On Birdetal being During Lockdown
From my rooftop terrace on a hill in the city of Cardiff, in a vague state of suspended covi-disbelief you’ll recognize, I face due South into the eye of the midday sun. A man-jumble of roof, balustrade and wall contains what would otherwise be a 180 degree arc-view from East to West. The sky is none-the-less enormous, and I love it. Each day, I observe the clouds as if they are hastily evolving species, manifesting the effects of water and sky-physics, and stealing creature-ly shapes, every once in a while, stored deep in my imagination
Everything seems in tension, between closed and open, the constraints of the streets, confinement and grief within homes, yet pinned down by the freedoms of the sky. Stitching it all together, between roofs and clouds like needles and silk threads, are the city birds. They occupy their own levels, sometimes overlapping, and to see them interact has been, so much, my corona-consolation.
It is their intrinsic worth that sings the sweetest. Our deadly human pandemic** has liberated their song by silencing most of the dirty noise of vans and cars. They are bright and loud and confident. Right now, Bard Blackbird, perched on the end of our roof ridge, belts out beauty as if he is making up for a century of submission.
“My birds”, I call them. Forgive me. I feel to have almost become one of them. I relate to them all in my own state of birdetal being.*
The regulars who stop by most up here on my balcony are the adaptable and the generalists. Pigeons, with their glittering necks, have made this their day-time home, pairing and caressing with utter devotion before returning for the night somewhere safe where they roost. There are also the maggies (magpies) and the jack jacks (jackdaws), who are the real dancers, and the preening gulls who are dedicated, with true equality, in raising their young and to the mastery of flight. There is a satin crow I call Jet, who talks to me sometimes, and a pair of collared, cooing doves who are building their nest three chimney pots down. I’ve even had a little grey wagtail visit in winter, but she is very special ~ my beautiful, elegant river bird, completely out of place.
Below, in our neighbouring terrace gardens, there are year-round sparrows who cheep and chime nearly all of the time. And there are robins, one I call Rufus Ragnar, who rises from pruned shrub islands to sing whenever Bard takes a break. There are more garden birds I can’t see from up here, but I hear them. And they all fall silent when the sparrow hawk strikes.
High above, there are the ones who never pause. Highfalutin herring gulls, the Jonathans, cast the best shadows over me on a sunny day. Victoria Park jack jacks who flock like a clock to lime trees by the Taff a quarter to sunset every evening. There are the starlings who dash about, shining in splinters of luminescence, and the herons who flap in lazy zigzags, high up and unexpected. Few are the mallards, who cannot fly without telling us all well in advance they are coming. There are new and curious red kites circling; and the peregrines, supreme and terror-flying. We all stand stock still when they are about.
Life. It’s all here among the rooftops and chimneys. No compromise. The main events, have no doubt, are love and loss, youth and aging. And we are all joy, bitterness and reflection. Sometimes, my pigeons sit quietly next to me, on top of the poorly whitewashed roof terrace wall, three floors up, taking in the same, wide view with thoughts of matters much, much further away than we can ever truly reach.
The Goldfinches ~ Carduelis carduelis
The birds I least expect to see in number over a city, especially in Summer when more return from Spanish migration, are the goldfinches.
In the ‘wild’, their long finch beaks are so perfect for the delicate extraction of difficult seeds to forage; the Senecio family (groundsels and ragworts), thickset thistles, and the Dipsacus fullonum (the teasels). Yet they thrive here mainly because of the fine, beautiful black niger seed sold in garden centres and pet shops, poured into feeders and dangled around small terrace gardens and on patios for them to enjoy. As they fly over the rooftops from one feeder to another, they remind me of nursery school children released into playgrounds at break time, chirping with the unfettered emotions of liberation. Their sounds and sight lift me up too, especially since I am currently ‘shielded’ and confined to my flat.
The collective noun for goldfinches, as The Lost Words elegantly reminds, is a charm. Collective nouns arose from the feathers (quills) and inks of early medieval French and English hunters, mostly by the ruling classes, or those that documented their elite colloquialisms in celebration of their elite pursuits. Our Eurasian relationship with goldfinches is as historically complex. Not only were they hunted, but captured, traded and kept confined as pets, at least since Pliny the Elder wrote about this strange human obsession, just after the death of Jesus Christ.
“The smallest of birds, the goldfinches, perform their leader’s orders, not only with their song, but by using their feet and beak instead of hands.” Pliny the Elder, Natural History.***
Deep inside our pre-frontal cortexes combined with cultural memory and emotional response, we are somehow wired in what constitutes beauty. These birds are certainly a dash of colour with their blood red faces, black and white stripes and yellow brushstrokes painted along their wings. But this doesn’t explain the cultural need to covet and possess. Perhaps we may look to their celebration in aesthetics, as many iconic artists have tethered goldfinch imagery, in paint, to wood and canvas.
Many of these images are rooted in Christian religious symbolism. One of the greatest artistic masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance is, it is said, Raphael’s Madonna Del Cardellino, The Madonna of the Goldfinch painted 1505-6. The bird is cradled by the child, John The Baptist, and in the presence of Mary and her child Jesus. It is the depiction of the boy’s crucifixion as a prophecy that came to pass, as was John’s life and death. Legend has it, as Jesus died on the cross at Golgotha, a goldfinch flew down to his Crown of Thorns to remove them from his injured scalp, and was splashed with a drop of His blood. The idea of any goldfinch bearing witness of the crucifixion is utterly within reason, as they were once numerous in and around the City of Jerusalem. Not so much now in 2020, as they have been hunted, trapped and sold as pets continuously for over 2000 years, and their habitat smashed for human development.
