“What’s on the wireless?” he said.
“About the birds,” she said. “It’s not only here, it’s everywhere. In London, all over the country. Something has happened to the birds.”
When Daphne Du Maurier’s short story was first sent to her publisher to read, he told her it was ‘a masterpiece’ (Victor Gollancz was not often forthcoming with praise). I am ashamed to say that I have not seen the Hitchcock film. The story is set in Cornwall, after the Second World War, a small family is trying to make its way working the land, and working for local landowners. The tension in the story builds slowly from one that tells of freak encounters with nature to becoming one about the terrible dread of an all-out apocalypse. The birds – every one of them, gulls, wrens, sparrows, hawks – attack the countryside’s inhabitants. Flailing arms, fires, shotguns and cars are useless against their sheer numbers. Radio broadcasts from London cease. Flocks bring down aeroplanes. They smash through windows and kill householders. Neighbours are found dead. We never find out why.
Their behaviour is inexplicable.
They are birds.
When I used to run along the seafront in Brighton there was a sight, familiar to us all no doubt, that I tried countless times to photograph but it was uncaptureable. Waves of starlings would tidally swoop and swirl, sometimes for hours, around the bombed-out remains of the West Pier.
You cannot grasp in a frame the soaring and stunning four-dimensionality of this dance of clouds. As Ruskin said of water, ‘It is like trying to paint a soul’. The sight is an overwhelming one: centrifugal spinning and turning like ink in water. This movement cannot be reduced to the stiff and flattened dimensions of a photograph.
We look up and witness that. I wonder what they see when they look down at a crowded mass of 35,000 people in their two-dimensional world? Do they watch them shuffle through the funnel of the marathon startline like shapes on a piece of paper? We share much experience with birds: we eat, we sing, we shit, we live, we die, but there is no language that can describe the wonderful fluidity of this sight. They are just so different from us.
Taking ‘time’ out of the equation, we pretend that we live in three-dimensions, but we don’t – not really. We do occupy the third dimension (of course we do), but we don’t regularly take advantage, or make much use, of it. I was lucky enough to go to New York a few years ago, and there it struck me for the first time how very flat our lives can be. Being shown to my hotel room I had to equalize in the lift, and then decompress on my flight back down to the lobby. Throughout the few days of the stay we were always moving across, along, high-up and all-the-way back. It is the only place that I ever really noticed this; elsewhere we just seem to exploit two dimensions. Edwin A. Abbott’s satirical Flatland of 1884 is a gem. It is a post-Euclidian fantasy of inter-dimensional travel where beings (shapes) who live in the two dimensions of Flatland struggle to understand the possibility of a third. The polygonal hero meets the Sphere who tries to explain the third dimension. To do so, they travel to one-dimensional Lineland, and no-dimensional Pointland, where they appear as an idea in the head of its only inhabitant. It is like Plato’s Cave in The Republic where the ‘truth’ teller is ultimately punished for possessing dangerous and fantastical ideas. But Flatland is also about our inability to see beyond the dimensions of our own comprehension. The 2D and 3D dimensional-tourists do actually appear to the inhabitants of Lineland, for example, but only as one-dimensional lines (not the squares and spheres of their ‘real’ bodies). Ultimately, the novel is a satire that exposes our inability to perceive that which we are not programmed to see. Hardy also tries to make us aware of such perspectival partiality in The Mayor of Casterbridge in describing the eponymous city: ‘To birds of the more soaring kind Casterbridge must have appeared on this fine evening as a mosaic-work of subdued reds, browns, greys, and crystals, held together by a rectangular frame of deep green. To the level eye of humanity it stood as an indistinct mass behind a dense stockade of limes and chestnuts, set in the midst of miles of rotund down and concave field.’ Hardy does his best to subsume the mysteries of brickwork, roads, roof slates, and the windows of the townscape into a kind of avian cognitive representation. The brevity of the language may appear half-hearted but the simplicity and directness of it is its strength. The bird’s eye description uses only visually-descriptive abstract nouns, for humanity the trees’ proper names are reinstated – correct taxonomy is a human endeavour, not a natural one.
