzards, Owls, Red Squirells, ‘Crested Titmice’, Crested Lark, White Stork, Hen Harriers, Quail, and Firecrest. The fuzzy picture of a fledgling Common Buzzard, Buteo buteo, was taken on a Welsh mountainside, where survivors of the S.S. Lancastria had been sent to recover.
The Lancastria was an ocean liner, pressed into service to evacuate the retreating British Expeditionary Force from France in the summer of 1940. On the 6th August she steamed out of St. Lazaire without waiting for air support, and was attacked by a single Messerschmitt dive bomber. More lives were lost than in the Titanic, or for that matter, the Twin Towers, but Churchill understandably supressed the news in order to safeguard morale at a low point in the War. The plane then returned and dropped flares in an attempt to set all the leaking oil on fire, and strafed survivors with its machine guns. The man who, towards the end of that decade, became my father spent twelve hours in the polluted sea, surrounded by bodies, before being rescued. That little Buzzard must, therefore, have played an extremely important part in his life. Eventually he was sent back to France, and ended up in Germany, so there was more to come, of course.
Comparing my father’s life with my own, I now have a much clearer sense of how we were enmeshed in incommensurable, yet intimately interwoven, histories. At my dad’s funeral a distant uncle was visibly shocked when I walked into the room. He said it was ‘just like having Eddie coming in … you’re just like him’. I’d always thought we were completely different, so was both surprised by this, and by how profoundly pleased I felt. When I was a young boy my father showed me how to be still and quiet, and wait for birds to appear. His relationship with them was heartfelt, and evidently transformational. So, in very different circumstances, and in different ways, has mine been. Although he died in 1987, birds have brought us together. I shall remember this on his birthday, later this week.
I’m aware of the risks of writing personally about spiritual experience. Truly transformative experiences are intrinsically difficult, if not impossible, to represent in language. Our writing can appear frustratingly inadequate, and may attract inappropriate responses. Yet these are, arguably, the very experiences that contemporary animists need to share if we are to respond to Edward Tylor’s ambition to supplant the ‘primitive superstition’ of ‘belief in spirits’ with modernist scientific rationality.*
A key feature of auto-ethnography, however defined, is that it challenges dominant cultural representations.(1) I offer the following fragment as evidence that there are different ways of understanding and relating to other-than-human nature. My field notes (a term used by both anthropologists and ornithologists) juxtapose natural history records, autobiographical entries, notes on dreams and divination, and astrological horoscopes, all of which I regard as potentially valid ways of engaging with the rest of what we habitually refer to as the natural world.
Peter was a big, warm hearted, man. We were close friends for most of the twenty or so years that I knew him. When we were together we laughed a lot, and talked endlessly. In recent years we chatted on the phone most days of the week. Peter’s poetic turn of phrase made his stories, by turns, hilarious, and breathtakingly beautiful. Returning from a trip to France, he once told me he’d seen ‘a hundred million confetti of starlings’. He would chuckle and say things like “my logic is there is no logic, I live in the chaos theory.” We supported each other through difficult times. Peter was one of the best listeners you could wish to meet. Our conversations were, as he put it, about ‘giving and taking, giving and taking, giving and taking’. His unusual breadth of life experience made him an insightful observer of humanity.
In a sensible world he would have been rewarded for his considerable skills as a counsellor, community worker, or designer of stage sets. Because he had almost no formal education and was profoundly ‘dyslexic’, however, he had been employed emptying bins and digging holes in roads, not occupations usually associated with heightened sensitivity. Peter nevertheless expressed himself fluently and copiously through his art. He brought an extraordinary intensity to the act of painting or carving, often continuing well into the night for days on end. Although ‘the world of reading and writing’ remained largely beyond his reach, he was a published poet, and wove elaborate stories around the forms and figure in his work.
We shared a strong spiritual connection. Although he had never come across the term, he was, in my language, an animist. Birds, trees, insects, animals, grass, stones, and especially “the H-earth”, were, for him, bearers of Spirit. The organic patterns in his work evoke the interdependence of forms within the ‘never endless’ motion of cosmic Nature. As he put it “all life lives on a leaf”.
