Living in the nation, and region, with the longest history of industrial urbanisation, I’m all too aware that my lifeworld is radically different from that of the world’s remaining hunter gatherers. Its a constant source of wonder and surprise to me, therefore, that kingfishers (and other birds and animals) have been such a powerful presence in my dream life over the past twenty five years or so. I’ve written about this elsewhere, so for present purposes I want to revisit a dream that seems to me to illustrate the possibility of subtle relationship with other-than-human ‘persons’, and with the natural world, in all its strangely beautiful depth, in an urbanised setting.
Many traditions caution that the power of a dream event can be dissipated by inappropriate sharing. Because of the need to be careful about disclosing intimate personal moments, anyone writing about spiritual/magical phenomena faces the dilemma that many of our most powerful and convincing experiences cannot be brought into the public domain, or reduced to the status of cold data. For this reason I’ve chosen a dream that happened long enough ago (December 1993) for me to feel that I can write about it without undermining any ongoing (inner or outer world) work. Although it wasn’t a particularly important or dramatic dream, I can assure you that in the context of the prolonged life crisis I was negotiating then, every appearance of those birds felt like a priceless gift.
At the time I was quite excited by a possible precognitive element, but this now seems much less important than the quality of contact and relationship involved. Another key feature of the dream was that it was one of several strong kingfisher dreams associated with an incident of harm to a member of the species, or to their habitat.
On the 1st December 1993 a friend gave me a cutting from the Halifax Courier describing the rescue of a kingfisher caught in discarded angler’s line at a local fishing pond. After the rescue, Nature Trail reporter Peter Martin hand fed the bird on whitebait from a local fishmonger for several days before returning her to the pond, where he ‘said a silent prayer’, opened his fingers, and released her. The bird flew away strongly, then several minutes later, they heard a shrill call and the kingfisher came back and flew past them.(1) Having been moved by this story, I woke the next morning with the following dream (retold in the form I wrote it down).
“I’m on a train passing a bird reserve with many storks. Dad (my father had died about six years previously, and it was he who had first introduced me to birds) enthuses about them, and spots a side entrance. I remember I’ve seen kingfishers there, so I hurry after him. Then I see a vision of one ‘trapped’ in a book (was it slightly concussed, or just resting in the half open pages? It didn’t seem squashed, or to have been harmed in any way). I gasp nervously at the thought that I’ve found a kingfisher that needs rescuing. Dad picks the bird up out of the book. I’m too excited and nervous to hold it, or notice which sex it is, but when I ask him if I can feel the feathers of its tail and back, they are like silk, exquisitely soft and sensual. We put the kingfisher down by the side of the pond and watch as it slowly recovers. I watch it flying around over the pond (which is reminiscent of a pond in Kent, remembered from boyhood). Then the bird is joined by a partner, and both are diving.(…) The pair of kingfishers are unmistakeable in their shape and jizz as they fly and dive. They do an amazing ‘courtship flight’, flying round very fast, close together, high above the water. The metallic blue and chestnut-orange of their plumage shine brightly. Frustratingly, I have no binoculars. They then fly up amongst people who are milling about by some shops, especially a fish shop, where they seem to perch briefly above the window”.
In a later fragment I am walking down through the park opposite the house where I grew up, when a tiny kingfisher catches up with me and comes to rest beside me on the muddy bank. It calls out repeatedly, making a sibilant whistling note, as if showing me its call. In the dream there is a clear sense of “oh, so that’s what you sound like”.
On the 6th of December I visited the fishing pond where the rescue had occurred and found that it was indeed reminiscent of the pond I’d remembered from many years ago (the report hadn’t described the pond, and I hadn’t been there, or heard of it). Moreover, its entrance was from a road, at a higher level, that had a fish shop on the opposite corner. Well, a ‘chippy’ (a fish and chip shop) actually, from which a pungent aroma of fried fish wafted over the whole area. I liked the humour in the dream of the kingfishers flying up and perching over the window there, but it also served to highlight a point of connection with the ‘real’ landscape of the dream/event (both this location and the source of the whitebait fed to the rescued bird). So far, so good, but there was more to this story.
The bailiff of the fishing pond, who had found the injured bird, told me that the rescue had taken place on the 11th of November. I immediately recognised this as St Martin’s Day, Martinmas or Martlemas. The Common Kingfisher was once called Martin Pêcheur (Martinsvogel, Martin Pescatore, or Martin Pescador). Giraldus, writing in 1185, called the species Martineta, which is said to be the earliest use of a Christian name to denote a bird, and Christian is appropriate here since the name comes from St. Martin of Tours (remembered for a revelatory dream, but also for demolishing Pagan sacred groves), whose saint’s day was associated with the slaughter of fattened cattle. November 11th is now better known (in Commonwealth and some European countries) as Remembrance Day, and is closely related (via the Old or Julian calendar) to All Saints and Samhain. The connection feels appropriate since much of the lore associated with kingfishers relates to the survival of death.
This prompted me to look at what I’d been doing around Martlemas. As it happens, we’d been planting some willow to provide cover for Kingfishers and other birds. In meditations I had been tuning in to the translucent green resilience of willow. In an unusually powerful meditation on the 10th, which turned out to be the day before the rescue in Halifax, I had found an illuminated manuscript in a cave like chamber, contemplated the relationship between kingfishers and divinity, and seen imagery of a protective globe woven from willow boughs, and willow spirals in the form of shields or doors.
On the 11th, after another kingfisher dream, I had headed to a different part of the valley, and ‘tuned in’ by the canal. Quite soon I was transfixed by a crystal clear image, in my binoculars, at unusually close range, of a female bird backlit by low winter sun. The light alternately caught her sapphire/cobalt/green, back and wings -the colour shifts as the kingfisher moves due to the microstructure of the feathers rather than pigment (the so called blaustruktur or Tyndall’s effect)- etched a phosphorescent silver-blue arc against the dark backdrop of the canal lock as she dived, and outlined her fluffed-up warm orange/ochre breast in molten gold as she turned towards me. There was a strong sense of restless tension as the bird examined the swirling waters with her dark needle sharp eye. After half a dozen unsuccessful dives in the quite heavily sedimented water she moved on, and I was able to watch her fishing from two other vantage points over a period of about twelve minutes. Afterwards I wrote in my diary ‘it would be hard to imagine a better or clearer set of images’. This had been my best ever view of a kingfisher diving.
From a Cartesian/mechanist-materialist point of view these experiences would only seem to be connected by random co-incidence. From a divinatory/animist perspective it seems to me that they were connected by meaning, purpose, intention, action, and relationship. If each species has a collective or guardian ‘spirit’, might such spirits not want to respond to human care – the planting of saplings for cover, the act of rescue and rehabilitation- appreciation, and love? Might they not do so by ‘showing’ particularly well (much as prey animals turn up for hunter gatherers who make the necessary prayers), or by visiting our dreams, at auspicious times?
1) Peter Martin, A Fine Line, Halifax Courier, 18/11/93.