Wednesday, 30 May 2007

A Gang of Geese

Yesterday it sounded like I adore every living creature on earth. I wish that were true. But, truth be told, I am scared of geese. And swans.

Why, you wonder, would a bird-lover be afraid of swans and geese? Well, they’re strong and smart and territorial and aggressive. Like dogs. Like attack dogs with wings and beaks.

I once spent a week with a friend in a wonderful wooden house on stilts in Ratanakiri, in northern Cambodia. Directly across the road from her front gate lived a gang of geese. I don’t know who picked the word ‘flock’ for geese. Please. We’re talking a Gang of Geese. A Mafia of Geese, really. Whatever organized crime goes down in Ratanakiri, I’m sure those geese have a wing in. They’re probably organizing the poaching of their rarer avian relatives in the forest, just to strengthen their control of the town. Geese clearly fall in my unbiased BBC (Bad Birders of Cambodia, remember?) category of Ruffian Birds.

At any rate, whenever I set foot out of the gate onto the red earthen road, the Gang would hiss and flip their insolent wings and deliberately obstruct my path. I ended up edging along the margin of the road in the mud and, occasionally, running away from a leg-threatening experience. What I needed was a golf umbrella, one of those huge umbrellas with a spike on it. With one of those you’d have flapping action and stabbing action, like God gave the goose in the first place, and consequent goose-human confrontations might be a fairer fight. Or the threat of goose-liver pate. Maybe just a tin would do it. You could hold it out as you edged out the gate and say, You really want a piece of this? My kind consumes your kind’s liver. Back, foul birds, back!

Yes, there is cowardice and malice in my soul. Still, geese are scary. And I think swans are like big white or black geese with longer necks. So when everyone else is scattering bread at their feet for the lovely creatures, I’m keeping a 10 foot perimeter and showing empty hands. That’s all I have to say about this.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Chance of Kingfishers

I get shy around real birders, being a member only of the Bad Birders of Cambodia, which has three proud members, plus a shy Khmer kid who likes birds and hasn’t yet been informed that we’re roping in him to our weird foreign hobby. Bad Birders is going to be hard to translate—it would literally translate as Evil Bird-Searchers and will probably have to be glossed as People Who Aren’t Very Good at Finding Birds But Want To Look at Them, which isn’t going to be anywhere near as cool on the T-shirts. But sometimes I get on the website of the Birding Society of Edinburgh, which advertises Events. These events are walks or sometimes a drive and then a walk, to where the birds live. The descriptions of these events are shockingly tender, even in their brevity. Here is one: Walk by the Waters of Leith. Chance of kingfishers.

How do I say this? A birder is the kind of person I want to be. The kind of person who lives in anticipation, in hope, who will take a long walk over rough terrain for the chance of kingfishers. I want to be like my friend Janet’s new husband, who knows each tree by name. To know each tree. To know each bird. To know every creature in the sea and how its waters rise and fall. To me such knowledge is a kind of tenderness, almost a kind of holiness.

Our great and terrible neglect, the damage we have done and keep doing to our world, the world I believe we are meant to treasure and protect, staggers me. The lists of the dead break my heart. It would be easiest to turn away from it all and pin my hopes on an apocalyptic Christianity that consigns all this marvellous materiality to fire. But to me that seems like sin. It seems to me what is required is a fierce hope and a strong will and, if all else fails, the promise to bear witness. To say, no matter what befalls us, I will learn each bird by name. I will watch for them. And even if the seas rise and the sky burns and the forests fall and the deserts spread and their bright brief lives flicker and go out one by one, I will mourn them. Name by lovely name.


So friends--
I made my decision,
signed the papers,
picked one longing over another, at least for a time.
I will be doing a PhD in social anthropology.

What does this mean? Well, one thing it means is that I'll stay on in Edinburgh for another year come September, learning to structure a long term ethnographic research project and freezing to death. Another thing it means is that I'll go to Mondulkiri in the Cambodian highlands for a year and a half and immerse myself in other people's lives and then try to translate that into writing. Which isn't that different a task from the tasks I set myself in my writing at the moment.

Not that it isn't different. It's really different. I need to learn to be logical, for one thing. As in, structure a logical argument. Analyze abstractions. Critique and be critiqued. Terrifying.