During his last year or so Peter had to contend with a lot of pain and discomfort. I was, of course, closely involved, along with many other people that gathered round to support him. He remained impressively stoical and generous to the end.
In June 2011 his health took a turn for the worse. I was concerned about this, and one night had the following dream: “I’m having an intense dialogue with another man, telling him that I have absolute certainty that something continues after death, and that I’ve felt this since a major bereavement in mid-life. He says he thinks there’s nothing beyond the moment of death, and asks me if it isn’t dangerous to say I’m certain. I say I’m only certain that there is something, some continuation of life. He then gestures towards Peter. I go over to Peter and cradle him in my arms, gently ‘launching him’, as he crosses a line. ….” I woke with energy crackling all over my body, and a strong feeling of having been visited, so got up and ‘worked in the silence’ for a while.
That afternoon I was worrying about the dream, and about Peter, so I decided to have a look at the astrology. At the precise moment that Peter’s chart appeared on my computer screen, I was distracted by a scratchy clattering noise. Turning my head towards the source of the sound I saw that a young Common Magpie, Pica pica, had landed on the window frame, less than five feet away from me, and was peering at me through the glass. My solar plexus lit up with a strong charge. The bird maintained eye contact for quite a while before flapping back to the bird table. No bird had ever come to my window before, but the same bird, presumably, came back and stayed with me for several minutes, shuffling around and cocking his or her head as if listening to me, a week later.
Magpies were Peter’s favourite bird. He had always identified with corvids. Much like Ted Hughes, he thought of them as working class birds. When he was nine years old he adopted a wounded crow (possibly a Jackdaw) and nurtured the bird back to health for over a month. His new friend lived in his bedroom, woke him in the morning, picked his nose while he lay in bed, defended him if anyone came to the door, and and came round town on his shoulder. Peter became “one o’flock”. He retained his fondness for birds throughout his life, and often wove them into his paintings. I’d known about Peter’s love of Magpies, of course, but had forgotten just how much he had identified with them. In the introduction to Moon on the Window, a book of poems published in 1989, before I knew him well, he wrote the following:
“Who is this book by? MAGPIE.
I chose Magpie, first time I wrote anything, because I am a Magpie. I listen to conversations, pieces of poetry, wireless programmes, and when they leave an impression inside me, either the jewel, sadness, or the happiness, whatever it may be, I make it into my own vision … I feel very comfortable working under Magpie. It was an advantage because people would discuss my poetry and not know it was mine, so there was an honesty about what they said …”
If the above account were the only time when a bird has come close to me, or to one of my friends, around the time of a death, it might seem like a remarkable curiosity. Because I’ve recorded similar testimony from several other people -involving birds from species that were personally significant for them- however, such ‘showings’ seem to me to demonstrate the possibility of extra-ordinarily subtle relationship between humans and other species. Moreover they appear to confirm the claim encoded in traditional lore, that birds can and do, somehow, occasionally assist humans by serving as messengers and psychopomps.
Postscript 13/9/13: I’ve recently heard from Peter’s former partner and close companion that a hoopoe has come, twice, to her window, behaving in a way that was ‘startlingly similar’ to the magpie described above. This occurred about a week after the first anniversary of his funeral. She first saw hoopoes in Zimbabwe where she went to see more of the sculptures that became a formative influence on Peter’s work when they were exhibited at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.
1) Deborah E. Reed-Danahay, Auto/Ethnography, Rewriting the Self and the Social, Berg, 1997.
See also Jenny Blain and Robert Wallis’s contributions to Jenny Blain, Douglas Ezzy, and Graham Harvey, eds Researching Paganisms, Altamira Press, 2004.
* Note: In order to protect sensitive material I use a ‘traffic light’ protocol. Red material is witheld completely. Amber material may be protected by changing names or details, or by resorting to fiction. Green material can be published without reservation.