Much later, in his notes that would become the Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein, always a savant philosopher riveted by the powers and peculiarities of language, wondered
25. It is sometimes said: animals do not talk because they lack the mental abilities. And this means: “They do not think, and that is why they do not talk.” But – they simply do not talk. Or better: they do not use language – if we disregard the most primitive forms of language. – Giving orders, asking questions, telling stories, having a chat, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing.
Wittgenstein – Philosophical Investigations
They do not talk means only that they do not talk. Did Wittgenstein really believe that they did not use language, that they did not communicate? If like me you have run in a field of crows and met their stare – and I am sure you have – you could not even consider that they do not think. The stare is not unidirectional, it is returned. We may see ourselves in it, but there is something else there too.
In 2008 an ongoing study was first reported that had been conducted at the Washington School of Forest Resources in which crows were trapped, banded and released by mask-wearing staff. They discovered two surprising things. First, that after five years and counting, banded crows still remembered the masks and would hound and dive at the staff. Second, that crows that were not involved in the experiment in any way also joined in the angry mob that jeered the mask-wearing staff over a mile away from the original incident.
John Marzluff went so far as to assert that some of the crows were able to ‘make and use tools, forecast future events, understand what other animals know, and — in our [experiment] — learn from individual experience as well as by observing parents and peers’. The birds were capable of ‘advanced cognitive tasks shown by only a few animals’.
So they do not use ‘language’ professor Wittgenstein, really?
Hardy again dramatizes the complexity of our anthro/avian relationship simply and effectively in the opening pages to Jude the Obscure. The young Jude is employed by the farmer as a living scarecrow – they had gotten used to the static and silent kind. The young Jude, though, empathizes with the birds
“Poor little dears!” said Jude, aloud. “You SHALL have some dinner – you shall. There is enough for us all. Farmer Troutham can afford to let you have some. Eat, then my dear little birdies, and make a good meal!” They stayed and ate, inky spots on the nut-brown soil and Jude enjoyed their appetite. A magic thread of fellow-feeling united his own life with theirs. Puny and sorry as those lives were, they much resembled his own.
No reader of Jude the Obscure forgets reading it. The punishment meted out to Jude in the novel is so unrelenting that Claire Tomalin recently described the experience of reading it to being continually slapped in the face. In chapter two of the novel, Jude’s empathy with the birds reveals him as one not fit for the battle of modern life upon which he is about to engage. Civilization requires disconnection from nature, and this is Jude’s tragic flaw: he is of the earth, yet he seeks out the city and society of Christminster. The city, just like Farmer Troutham, does not care for this ill-adapted and unfit specimen.
When nature meets culture they do not speak in the same language.
For me, one of the harder things about living in London is the litter. Litter is such a strange word. It sounds clean, like someone has crumpled up a blank piece of paper and tossed it aside to become a tumbleweed snowflake. When I say litter, I mean the mysterious and variegated palimpsest of stains that tattoo the pavement like some antique map, liquids that had flowed-across or impact-splattered onto the concrete; or Big Mac boxes and Red Bull cans, flattened and tyre-tracked; a laceless shoe; jewels of broken glass; a Capri-Sun sachet with a pink straw extruding from it; blackened chewing gum; broken elastic bands; mouldy trays of tomatoes; even a bed – it was a double. All of these have featured in the ‘still life of modernity’ at the bottom of my road. The worst of these, though, is one of the most regular offenders: chicken bones. Stepping on one is utterly gruesome. It was once a body, now here is a single piece of it. It has been held in someone’s hand – traces of the grease are probably still on their fingers. It has been in someone’s mouth. And now it is tossed aside. Under your shoe, it crunches to the marrow in that flint-sharp way that only chicken does and you are now carrying a little piece of this confluence of biological history with you. The interconnection is complex, intimate, somehow wrong.