More concretely, it means that I am giving up this sort of writing for a season:
I swallowed the Nile to celebrate the day of my birth. Not all of it, of course. But enough, enough to carry the smell of papyrus and the churning of the dark blue water and the gaping yawn of the hippo and the quick stabbing thrust of the African darter that spears fish upon its beak in my belly for a long time hence. If I sway slightly when I walk; if my head rolls like a wave; if I open up my mouth and spew forth water instead of words; forgive me, for I have been baptized in churning white water and have forgotten my name. Ask the river gods of the Egyptians; the hippo-headed god; the crocodile god; ask the steel grey goliath heron standing motionless in the shallows, watching the whimsy of men. I woke the morning after to find three shallow gouges in my flesh where something or someone clawed my arm. I drank the Nile and the Nile drank some of my blood in return. I have been humbled by the power of her waters—I have remembered that I am but a mere mortal tumbling headlong in the vast and churning world.

for this sort:
According to Augee, one of the conditions of hypermodernity is that homogeneity and individuation occur simultaneously.

Is this some sort of Faustian bargain? I certainly hope not. I have been told that I cannot do both creative writing and academic writing at the same time. I hope to rebel. Just a bit. Just enough to build little straw houses of creative writing beside the great ivory tower I have agreed to help build for a season. Little straw houses to keep the wolves at bay. No huffing and puffing will blow my houses down; not if I have anything to say in the matter.

There is a time for everything, the writer of Ecclesiastes said. Why do I always yearn to have everything all at the same time? Greed, I guess.

In other news: I saw my first tufted ducks. Black with grey-blue bills and yellow eyes, otherworldly creatures. And the solitary herons, nesting in a tree and fighting with sea gulls. It's a wild world, praise be.

Thursday, 24 May 2007

The Forgotten Land

I am not around much as of late, in more ways than one. I have just had a dear friend visit for 3 days, enough time to process all of the joys and sorrows since we parted nearly two years ago in Phnom Penh. Enough time to catch up, but it's still a sharp sorrow that she is not part of my Everyday. And tomorrow I will take a bus to visit another dear friend. My parents' visits and now these times with old friends has been rather like awakening--since my grandmother's death I have been slipping softly into solitude, finding my own company simpler than that of new friends. My own company and worlds of narrative--books or films. I tend to let myself grieve however I need to grieve. But it does trouble me that I am so disinclined to meditate and pray as of late--so I went back and found this poem this morning.

The Forgotten Land
We do not have to discover the world of faith;
we only have to recover it. It is not a terra incognita,
an unknown land; it is a forgotten land.
Rabbi Heschel

A forgotten land, where once I dwelled,
like the world I walk in dreams,
vast and wild, with high seas
and steep cliffs, where I am often
running but occasionally fly. To
recover faith, like a ring lost in a
pocket, like a baby wrapped in too
much swaddling cloth---unwind her
layer by layer by layer, she is not
unknown, she is loved and dear,
but you have somehow forgotten her face.
Recover the terrain, take the maps, the
compass, set out on foot, under the stars,
under the meteors burning in the galaxy
we will never reach until our bodies
turn to light and God
whistles us home.

The Murle did not believe in
heaven, or at least not for humans.
Humans passed on to live in caves
beneath the earth, one-eyed, one-handed,
tending tiny herds of cattle. Recover the
terrain—their faith is in cattle. Is mine in
chariots, in horses? God calls us
to throw down that which we love and go
empty handed into the wilderness,
the forgotten land.

Friday, 18 May 2007


When I first read and marvelled at Kathleen Norris' Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, its structure was one of the things that impressed me. I was in awe of those little imagistic 'Weather Reports' woven around the long essays. I remember their content still, much more clearly than the longer pieces. When I started building the scaffolding of my Cambodia memoir I shamelessly copied her style, hoping to intersperse longer essays with short Sightings. I might still do that. But until then, I thought I'd adopt it for this medium. Sightings are just that: things glimpsed, seen, stumbled over, sometimes through a glass darkly, sometimes with perfect clarity.

An old Indian man, cane tucked beneath one arm, is throwing bread for the pigeons over a railing into a small park on Nicholson Street in Edinburgh. A lot of urban dwellers despise pigeons, but this man is feeding them a whole bag of bread. The birds mill about in a grey mob in the grass beyond the railing, their pink and turquoise neck patches shimmering. By the man's feet, on a low stone wall on our side of the railing, lies a dead pigeon. Its feathers are dull and matted. The man stands beside the dead bird and feeds the live ones. His expression is grave. It is serious work, this casting of bread for birds. I leave him to it and pass on by.

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Speaking of Angels

Comparing puffins to angels made me remember this old poem of mine.

