It’s easy to imagine why some birds appeal so well to our myth-conjuring habits. I think particularly of those species that make a skill of obscurity. Crepuscular birds excel in shadow—the nightjar or woodcock are no more than ghostly silhouettes in dusk-dark. By day you’ve not a chance—their plumage is the very stuff of earth, intricate and cryptic patterns of leaf-litter, mulch, soil.
The bird that most comes to mind for these evasive sleights, though, is the bittern. It does not need darkness; this bird has perfected invisibility in specialist reed bed living. The woodcock’s argillaceous plumage is matched in the bittern by habitat imitation so effective it is remarkable no origin myths have passed down to tell of how the bird sheared from reed in metamorphosis, ripped up from the very same material in which it skulks. It’s colour and striations mimic the close, vertical world of marsh and fen exactly, especially so when the bird lifts its beak right up, narrows itself to reed-thinness and sways gently with the wind-rustling stems.
This morning I’ve been waiting since dawn at Ham Wall RSPB reserve for the briefest of glimpses. It’s April and I can hear one male booming—a sonorous, eerie bass note that carries over a mile. It’s this aspect of the bird, in fact, that humans have responded to for millennia. The many dialect terms for the bittern show alliterative playfulness with the bird’s reverberations: butter bump, bog bumper, bog blutter. These marvellous names go way back. In the Anglo-Saxon age, when King Alfred was hiding out here on the swampy Levels, the bird was a raredumle, probably meaning something like ‘reed-boomer’. By the late Middle Ages, the vernacular term was miredromble, but the English language also adopted French bitour, which became ‘bittern’. The strange booming spurred inventive explanations about how ‘a bitore bombleth in the myre’ by lowering its head ‘unto the water doun’ (Chaucer), or blowing through a reed. Inevitably, the supernatural aspect of the disembodied noise associated it with omen and disaster.
The old names alert us to the priority given to bird sound in the past, and even now the bittern is certainly a bird more encountered by its unique call than sight. Its presence in the once extensive marshes of Britain bred inventive myths down the centuries. Here on the Levels, bitterns stalked the prehistoric swamps alongside pelicans, cranes and white-tailed eagles. Neolithic tracks across the marsh still exist, preserved in peat beneath the watery landscapes recreated in recent years. What did our prehistoric ancestors make of the bittern’s booming call? What was their word for the bird? We’ll never know, but surely they were equally struck by its eldritch presence. Perhaps those medieval myths and names reach back this far.
Like many of Britain’s fen and marshland birds, the bittern became extinct. It recolonised in the early twentieth century after an absence of 50 years, but numbers remained low and as recently as 1997 there were only 11 booming males. Thanks to hard conservation work, 46 males have been estimated calling on the Avalon Marshes this spring in Somerset alone, the densest population anywhere in the country. Our names and myths recall how elemental bitterns are to this habitat, as much as reed and peat and water. It is joyously encouraging that a bird so intimately rooted in these special places is not lost.
In recent years I’ve done a fair bit of thinking and writing about seabirds in early English culture (see here and here). I’d say, in fact, I can talk at quite some length about seabirds in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I’m currently researching the topic further for a chapter in a new book. My research and writing on the subject, though, gives me pause for thought, because despite similar imaginative responses to these remarkable creatures across the centuries, my experiences with seabirds in my own time are disturbingly and drastically different in ways that profoundly and irrevocably affect their cultural relevance to us in the twenty first century, and would have been unimaginably alien to our medieval ancestors. The picture of environmental destruction that afflicts seabirds is uniquely modern: we cannot think about seabirds without confronting how they are tied up, quite literally, with our detritus. The poet who depicts a gannet in the Old English Seafarer as a far-travelling companion on the winter waves could not have conceived of the strangulated individual in the harrowing image above.
In particular, of course, I’m talking about plastic, and the gargantuan quantities of enduring waste it produces. It’s such an unavoidable aspect of daily life that we barely give the substance a second thought, and we don’t need to. We can legitimately throw away as much of the stuff as we want, confident that it will be disposed of somewhere else, by someone we don’t know or care about. That’s the situation the ‘progress’ of convenient, comfortable living has led to; we aren’t required to care. To be sure, most of us know we should care, and most of us use local schemes to recycle as best we can, or avoid using plastic bags when we go shopping. What most of us could never have guessed is just how pervasive plastic and its disastrous effects are when we think we’ve safely discarded it. Without even considering the devastating effects on all the other creatures that inhabit the world’s oceans, it is estimated now that 90% of the world’s seabirds have consumed plastic (here and here).
