The Common Kingfisher, A Personal Story.

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I’m too colour blind to negotiate the finer points of bird identification.  Fortunately, the first Kingfisher of my adult life announced her presence, on a stretch of river less than a mile from a busy town centre, with an unmistakeable flash of electric blue.  On Christmas Day 1988 I watched her execute several impressively rapid dives from tree branches, and from a concrete drain cover.  On Boxing day she was there again.  On the 27th, I crouched by the river bank.  This time the Kingfisher flew towards me, then sped past, just beyond arm’s reach, her blue-green plumage phosphorescent in the winter sunlight.  I was spellbound.  Hooked.

During 1989 the birds began to appear in my dreams, and in an unusually vivid Spring Equinox meditation.  I read everything I could find on Kingfisher lore and ecology, and visited their  territories, but had scarcely begun to grasp the nature of this new relationship, or the difficulty of the terrain that the birds were accompanying me towards.  There were, however, some straws in the wind.  The following personal story goes to the heart of the matter.

In the circles I moved in we regarded therapy – the kind dealing with personal growth not psychopathology – as a valued part of everyday life, indeed almost a political imperative for men.  The politics of therapy are complex, but the therapist I was seeing was reasonably client-centred, made provision for people who couldn’t pay, and crucially, his world-view was similar to mine.  He knew that the personal was political, but also magical.

On the 19th May 1989 I went for what turned out to be a very ‘heavy’ session.  What came up was ‘a horrendous image of a cancerous breast’.  I felt revulsion and rage, and plunged into gut-wrenching sobbing, a full grieving reaction that came out of a clear blue sky and continued throughout the next day.  This made little sense, since I’d just visited my mother and found her ‘fit and active’.  The summer passed relatively uneventfully, but on the 23rd of November she rang to say she’d had some tests done on a lump in her breast.  They’d given her large tablets, but hadn’t told her whether it was malignant, and she hadn’t asked.  Since this had been a six monthly check-up, my otherwise inexplicable grieving must have coincided, fairly closely, with her discovery of the lump.  As things turned out, it preceded her death, and my ‘real’ bereavement, by just over two years.

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This autobiographcial story relates to Alcedo Atthis, the Common Kingfisher, in at least two ways.  The first connection is particular and personal, but before proceeding any further I want to flag up some of the complexities involved in approaching anguished subjectivity.  Mainstream Western culture, informed by scientific rationality, is dismissive of the notion that nature, or wild other-than-human beings, might respond compassionately to human distress.  John Ruskin coined the term ‘pathetic fallacy’ (derived from pathos, and empathy) to refer to an anthropomorphic tendency to ascribe human emotions to the natural world, not least when the mind is ‘unhinged by grief’.

It is, indeed, easy to respond to the disorientation of grief by grasping at thin cues for the consolation of personal significance.  Feelings too painful to own are easily ‘projected’.  Furthermore, extreme states can precipitate visionary experience that resists transcription, and needs to be protected from casual scrutiny.  Despite these difficulties I kept careful records of dreams and encounters – call them field notes, qualitative data if you prefer- in the hope of revisiting past intensities with the benefit of hindsight.

My Kingfisher dreams were vivid from the outset.  In the light of what was to follow, I now find it hair-raisingly apposite that the first came on my birthday, just over a month after those first encounters, and that it dramatised the rotting corpse of a Kingfisher, ‘perched’ over dark stagnant water.  In December 1990, an exceptional dream was followed by the ‘best views yet’ of a Kingfisher on the local canal.  When she was dying, my mother told me that she had always been fond of Kingfishers.  As a girl she had embroidered a pair on a fire guard that still adorned her bedroom.  Returning from the hospice after her death I found a large print bible beside her bed, with a Kingfisher bookmark indicating a passage about signs being sent.

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Going back through my notes I realised that the last Kingfisher I saw before her death appeared on the stretch of canal that can be seen from my window.  This was the only time I had seen one there in more than thirty five years.  In my first dream after the death (in July 1991) a beautifully coloured Kingfisher came right up to me.  During an intractable five year aftermath, when I was dealing with two other concurrent non-domestic crises, Kingfisher dreams and/or encounters co-incided with further upwellings of grief.  Kingfishers still occasionally turn up in dreams and ‘show well’ in the flesh at significant times.  There have been unmistakeable showings when other people close to me were about to die, and/or had just died.

It is, of course, difficult even to begin to convey the quality of such moments of communion.  The closest analogy I can offer is that of an intense love relationship, except that here it can be difficult to say who is communicating with whom.  I know of no way of confirming whether, or to what extent, birds are conscious participants in such exchanges.  Despite the subtle charge that can be felt from eye contact with an individual bird, and their ability to read human body language, my sense has been that something altogether stranger has been going on even than cross-species individual telepathic contact.

The first Kingfishers I met lived more than 200 miles from the rest, and since most Kingfishers only live for between two and four years in the wild, these encounters have spanned as many as twelve generations of birds.  My contact, therefore, appears to be with the species, and/or ‘other-than-human persons’ associated with them.  Although the involvement of Kingfishers in profoundly personal (and occasionally precognitive) messages appeared to confirm their archaic reputation for ‘vertue prognostick’, my sense is that this may only happen once a divinatory connection has been established, and that what the birds ‘told’ me was personal and particular.  I would not want to suggest that there’s a fixed universal meaning that applies to every close encounter between humans and Kingfishers.  That said, I have documented and read about other people who have had timely Kingfisher encounters during periods of bereavement, in one case despite initial scepticism that was not, apparently, associated with any specific divinatory/spiritual/magical practice.

It took me a while to realise that a second association between my experiences of bereavement and Alcedo Atthis was that telepathic dreams and precognitive grief are hallmarks of the ancient Greek story of Alcyone, after whom the species is named.  Ovid’s tear drenched telling of this story of midwinter renewal is not the only piece of Kingfisher lore that evokes regeneration and rebirth.  The bird’s miraculous corpse was said to renew its plumage after death ‘as though the vital spark survived’.  The species is also linked with the Fisher King, with the star Alcyone, and with the calendrical festivals of the Spring Equinox, Martinmass, and Winter Solstice.  Appropriately, perhaps, the most typical view of the Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis takes the form of a departing light.

Brian Taylor, 13/ 12/12, updated 29/6/14.

Footnote: The Common Kingfisher is a protected species.  In the U.K. a license is needed to approach the nesting tunnel during the breeding season.  Since these birds don’t appreciate disturbance, please respect their needs.

For a brief discussion of the astrology of that first Kingfisher meditation see Equinox Greetings, Organic Time.

Sources:

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book XI, trans, Frank Miller Justus, Heinemann, 1933.

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, I, Penguin, 1960.

Edward Armstrong, the Life and Lore of the Bird, Crown, 1975.

John Ruskin, Modern Painters, 1856.

Brian Taylor, Birds, Liminality, and Human Transformation; An Animist Perspective on New Animism, Pomegranate, the International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 14:1, 2012, pp108-127.