The people are like trees
Mark 9

I have a
secret. There was
a man once,
who took my
hand and led
me away from
the clamor of
voices and the press
of bodies. I heard
them fading, felt
them passing—I
was blind then,
blind from splinters
of rock in the
quarry, but
that story
is finished
now. I am
telling you a
secret, how a
man with calloused
hands, workman's
hands, hands
a man could
trust, took me
away to a quiet
place and spat
and laid those
hands upon my
scarred eyes, and
I saw something
beautiful, I saw
people like
trees walking,
long and thin
and leaning, like
tall and reedy
angels, the world
stretched long
and wavering,
and I heard
laughter in that
workman's voice,
that carpenter
turned teacher, and
he touched my
eyes again
and the normal
world returned,
that safe and
sane place
I used to
know, and
he smiled at
me and told
me where
I must not go—
I understood
he was shy
about the
power in his
rough hands.
I hear things
sometimes about
him still—wonder
worker, prophet—
the Romans
crucified him, you
know, put
nails through
his hands, the
hands that rested
on my eyes
for a brief
moment. It
was quiet
where he
took me, and
I think he gave
me something
with his spit
and hands.
The first time,
when all the
were like
trees, I
saw that
they were
holy, and
I think he
saw things
that way,
like an angel,
maybe, and
not a man, and
that's the
thing that's
ever happened
to me, being
taken by
his hand
and given
sight. I
see clearly
now, but I
want to
whisper to
you that the
people, the
people are
still like
trees, like
angels, bending
in the wind of the
world, and I
love them

Monday, 14 May 2007

Miracles...Part II

All this talk of noticing miracles reminded me of why I started birding in the first place--to learn to see again, to pay attention to the extraordinary world around us, a world that is passing away because of our carelessness and violent indifference. Birding usually requires a lot of patience, attention, and luck. Time spent with the bird book. Time spent staring at the bushes with your binoculars, then without them, then with them again, trying to find the winged creature making all the noise. Some days it's as if there are no birds left in the world. Some days, as Melissa would put it, it's all just yellowbums (a very common kind of bulbul). And then, sometimes, out of nowhere, darting past, comes someone extraordinary, fixing you with a dazzling eye.
My encounter with puffins wasn't like that at all. It was absurdly easy. It required, first of all, a voyage across the open sea, for which I drugged myself, to an island made of honey-combed basalt pillars called Staffa. There were small wonders on the way--fat sleeping seals, wheeling shearwaters (like a brown seagull), and lots of auks way out in the waves--guillemots and razorbills and puffins--exciting black and white birds, all of them, but very distant indeed. Patrick, the boat guy, told us that if we just climbed to the top of the island and walked to the cliffs on the far side, and sat down at the edge of the cliffs, and just waited, that the puffins would come in from their rafts on the sea. (Raft here means 'clump of birds.') They would feel safe from the seagulls and come right up to us and be friendly and access their cliff burrows. I confess that although I hoped this were true, I didn't fully believe it. So my father and I hiked across the cliffs with one other family. We got to the edge of a cliff on a green hill above the sea. Down below us were some fulmars tucked up sleeping on the ledges of rock that they use as nests. We weren't sure whether this was the right cliff. The puffins were out in their raft, wee dots on the water. They seemed perfectly indifferent to us. I decided to test my faith in this matter, spread my coat on the green grass, about a metre back from the edge, sat down and waited. Dad scaled the next hill to see if the puffins would come to that point instead. I sat by myself on the green hill and waited. After a while some of the puffins started lifting out of the water and flying around in ever increasing circles. This went on for some time. Yet they appeared to be about to fly out to sea, and I remember feeling very sad about this. Then they changed direction. They started flying in large arcs, getting closer to us on each pass. Toying with us, perhaps, or thinking they were clever little puffins fooling the seagull ruffians. Then, abruptly, they fluttered down out the sky all along the cliff's edge. Right in front of me. Orange feet first, wings up and behind, landing with a bit of a thump. And then all these wonderful little birds looked oddly at you and went about their bird business. It was absurd and wonderful. All I had to do was sit there and be surrounded by puffins, by a crowd of whimsical affectionate many-colored little angels. My eyes were open--I saw, and I marvelled. I still do.

Miracles and the Advent of Puffins, Part I

I. A history professor spoke at my church yesterday. Her name is Shannon, and she talked about miracles and about learning to recognize miracles--to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. One of her texts was the story in John's gospel of the chronically ill man who lay by the Pool of Siloam but could never make it into the water when the angel stirred it. Jesus turns up, and, incongruously, asks the man if he wishes to be well. When the man indicates that he would indeed like to be well, but just can't quite manage the rush to the holy water, Jesus simply tells him to get up. And he finds he can, although he doesn't even know who Jesus is. It's a miracle, but you could have missed it, had you been there by the Pool of Siloam, waiting for some shiny angel to stir up the water.