In response to all this, and the sickening feeling we have about the sheer quantities that go into landfill every year in countries around the world (the stats are staggering: in Australia alone just toothbrushes produce 1000 tonnes of landfill a year!), my wife and I decided to go plastic and packaging free in 2018. We want to implement habits and routines that will slowly become a way of life. We know the realities—avoiding plastic entirely is pretty much impossible unless you want to completely cut yourself loose from modernity. We’ve done our research though, and have embarked on a scheme to dramatically cut down what we throw into landfill at the end of this year. (Later on in 2018 I’ll post again on this topic to let you know what we’ve done and how it’s going.)
I’m excited by our environmental ambitions for this year: they feel real and filled with genuine potential. But taking on this more explicit form of environmental action has prompted me to think about the importance of those other less obvious, less immediate examples of individual responsibility. Writing about the natural world is the most relevant example to me, and it sometimes seems arcane, detached and irrelevant. What difference does it actually make? In some slight yet important way, though, the thinking and caring that happens when people write about the natural world does matter. In my case, understanding how seabirds were experienced and represented in the earliest English writings is part of the narrative that leads to our engagement with these creatures now, and their plights, even if only because we might be prompted to a keener sense of loss and responsibility. It is all part of the passion and urgency we share to influence the way people think about, encounter and treat the natural world. We do this, always, with the hope of making just a little, positive difference.
When it comes to favourites, certain British birds nudge their way into the top ranks repeatedly: the robin – unofficially Britain’s top choice – is predictable enough, as are other garden species, such as blue tit and blackbird, or perhaps something less commonly seen; a barn owl or kingfisher. I suspect my own favourite, though, is shared by few, and would never occur to anyone curious enough to hazard a guess. Fieldfares are unfamiliar to many, a birder’s bird maybe, unnoticed in the hedgerows of sodden ploughlands in such short and dreary days. But these mobster thrushes are mysterious and attractive. They exist like the promise of hard snow – overnight, sudden and thrilling, they come with the boreal cold.
This year, as every year, I have been walking and driving the lanes in search of fieldfares and their thrush cousins, redwings, mostly across the flatlands of Romney Marsh not far from home in Kent. These winter nomads breed right across sub-arctic Scandinavia and the Baltic regions, making their annual incursions each October and November to wander and raze berry harvests in southern Europe. I found a roving flock last November, one bright and blue morning when it was painfully cold. I knew the birds were there long before I saw them, announcing their presence with restless stony calls, a ringing magpie ‘chak-chak’. For all this commotion, they can be frustratingly difficult to catch in good view. They remain teasingly invisible in the bare but impenetrable thorns. Suddenly, at the moment you become just too close, they burst from cover as though the trees have kept their leaves all along to release just now in a brisk gust. The action is surrounded by accelerating notes that rise in pitch and dynamics, scattering with as much force as the birds themselves. These cackling fits disappear again just metres down the frosted path, though some birds veer upwards to sit defiantly at the top branches. They mark my advance like a procession, always just ahead and out of reach, as though alarmed and mocking all at once.
The fieldfare’s evasive presence seems fittingly mirrored in their slight cultural legacy. The name as we have it is certainly medieval, but its origins, although almost certainly older (Old English feld ‘field’ + fara ‘to go’), are all but lost, scantily and obscurely present in the inky tracks of just one or two Anglo-Saxon scripts for scholars obsessed with such things to ponder and trace. Fieldfares, curiously in my view, have never attracted poetic attention in the way of so many other British species. John Clare, of course, does not forget them as passing details: they ‘chatter in the whistling thorn’ (‘Emmonsails Heath in Winter’) or ‘come and go on winter’s chilling wing’ (Shepherd’s Calendar, March). At the end of the medieval period, though, it is clear that fieldfares did not go unnoticed: Chaucer ends his catalogue of birds in The Parliament of Fowls, unexpectedly, with the ‘frosty feldefare’, and in the Sherborne Missal (c. 1400), there is a remarkable titled image of the bird, accurately depicted in all its striking colours (see here for some of the images, although the fieldfare page is not included).
