Birds are quite similar to us. Like us they have two legs, and two eyes set in a face we can relate to, they are highly communicative, and have family relationships. Yet, they’re also radically different from us, ‘uncanny, quick, and free’.(1) They come close to us, then fly off into worlds that most of us, Springwatch notwithstanding, know little about. We read, or misread, their emotions, appreciate their voices, enjoy their exuberance, and are humbled by their more-than-human ability to migrate between hemispheres and find their way back to the same territory, often the same nest site. In other words, their personhood, though deeply embedded in the ‘natural’ world, is readily apparent to many human people who don’t (yet?) think of themselves as animists.
My sense of living in a vibrant, animate, en-souled, cosmic Nature, inhabited by persons of many kinds, has been profoundly informed by encounters with birds. My stumbling ‘self’ of some twenty-five years ago was helped, in an extra-ordinary and unexpected way by them. Since then I’ve been shown many things by birds, or in contemporary animist language, bird-people.(2) As a fairly careful observer of local nature, and a trained social scientist, I would not make such a claim lightly.
Recently, of course, birds have warned us about the urgency of ecological crisis. Their music is valued as an indispensable part of our human cultural landscapes. The prospect of a Silent Spring or Summer is unthinkable to many of us. Yet, since 1500, over one hundred and fifty bird species have become extinct. Their voices have been silenced forever. This is an extinction rate between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than would be expected without human intervention. Today one in eight bird species is threatened with global extinction, with 189 species critically endangered. There are also ‘sharp declines in formerly common species’ that ‘signal an erosion of biodiversity as a whole’.(3) Recent stories to hand focus on neo-nicotinoid pesticides affecting birds as well as bees, and the ongoing persecution of birds of prey on shooting estates, often using bait stuffed with carbuforan, a banned pesticide so toxic that a few grains could kill a person.(4)
There’s a lot of good material readily available on ornithology and ecology that needs no duplication here, but some naturalists have realised that its also vital to address questions of human meaning, not least in relation to local conservation agendas. There does, however, seem to have been a reluctance to engage with postmodern Western ‘spiritual’ perspectives.
Perhaps there are valid reasons for this. I would not want to claim that establishing a spiritual relationship with birds is intrinsically more meaningful, or ethically preferable, to the close observation and protective commitment of the naturalist or ornithologist. Whilst the latter may amount to understated love, agnostic devotion, or intuitive ‘spiritual’ practice, overtly ‘nature-based’ spirituality can be problematic. Ideally, there should be no need to separate forms of practice that may already overlap, and have much in common.
Since the Enlightenment, however, modernist (mechanistic) science has marginalised other ways of understanding and relating to Nature. Whilst I value animistic natural science, the core of my relationship with birds has been consistent spiritual practice (my ‘toolbox’ includes meditation, and divinatory arts such as dreamwork and astrology). I’m interested in the poetic, uncanny, magical, communicative, and agentic aspects of Nature. As a postmodern animist I want to see an informed and care-full process of re-enchantment, grounded in a detailed knowledge of, and commitment to, local ecological communities.
1) Geoffrey Mynott, Birdscapes, Birds in our Imagination and Experience, Princeton University Press, 2009.
2) Graham Harvey, Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst, 2005, pp17-20.
3) Bird Life International, The State of the World’s Birds, Indicators for our Changing World, 2013.
4) Adam Marek, On the Trail with our Crimestoppers, Birds (RSPB magazine) Autumn 2013, pp72-77.
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“Ideally, there should be no need to separate forms of practice that may already overlap, and have much in common… I’m interested in the poetic, uncanny, magical, communicative, and agentic aspects of Nature. As a postmodern animist I want to see an informed and care-full process of re-enchantment, grounded in a detailed knowledge of, and commitment to, local ecological communities.”
Oh my Brian, THAT. Yes. I think just might have earned yourself a fangrrrl.
I agree with you. There are the woo woo people who know birds only as totems with symbolic meanings from a book and then the naturalists who watch actual birds. Normal life has both. The daily or regular interaction with birds from being immersed in the local ecosystem teaches naturalism. The mythical part of the birds comes from forming personal (not book) relationships with them. We each form our own emotional symbolism of different birds via our experience of the birds.
I think naturalist books have a hard time with the magical part because it IS so personal. It becomes memoir really. So the fake “observer” thing stands as no naturalist – no anyone – can speak for what a snowy owl or seagull “means.”
I believe: For woo woo types, going outside with some naturalistic books is necessary to break the me me me subjectivity. I was one of them! For the naturalistic types, they need to be encouraged to voice the feelings, images, intuitions, synchronicities etc with the birds they know so well as objects not subjects.
I’d agree that the perspectives of natural science and spirituality work best in relationship, each elucidating the other. That way we see the magic of science and innate laws of spirituality.