I think what Shannon was trying to do was to get our motley congregation to pay more attention to the presence of God. To the extraordinary in the ordinary, as she put it. It was a good reminder for me--I who often long for angels on the threshing floor, like Gideon, for someone to wrestle with and give strange blessings, like Jacob. Instead, how often is the miraculous like the angels who turn up dusty and hungry at Moses' tent? Unnoticed, unless we have open eyes and ears to hear.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

And again, African style

a few more feathered examples...

She just sort of snuck in. This is the elephant's closest relative? Kweli? My friend Laura wants to be a hyrax; but cannot choose between the rock habitat or the tree habitat. Academic life gives itself to these sorts of musings. Clearly, something is amiss.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Ruffians and Pirates--on taking sides

So it seems that I am not on my way to becoming a National Geographic photographer. It is not a viable fallback career. I blame my fabulous new digital camera, which I can't operate very well. Yet, let's say. So nearly all the bird pictures I will be posting in the next few days were taken by my father, who does not need a fallback career.

I want to discuss gulls. I think of sea gulls as the ruffians of the ocean world. Scavengers, fishermen, and predators of the wee darling that are puffins. Puffins are Small. Way smaller than I thought they were. They are only threatening to little eel fish, whom they stack up in their bills with sawteeth edges so nobody can fall out. Sea gulls are Way Scary to puffins. There's this hierarchy of predators in the seabird world just like in every other environment. Puffins are largely prey. Sea gulls are ruffians. Skuas are the pirates. As the Collins guide says, they obtain most of their food through piracy. This raises some interesting visuals, unless you're wondering what the heck a skua is. Think big gull-like bird with eagle-beak. Piracy in the seabird world means you come winging up hard and mean on a less aggressive bird, like a gannet, which gets so afraid it throws up all the food it was storing in its gullet in order to get away. The gullet is like the purse you might throw at a nasty mugger in a dark alley, only it's full of delicious fishy things.

True birders don't take sides in these matters. Everybody eats somebody and we humans are the worst culprits of all. I am not a true birder--I'd take a clumsy engaging wee puffin over a gull or a skua anyday. Maybe when Isaiah's prophecy comes to pass, we'll all be eating grass. Who knows? For now, we're skuas. Or gulls. I feel more akin to a gull than a skua--more of an opportunist than a dedicated predator. So I'm posting some mug shots. This herring gull was willing to put up with a photo shoot in the hopes of scraps. Villain.

A scrap of song from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' song Cannibal's Hymn comes to mind:
If you're going to dine with them cannibals,
sooner or later, darling,
you're going to get eaten.
Watch out for them cannibals, friends.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

God in the heart

The holidays are over, I must make a decision which will greatly affect the course of my life, and I am still preparing a suitable presentation to describe the heart-stopping wonder of encountering puffins. So here is a theo-poem from my past--if it offends, I suppose you will know better than to read any others that I post! My spirituality is topsy-turvy at best, but as honest as I can manage--and I trust that this is sufficient for Grace.

A very quick note for those of you who don't already know this--I call God He or She as the mood suits, or a variety of other names--you may find this startling, but I think that's the point, and for the record, I do mean the Christian God, the Triune One. Onwards.

It's called:

God in the Heart
'The heart that breaks open stays open.'
Clarissa Pinkola Est├ęs

And God climbs in, nimble-foot,
lithe, and perches – frog
in a well, canary in a mine,
purring like a pigeon – see
the beating of my God-filled
heart beneath my curving
ribs, see God the grain of
sand tumbling in the oyster
soul, O that She were shiny
and smooth rather than an
arrow in my chest, a sword
in my side. To be unaware
and at peace, but this thorny
God pricks like a bramble,
burrows like a mole, knells
like a bell, delves deep –
has no one told Her there are
no diamonds here? It is
untoward: gods should be
clean, not coated in coal
dust; gods should not
weep, gods should be stern, quick to
punish, quick to judge. God
should fix the
world rather
than mucking
about with
the likes of me,
but I cannot
dislodge Her,
cannot pry Her
fingers free,
I have a God-
infested heart,
God is the
hive of bees in the
belly of Samson’s
lion, wild and sad
and strange, making
me hum.