Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Last of the Curlews, a book for the ages

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019

Last of the Curlews book cover

There are some nonfiction books that encompass themes far beyond their particular subject matter. Last of the Curlews by Fred Bodsworth is one of those books.

On the surface, this little book is deceptively simple in its straightforward and observational narrative. It describes the everyday life of an Eskimo curlew as he arrives in the Arctic to stake out his nesting territory and look for a mate. The prose is precise, detailed, and often poetic, as in this passage from the first chapter:

The curlew set his wings and dropped stonelike in a series of zigzag sideslips. The rosy pink reflections of ice pans on the brown river rushed up toward him. Then he leveled off into a long glide that brought him to earth on the oozy shore of a snow-water puddle well back from the riverbank.

We soon learn that the curlew has come to this spot for three years without ever seeing another of his kind. Even as hundreds of other shore birds arrive and feed and nest, the curlew remains alone. As time passes and the short mating season comes to an end, the curlew instinctively knows it’s time to migrate south, and so begins his journey. Typically he would join a flock of other Eskimo curlews, but there are none to be found, so he takes off on his own.

In flight, he encounters a flock of golden plovers, powerful birds who follow a similar flight path as the curlew, and so he joins them and they accept him without question. Flying as part of a flock is hugely beneficial, especially during the most treacherous part of the flight, the 2,500 miles non-stop across the Atlantic ocean to South America. In the following passage, they face freezing temperatures and zero visibility.

The snow clung to their wings, packed into the air slots between the flight feathers. Wings that a few minutes before had responded deftly to the gentle, rhythmic flexing of the breast muscles were now heavy and stiff, and they beat the air futilely like lifeless paddles, driving air downward in a waste of energy instead of deflecting it rearward for the horizontal airflow essential to flight. Their flight speed dropped until they were hovering almost motionless in a disorganized, bewildered cluster, now almost a mile above the sea.

As the book continues, we witness the harrowing flight across the ocean, the arrival along the coast of Venezuela, and the continued journey south to Argentina. After this arduous trip of over 9,000 miles, it is soon time to head back northward again, back to the Arctic tundra in another attempt to find a mate. The descriptions of the journey are so immediate and harrowing, the narrative becomes an emotional page-turner, as you wonder if the lone curlew will survive.

Illustration from Last of the Curlews, © by Abigail Rorer

Illustration © by Abigail Rorer, based on original drawings by T.M. Shortt

Along the way, we learn many facts about curlews, migration, weather, and natural history. We encounter other birds on the journey, and a larger picture emerges of how millions of creatures cross the continents each year in a massive interconnected system that has continued for eons. Interspersed with the story are short excerpts from historical reports from the 1700s to the 1900s, and we hear firsthand how the great flocks of curlews steadily declined through unsustainable mass hunting. The Counterpoint Press edition of the book also includes exquisite drawings by Abigail Rorer, based on the original drawings by T.M. Shortt, that help bring the curlew’s journey to life. (See above.)

Although written in 1954, this book feels even more relevant today, and inspires larger questions about the meaning of existence. Why does the curlew continue to make this treacherous journey every year, with little or no hope of finding a mate? With the fate of his species on the line, wouldn’t it be wiser to play it safe, to adopt the habits of a less ambitious seabird? Or would that be giving up his true nature, his sole purpose in life?

There are so many moments along the journey where the curlew might easily perish, and yet he perseveres. Like so many other creatures facing extinction, he doesn’t give up. Would I be as steadfast in such a situation? Would any of us?

The beauty of this book is that it does not offer analysis or proselytizing, it simply tells a story with great detail and power, and the themes emerge naturally. It’s the story of one bird, but it’s also the story of all of us.

 

A few thoughts about H is for Hawk

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

H is for HawkI recently finished the audiobook of H is for Hawk, written and read by Helen Macdonald, and immediately wanted to write about it on my blog, to share this extraordinary book with the world. Then I discovered that it was an international bestseller, winner of numerous awards, and apparently everyone already did know about it, deservedly so.

I was actually surprised to learn it was a bestseller, not because it isn’t good, but because it’s so unique, so personal, so specific. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the book, it is a memoir about the author’s efforts to train a goshawk after her own father’s death, weaving in a biographical account of T.H. White and his less-successful attempts to train a goshawk while dealing with his own life issues.