I find a new, hustling chatter of fieldfares on Romney Marsh again this week in mid-February. By now, with most berries stripped, they are dispersing to the fields, roaming in big numbers. Chaucer’s phrase, I’d say, has it right – their hoary plumage is a precise configuration of winter splendour, even on a day as drab and wet as this. They mark extremes: that pristine white underwing and belly, that storm-grey hood, are balanced with colours that flare like hibernal dusks, or the light and warmth of indoors we seek against such cold – the colour of smoky whisky, or the slow burn of wood fires. I follow fieldfares across tree-lined fields, follow their flights down hawthorn paths to be with all that clattering verve that turns and turns again straight into the wind.
Bit of a cheat post this one, but since I’ve recently published a general-audience post on the Anglo-Saxon riddles site The Riddle Ages, I thought I’d provide a link for readers of this site who might be interested. It’s taken and adapted from work I’ve produced on the Old English Exeter Book Riddles – an amazing collection of riddles written in Old English (the only ones we have – everything else is in Latin) and compiled in a huge manuscript given by Bishop Leofric in 1072 to Exeter cathedral, where it still resides. Many of the riddles involve a first-person speaker who describes themselves in typically riddling, paradoxical style and then asks that the listener or reader saga hwæt ic hatte ‘say what I am called’. Intriguingly, in this manuscript at least, there are no answers. It really is a guessing game! The natural world features well in the collection of 90+ riddles, and birds make up a noticeable portion of these. There is a swan, a nightingale, a cuckoo, a barnacle goose, hens and a jay. Riddle 57 is nearly always solved as one species of bird or another (crow, swift, swallow), but no scholar has ever settled on which species. So … here are my thoughts on why we should pay more attention to the anonymity of the birds in Riddle 57 then the possibility of a precise answer: see here for the translation, and here for the commentary.
There are some birds that are early fixed in the imagination, and hold their allure for a lifetime. These are not childhood memories of actual encounters, but of something more mythic – birds that made claims on my experiences long before I ever set eyes upon them. I knew them only from illustrations (John Gooders’ Kingfisher Guide to Birds in Britain and Europe; a scrappy pocket Collins), or experienced them vicariously in my uncle’s scrawling field notes. I loved their rarity, made them live – the impossible colours of bee-eaters, rollers, waxwings; the wildness of eagles – in my assiduously copied sketches from a hand-me-down set of Ladybirds. I dreamed of discovering these birds myself, desired them as much as those accumulating notebooks in my uncle’s study – dinky and black, with an elastic band that made a firm snap when you pulled it into place.
In an attempt to conjure one of these exotic species, I once invented reports to my mother, hoping that the fantasised chase across the South Downs would turn up a real life counterpart to the impressive sunset vision depicted in that Ladybird plate. It was years before I finally saw a great grey shrike – a strange songbird from the north with a grisly habit and a dapper bandit mask to suit. I’ve seen several since, but I am still compelled to see these birds when small numbers make their winter homes here each year from Scandinavia.
This morning was ideal out on the brooks, the first properly cold weather of the season and everything reduced to a shrike’s wintry colours: the stone-hard whites of frost, the bare blackness of trees, and low mists tracing every degree of grey-silver. As shrikes do, the bird I was after appeared quite suddenly, there atop a nearby birch. It was gone as quickly, in the second I glanced away, but there it was again, at some distance, silent and sentinel on another tree top. Shrikes establish large territories and can go unseen for long stretches of time, though they will be present all winter, remaining faithful to particular sites year after year.
Despite its scarcity, the bird has a long-lived gruesome legacy in British folklore, which pertains to the red-backed shrike, too, once a breeding species in these isles (unlike the great grey). Its various names speak of its macabre reputation, derived from its family propensity for impaling prey on thorns, recalling a butcher’s meat store, or the huge iron hooks from which his carcasses hang. The great grey’s scientific name reminds us of this habit – Lanius derives from Latin for butcher or executioner. A meat-hacker: the butcher-bird.