There is a convergence of chicken opportunities at the turn of our road. There is a KFC (which as Jonathan Safran Foer has recently noted, now stands not for Kentucky Fried Chicken, but for nothing – it is just K.F.C.). There is also a Chicken ‘heaven’, ‘paradise’ or ‘cottage’ – I could check the name by walking a 100 yards down my street, then write pages on the trickeries and nuances of their shudderingly awful and misleading brand name and happy-chick logo, but they just don’t deserve the effort. In a moment of weakness – I think it might have been my birthday – I called in there for a veggie burger and chips. It wasn’t very nice. At 4am I was feverishly vomiting the lot back up.
On another morning I woke up to find a rib on my balcony. I did not check but I don’t think it was a human rib. It was cut cleanly and there was nothing on it. A machine could not have removed the meat from this bone more efficiently. I live several floors up so I don’t think a drunken (or sober) passer-by could have managed the throw. It must have come from the sky. But from where? How far had it travelled? Where was the rest of its body? Dispersed throughout the take-aways of Europe? In a freezer somewhere? Buried and forgotten by some dog in a suburban garden? Eaten?
John Clare was fluent in the exploration and the sinewy complexities of our relationship with the natural world. This is from ‘The Badger’
The dogs are clapped and urged to join the fray’
The badger turns and drives them all away.
Though scarcely half as big, demure and small,
He fights with dogs for hours and beats them all.
He tries to reach the woods, and awkward race,
But sticks and cudgels quickly stop the chase.
He turns again and drives the noisy crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud.
He drives away and beats them every one,
And then they loose them all and set them on.
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd again;
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and crackles, groans, and dies.
There are numerous ways that this poem may be read: as a metaphor for man’s troubled relationship with Christ, as metonym for Clare himself and his treatment by society or even in the lunatic asylum that he spent much of his later life, or is the badger a synecdoche for nature itself? All of these readings are productive, but the final one is a brutally pessimistic vision of what happens when civilization and nature meet. In this reading the choice of the badger is an apt one because its suffering is of no use. Foxes kill chickens. Wolves kill sheep. The powers of nature (dogs, sticks and foxes) are rallied against the badger but for no reason beyond that of the baiters’ savage fun. The poem holds up a mirror to sanity and civilization and in any of the readings I have suggested, we are always the baiters.
For John Berger, the companionship that we once had with animals is quickly being lost. Mechanization, profit, and interference in the food chain have all become a normal part of what we understand as industrialized animal agriculture. We pay for it with health scares and pandemics like BSE and H1N1, among others. Each exposes the tenderness of what to me at least – and to many others I’m sure – is a clear dividing line of opposition. Nature surely should support civilization, not be plundered, consumed and destroyed by it. If the foundations are destroyed what chance is there for the structures it supports?
In History and Class Consciousness, Georg Lukacs suggested that nature ‘acknowledges the meaning of what has grown organically, […] in contrast to the artificial structures of human civilization. At the same time, it can be understood as that aspect of human inwardness which has remained natural, or at least tends or longs to become natural once more.’ For Berger, here, ‘the life of a wild animal becomes an ideal, an ideal internalised as a feeling surrounding a repressed desire.’ But this desire does not need to be either repressed or a hopeless ideal. In Berger’s terms it is unattainable, but there is more than the either/or option than he suggests. The desire to return to nature is knowingly unattainable and fleeting, just as the blissful satisfaction of a drink of chilled water after a long run is also only a fleeting pleasure, but the pleasure brings with it real and necessary benefits to the body that have a far greater longevity than the few moments of satiation that they delivered.
The desire to return to nature may be a hopeless ideal, but it is still one that we can turn to.
For me, Du Maurier’s birds are a fervid and omnipresent reminder of our uncanny relationship with modernity, we are not at home in its skin – we should be in ours. They are a reminder too of our inability to leave behind the natural world, and perhaps the story is an exercise in our guilt at taking possession of it so fiercely. These are after all, as Marzluff suspects, things able to ‘make and use tools’, forecast the future, understand other animals and learn from them. They are capable of ‘advanced cognitive tasks’.
Today, slowing for the last hundred yards before home, I readied myself to negotiate whatever ‘litter’ might be waiting for me. Turning the corner I saw two pigeons fight as they pecked and tossed a dirty, gnawed chicken bone.