What inspired me most about the book was that it combined such obscure and personal narratives into something universal. Most of us know very little about hawk training, much less about T.H. White. Yet these things were meaningful to the author, and brought out larger narrative themes that everyone can relate to, like love and loss, and primal instincts that have no name.

Some have argued that it isn’t really a nature book, because nature is something wild and untamed, while the main focus of this book is a tame and captive hawk, which does most of its hunting in suburbs and college campuses. But I think there is still a wildness to this hawk, and this book, which explores powerful themes of nature and what it means to be animal or human. Nature may be at its most elemental far from civilization, but sometimes a thing has to be pulled out of context in order to study it and see it in a new light. So while the book straddles the worlds of humans and animals, the themes of wildness and nature are still very much present.

So, what exactly constitutes “nature writing”? It depends on who you ask, and the topic has received much debate lately, but I will save that for another post. For now, you can read an interview with Helen Macdonald here, and also here.

And here’s a video interview from the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

 

Strength in nature – the art of Natasha Newton

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014
The Pattern of the Earth 4, © by Natasha Newton

The Pattern of the Earth 4, © by Natasha Newton

Natasha Newton is an artist and illustrator from Suffolk, England, whose work is inspired by the natural world. Birds, trees, stars and mountains all feature prominently in her work, which highlights the elegant patterns and shapes found in nature. There is a strength and beauty to these primal shapes, as they peel back the surface to reveal the essence of the world around us.

Besides her watercolors and acrylic paintings on canvas, she also does beautiful paintings on stones, which seem the perfect fusion of art and nature.  She has also created many abstract works inspired by nature.

Rainstorm © by Natasha Newton

Rainstorm © by Natasha Newton

Painted Stones © by Natasha Newton

Painted Stones © by Natasha Newton

Her blog is a window into her process and her struggles, and she writes with openness and honesty about her life and work. I was particularly inspired by her post about being brave enough to do your own thing. She writes how it’s tempting to do art that is safe, rather than what you really want to do:

“If you set out with the goal of painting something just because you think it will be popular, you’ll probably find the opposite will happen. But if you make unique work that comes from the heart, there will be someone else out there who loves it as much as you do. At the very least, your authenticity will shine through. And as an artist, that’s probably more important than anything.”

Her abstract art, sold in her Minimal Nature shop, is one example of how she experiments to keep her creativity flowing. She also draws inspiration from her own life. Her recent series of paintings “Birds of Hope” and “Birds of Strength” came out of an ongoing personal crisis that she has written about on her blog, and she created them as a visual reminder to stay hopeful and strong.

You can learn more about Natasha Newton and find links to all her artwork at her website.

Bird of Strength 1

Bird of Strength 1 © by Natasha Newton

 

Magic Sea 1 © by Natasha Newton

Magic Sea 1 © by Natasha Newton

 

Painted Stones © by Natasha Newton

Painted Stones © by Natasha Newton

 

Mountain Over the Moon © by Natasha Newton

Moon Over The Mountains © by Natasha Newton

 

We're Almost Home © by Natasha Newton

We’re Almost Home © by Natasha Newton

 

Bird of Hope 3 © by Natasha Newton

Bird of Hope 3 © by Natasha Newton

 

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Zebra finches rock the house

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot

Springtime is often heralded by the music of birds, but not usually playing electric guitars.

Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, has an exhibit through April 13th called from here to ear, that brings art and nature together quite literally. French artist and musician Céleste Boursier-Mougenot has created an environmental soundscape in which 70 zebra finches interact with electric guitars set up throughout the room. Visitors walk through the big open space and become part of the ever-changing environment.

Here is a peek behind the scenes at this fascinating exhibit:

The point is not only to create evocative musical sounds, but to make the visitor think about the ways in which we perceive sound, how we interact with nature, and how nature reacts to our own fabricated world. Below is an interview with the artist, who has made creative sound exhibits all over the world.

The exhibit requires tickets on weekends (which are sold out) but not on weekdays. More information at the Peabody Essex Museum website.

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A Celebration of Flight

Wednesday, August 14th, 2013

A Celebration of Flight

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing a performance of A Celebration of Flight by IBEX Puppetry, directed by Heather Henson. Featuring a blend of puppetry, movement and music, it was an inspiring spectacle that beautifully depicted the natural world through the life-cycle of a crane.