Its infamy goes back much further, however, as indicated by the strikingly similar cluster of names across northern European countries. Its late medieval English name was the waryangle which existed in various dialect forms for centuries, all of which, like Germanic werkangel or warkangel, mean something like ‘suffocating angel’ (compare Modern German, würger and würgengel). The name is not attested in Anglo-Saxon records, but may well extend back this far; waryangle, may, in fact, derive from Old English wearg (criminal) and incel (diminutive suffix): ‘little-villain’. Certainly by the fourteenth century the name was invoked as an abusive term. In Chaucer’s Friar’s Tale, the summoner is denounced by way of comparison, ‘as ful of jangles [tricks] / As ful of venym been thise waryangles’ [as shrikes are full of venom] (a shrike’s butchering thorns were thought to be forever after poisonous).
Remarkably, in an age without binoculars, and which is traditionally dismissed for its unscientific indifference to ornithological precision, the earliest illustration we have of the species actually comes from a medieval English missal (1400) produced in Sherborne, Dorset. It very clearly and accurately depicts a grey shrike labelled waryghanger, one of many British species depicted in this remarkable manuscript. For this illuminator, at least, the shrike held a place in the native imagination, as it always has in mine. Its flight from thorn to thorn points on to shrikes I have not yet seen, that exist in those books and pocket notes that occupy me still.
I’ve spent the last couple of months devoted to re-writing the very first chapter I ever wrote for my PhD. In many ways, it’s been the hardest task. Returning to something I wrote five years ago was always likely to make me balk, but quality of writing and ideas aside, there is the accumulated mass of four other chapters to cohere with those original thoughts now, and all the developments in methodology and theory that come with that body of work. Needless to say it’s taking a while, but here’s the basic nub (which I offer now as much to clarify it to myself among the mess of sections and paragraphs that currently exists!)
The two Old English poems I discuss in this opening chapter, The Seafarer and The Wanderer, both expound a traditional Christian vision of the soul’s journey on earth to reach home (OE ham); heaven. Technically it’s the body that does the journeying, of course, but it’s for the soul’s sake. Whether we are to read the journey literally or not has been much discussed, but either way, the speakers of both poems are involved in a maritime pilgrimage of sorts – they take to the sea, probably voluntarily, to seek the ultimate destination. It’s not so far fetched to imagine this literally; certain monastic individuals (see here, entry for the year 891) did, in fact, do precisely this – set sail in flimsy coracles on sea-bound wanderings (peregrinatio pro amore Dei ‘pilgrimage for the love of God’), often headed for remote, pinhead islands in the Atlantic from which to live out bleak, ascetic lives (Robert Macfarlane discusses this practice and visits specific locations in the first chapter of The Wild Places).
What I’ve been researching and writing about, though, is the role of birds in all of this. The convention of representing souls as birds certainly predates both of these poems in Latin, Norse and Germanic cultures (and post-dates; think Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner). It appears several times in scripture (as a sparrow [passer]), and almost certainly influenced one of the most famous instances of all time; Bede’s analogy of fleeting human life as a sparrow in his telling of the conversion of Edwin of Northumbria in the seventh century. The king’s councillor puts the case for converting thus:
“Such”, he said, “the present life of men on earth seems to me, king, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us: as if, while you were sitting at dinner with your leaders and ministers in the winter time, with the fire lit in the centre and the upper room filled with heat, with the raging winter storms of winter rains or snow everywhere outside, a sparrow were to arrive and fly swiftly through the house. As it enters through one door and soon exits through another, during the time when it is inside it is not touched by the winter storm, but nevertheless, after the briefest space of calm, when it has hastened forth, turning from winter and soon back to winter, it escapes your eyes. Thus this life of men appears for a moment; what follows, or what came before, we absolutely do not know.” (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, II.12, trans. B. Colgrave)
Just to indicate the legacy of Bede’s description, here’s how the twentieth-century poet Louis MacNeice reimagines the metaphor:
This indoors flying makes it seem absurd, Although it itches and nags and flutters and yearns, To postulate any other life than now.