Sixteen to seventeen centuries on, during the Golden Age of Dutch painting, goldfinches appeared once more in images such as Gerrit Dou, Young Girl at the Window, 1662. Fabritius’s painting, completed just a couple of years later, is surely one of the most famous, even more since Donna Tartt wrote her novel ‘The Goldfinch’ and won 2014’s Pulitzer Prize. The book was never about goldfinches. This is a sophisticated story of a boy who rescued (stole) Fabritius’s painting from a gallery in New York, after surviving a terrorist explosion. The burden of this secret is carried through the trials and tribulations of his life.
“Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us.”
Theo, the boy, hid and prized the painting, perhaps in a symbolic processing of his mother’s death. She had died from the bomb blast, just like the real and violent end that came to the painter himself. Fabritius was caught in the explosion of the Delft gunpowder magazine in1654, which killed at least 100 people and destroyed a large part of the city, including his studio and many of his paintings. The Goldfinch survived all, and is perceived as something of a resurrection.
Art historian, Linda Stone-Ferrier contends that, in the Netherlands, both real goldfinches and painted ones were found commonly in and near windows, as a symbol of neighbourly social exchange. For its time, Fabritius’s Goldfinch must have been hugely novel in its life-size and three dimensionality; a trompe l’oeil, fooling the eye into believing it reality ~ perhaps, installed near a window as a trick to lure the good will of passers-by.
But with my Fluminescent sensibilities, I see the photos of the painting and feel pain. The golden chain glints hard and sharp, tethering a tragic bird, otherwise born to fly free, to its wall-mounted, closed, tin box of seed. This is yet another disembodiment, that the bird cannot ever forage for him/herself, the whole scene being fixed for hundreds more years in some nightmare painterly incarceration.
In his Guardian article 2014, Caspar Henderson writes of the modern painter ATM, and the mythical murals he painted around London ~ the birds of his childhood ~ one being a goldfinch.
“Typically between two and three metres high, and depicted with their subtle natural markings, they seem like giant projections from the collective memory of places now hidden beneath the roar of the city.”
Again, I feel an intense isolation, the bird painted away from his/her ecological flows. It’s a giant ghost, out of scale, captive to the wall, street, and city, waiting upon the spell of the human gaze for a life they cannot ever truly live. The mural reminds me of when I see wildflowers named with chalk on a pavement. I crave for so much more, for the flowers themselves, and for human passers- by; arrows to show the species that sustain them, and those they sustain. The real beauty of nature, I contend, is in the direction and dynamism of all the arrows.
ATM has said he was inspired by the early prints of John Gould, tending to show, at least, a favourite flower or perch in composition. But once again, these are aesthetically appealing to the human eye, and in danger of being only extrinsically valued by us and, therefore, the only lives worth saving. Nature is so much more. Species in isolation are trompe l’oeil tethered by golden chains.
My goldfinches live seemingly vibrant and free lives, with their flights of excitement, overheard and overhead, several times each day. But really they are here only at our behest. Niger seeds, native to Ethiopia and Malawi, are commercially grown in huge quantities in India and Africa, and traded to Europe in the bird seed markets. They resemble sunflower seeds in shape, but are smaller in size. They are encased in a thick, seed coat, and can be stored for up to a year. Before they are exported, they are sterilized by intense heat to prevent germination, and to kill off any other seeds in the mix.
Do we want our birds simply as trompe l’oeils, feeding on seeds blasted by heat in India and shipped here for distribution and profit, while the goldfinch’s true seeds of delight are languishing brown under the damp spray of pesticides or the latest Weed-Burner-Killer-Wand-Butane-Gas-Blowtorch, marketed for the sake of what is deemed beautifully tidy by Dekton or GoSystem on Ebay or Amazon (sometimes the same places you’ll find niger seeds for sale).
So much energy, capital, and dependence upon markets is nurtured, whereas our own groundsels, thistles and teasels are classed as ‘weeds,’ and purged for the sake of a false idea of what beauty truly is ~ clipped, manicured and tidy. How compulsive are we, as a species, to want to force and possess beauty, regardless. These beings are part of the flows of all life (Fluminism), the interconnections (the arrows), being the most worthy of protection.
I want goldfinches to be all the things we Eurasians have historically not allowed them to be. Heedless of religious symbolism and childhood myth, I want them to sound their excitement released from 2000 years of chains. They may be a mirror to the image of ourselves, in that we too need to feel those infinite connections impressing within and without us. Neither do they need our trickery, our trompe l’oeils.
They want to be real, foraging for their natural, local seeds pollinated in resilient ecological flows with plenty of cover against predation. Fluminism is the love that provides it all.
*In deference to the wonderful work by Irigaray and Marder “Through Vegetal Being” published by Columbia, 2016.
** Latin pan- “all” + dēmos “people”.
*** Rackham, Jones, & Eichholz, Book 10 translated 1938.