The performance followed the young bird as it hatched from an egg, discovered the world, and learned to fly, while meeting various other creatures along the way (fish, dragonflies, turtles, birds.) The ending featured a gigantic white crane that flew majestically across the stage. A thundering percussive soundtrack and soaring vocal performance added to the magic.

The setting for this visual and musical feast was an outdoor amphitheater on the gorgeous campus of Swarthmore College, as part of the Puppeteers of America national festival. Surrounded by towering trees and lush greenery, with the audience seated on the ground, the connection with nature was even more profound. I even saw a real hawk soaring high overhead, as though joining in the spectacle.

At various points in the performance, children in the audience were invited to participate by waving their own paper birds and fish in the air. At the end they were all invited down to the stage to join the performance in a joyous finale that brought tears to my eyes. It was a celebration like no other – a true blending of art and nature, reaching towards a deeper understanding of both.

A Celebration of Flight

Majestic crane puppet flies over the audience

A Celebration of Flight

A Celebration of Flight

Photographs don’t do justice to the puppets, because their movement was what made them so magical. Below is a video trailer of the show performed indoors, which will give you a better sense of the overall production.

Learn more about IBEX Puppetry at their website or Facebook page.

I dreaded that first Robin

Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Emily Dickinson

Today I’d like to share a poem by Emily Dickinson, one of her many works inspired by nature. Despite the pleasant imagery of birds and daffodils, it’s really a melancholy poem, describing how even the most beautiful things can be painful when you’re feeling sad. And the more beloved they are (the poet clearly loves the garden in springtime) the more piercing it is to look upon them.

Like all great poems, this one has been interpreted many different ways by different people. What do you think it means?

* * *

I dreaded that first Robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I’m some accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though —

I thought if I could only live
Till that first Shout got by —
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me —

I dared not meet the Daffodils —
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own —

I wished the Grass would hurry —
So — when ’twas time to see —
He’d be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch — to look at me —

I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they’d stay away
In those dim countries where they go,
What word had they, for me?

They’re here, though; not a creature failed —
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me —
The Queen of Calvary —

Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking Drums —

* * *

Happy Spring!

Sunday, April 3rd, 2011

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Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi

Spring is sprung, even though the weather is still a bit uncooperative. To celebrate the new season, here is a creative interpretation of Vivaldi’s “Spring” violin concerto. The ensemble is called Red Priest, named after Antonio Vivaldi himself, who was nicknamed “The Red Priest” because of his flaming red hair (and he was also a priest.) I’m sure you’ve heard Vivaldi’s Four Seasons before, but probably not like this.

Originally written for string ensemble, Vivaldi intentionally wrote the parts to sound like birds, streams, and rainstorms. He based the concertos on a series of sonnets, which are believed to be written by Vivaldi himself. Below is the section that describes the movement played in the video above, translated from the Italian:

Springtime is upon us.
The birds celebrate her return with festive song,
and murmuring streams are softly caressed by the breezes.
Thunderstorms, those heralds of Spring, roar, casting their dark mantle over heaven,
Then they die away to silence, and the birds take up their charming songs once more

You can hear all of these things in Vivaldi’s music, especially in this lively and inventive performance by Red Priest ensemble, consisting of violin, recorder, cello and harpsichord. (The next time your child doesn’t want to practice the recorder, show them what the amazing Piers Adams can do with the instrument!)

Hope you enjoy this stormy, sunny, chilly, unpredictable spring!

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Music inspired by nature

Monday, March 15th, 2010

Brazilian composer Jarbas Agnelli was reading the newspaper one day, and saw a photo of birds on electrical wires. Inspired by the similarity to musical notes, he cut out the photo and began composing a song based on the positions of the birds. He recorded the song and sent it to the photographer, who loved it. Soon there was a newspaper article about it, and the song became a worldwide sensation. Below is a music video he made of the song, using the photograph.

Birds on the Wires from Jarbas Agnelli on Vimeo.

Also, here is a link to a TED talk where the composer talks about the composition and performs it live. He says the lesson he learned from all this is that it is “possible to see poetry anywhere, depending on the way we look at things.” He’s absolutely right.

Thanks to Jessica Morrison and Ian MacKenzie for pointing me to this great video.