(‘Dark Age Glosses’)
Given the religious content, and the popularity of Bede’s text, it seems likely that the poets (or poet – it’s possible one person wrote both; they appear in the same manuscript) of The Seafarer and The Wanderer were influenced by the sparrow-soul image. Moreover, though, these writers specifically include real birds in their texts, which preface the implicit references to bird-souls later on. In The Seafarer, we actually get birds named:
Hwilum yflete song dyde ic me to gomene, ganetes hleoþor ond huilpan sweg fore hleahtor wera, mæw singende fore medodrince. Stormas þær stanclifu beotan þær him stearn oncwæð isigfeþera; ful oft þæt earn bigeal urigfeþra … .
[Sometimes the swan’s song I did for my game, the gannet’s sound and curlew’s cry for man’s laughter, the gull’s singing for the mead-drink. There storms beat stone cliffs, there the tern answers them, icy-feathered; very often the eagle screams, dewy-feathered… .]
The Wanderer‘s reference is fleeting, and far less specific, but the birds are real and doing birdy things nonetheless:
[Then the friendless man wakes again, sees before him dark waves, bathing seabirds spreading feathers, falling rime and snow mingled with hail.]
What has particularly intrigued me is not just that the souls of humans might be depicted as birds, but that they are depicted as seabirds (brimfuglas). The type of birds may well have been suggested to the poets by the ‘life is like a tempestuous journey at sea’ trope, but both these poems, to me, draw their suitable metaphors for the wandering soul from wider Anglo-Saxon knowledge about birds, and seabirds specifically.
The migrating or pelagic seabird provides the poet(s) of The Seafarer and The Wanderer with a potent image for the migrating soul partly because these species inhabit liminal, coastal territories, the uneasy boundary between the joys associated with the earthly splendours for which the speakers in both poems yearn, and the paradoxically desired hardships sought on the rough waters. Seabirds breed on terrestrial margins, but travel for vast distances to feed, often for huge spans of time. They inhabit realms that might seem, well, otherworldly. The religious journeys of both human bodies and souls, that is, are so well depicted not only by birds generally, whose most noticeable ability is flying, but by birds who master this skill over nonhuman habitats – mysterious and dangerous seas that stretch beyond the human eye. That Anglo-Saxon poets responded to the natural aspects of these richly suggestive locations as part of their poetic imaginings seems very significant. Seabirds, it seems, did feature in the cultural identities of coastal areas in Anglo-Saxon England. There is a series of coinsdating from the eighth century, for instance, largely distributed in southern coastal regions, which portrays what appear to be tall waders. And zooarchaeological work on at least one coastal high-status site, has unearthed numerous sea or water bird species, including herring gull, common gull, kittiwake, dunlin and curlew (see here).
The Anglo-Saxons were certainly aware of birds’ ability to migrate, in the sense understood in ornithological terms. Aristotle’s observations on birds were available to churchmen through Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s seventh-century Etymologies(XII.7), the last of which comments, for instance, on how birds like the swallow and stork are ‘migratory and return at certain seasons’, whilst others ‘stay in the same location’. But the Anglo-Saxons, keenly aware of their own migrations over the ‘gannet’s bath’ (OE ganot’s bæþ; e.g., Beowulf, 1861) and wary of invasions from Nordic foreigners across the North Sea, must have understood and responded to birds’ migrations in the broadest sense, too, as creatures seemingly always on the move, soon to be gone and out of sight. In two riddles from the same manuscript of The Seafarer and The Wanderer, a swan is defined by its unreachable flights far ofer folc ‘over people’, and a barnacle goose is described according to the myth that its unfathomable disappearance is explained by its origin as a mollusc. They are equated with frightening but compelling territories outside human knowledge, like the ‘wildernesses of India and Ethiopia and Scythia’ to which Isidore links birds’ unknowable wanderings in his introductory passages to birds and which leads to their most characteristic quality, that which gives them their Latin name (according to Isidore; a lot of his etymologies are highly dubious or downright ridiculous!)): ‘They are called birds (avis) because they do not have set paths (via), but travel by means of pathless (avia) ways’.
Seabirds, at home on the pathless oceans that the speakers of The Seafarer and The Wanderer perversely seek out, best embody this marvel of avian behaviour, and provide the ideal metaphor for human souls pursuing a mysterious celestial destination beyond known lands.
Postscript: the ideas explored in this post are now to be published in an article submitted to English Studies. For a copy of the pre-submission script, see here.