Sir John Lister-Kaye on tawny owls and willow warblers

November 25, 2015 at 4:11 pm (books, Nature, Scotland)

Gods Throughout my reading of Gods of the Morning, I’ve been astonished over and over again by Lister-Kaye’s gorgeous descriptions:

Like molten gold from a crucible, the first touch of sun spilled in from the east, from the glistening horizon of the Moray Firth, so bright that I couldn’t look at it, flooding its winter fire up the river, right past me and on up the valley. The river trailed below me, like a silk pashmina thrown down by an untidy teenager. Strands of mist over the water were fired with yellow flame, as though part of some mysterious ritual immolation. The new-born light raked the steep glen sides, floodlighting every rocky prominence and daubing deep craters of black shadow so that the familiar shape of the land vanished before my eyes. I was in a wonderland, strange to me and a little unnerving. The dogs sat uncharacteristically silent at my feet, noses lifting to test the air, but stilled as though they, too, could sense the moment.

And yet, even in the midst of all this beauty, there appear certain disturbing vignettes. One concerns an almost sacrilegious act committed by Lister-Kaye when he was eleven years old.

tawny owl

Tawny owl

His grandfather had shown him the customary roosting place of a tawny owl in a yew tree on the family property. Earlier that year, young John had been gifted with an air rifle:

It was the most exciting birthday gift I had ever received. In the short space of a birthday afternoon I became Davy Crockett, Kit Carson and the Lone Ranger all rolled into one ill-disciplined puberulous youth bursting to tangle with danger and adventure.

You can probably guess what happened next:

The head-hanging truth that still torments my soul is that when no one was looking I crept out and shot that owl. For a moment it seemed not to move; then it tipped forward and fell like a rag at my feet. I picked it up, hot and floppy in my hands. Its cinnamon and cream mottled plumage was as soft and silky as Angora fleece. One owl, one boy, one gun. Two burst hearts, one with lead, the other with guilt. I had never held a tawny owl before and its lifeless beauty hit me in a withering avalanche of instantaneous remorse and shame. I have never forgotten it and never forgiven myself. To this day I ask myself why I did it.

The very definition of remorse.

Several works came to mind when I read this passage. Foremost among them, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

‘God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus!—
Why look’st thou so?’—With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.
……………………………………
And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!
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Surely there is no more dramatic and meaningful moment in life than when you realize that an action you’ve taken – whatever the reason  – is profoundly, morally wrong. Almost always that action is an irreparable transgression, against God, nature, or one’s fellow human beings. Sometimes that action involves the taking of a life. In a chapter in A Sand County Almanac entitled “Thinking Like a Mountain,” the great conservationist Aldo Leopold recounts such a moment in his own life:

We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

John Lister-Kaye’s sense of wonder at the nesting and migratory habits of birds – indeed, at their very existence – shines throughout in Gods of the Morning.

A willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus – the cascading leaf-watcher) is an unexceptional little bird, often our first summer migrant, an arrival announced by the male birds rendering a rippling, descending peal of pure notes tinged with mild complaint, but as pretty as a summer waterfall. It’s a refrain that rings through the spring woods, repeating over and over again, lifting to a brief, pleading crescendo, then slowing as it falls and, diminuendo, fades away at the end. It seems to be calling out, ‘Now that I’ve arrived, what am I going to do?’
…………………………………………..
Like the blackcap, it resides in that large family of typical warblers that come and go every summer without any fuss, unnoticed except by ornithologs like me and a few thousand binocular-toting others to whom these tiny creatures assume an importance far greater than their size. If they’ve heard of a willow warbler at all, the vast generality of people don’t know that it has just completed a global marathon, back from wintering in southern Africa, a migration of three thousand miles of skimming arid plains, dodging desert sandstorms and leap-frogging seas and mountains, and they probably wouldn’t care much either. ‘All little brown birds are the same to me,’ I’m told, over and over again. But not to me: for me they all carry meaning and I thirst to know more. Sylviidae, the family.

I’m here to tell you, it takes a rapturous devotion like Lister-Kaye’s to keep all this warbler lore straight! But if anyone can do it, he can.

Willow Warbler

Willow warbler

Reading this skilled  and eloquent observer’s descriptions of his almost mystical encounters with avian  species put me in mind of a piece I read some years ago: Loren Eiseley‘s “The Judgment of Birds.” There’s a bit in this essay about a close encounter with a crow that has remained vivid in my imagination:

This crow lives near my house, and though I have never injured him, he takes   good care to stay up in the very highest trees and, in general, to avoid humanity.

His world begins at about the limit of my eyesight.

On the particular morning when this episode occurred, the whole countryside    was buried in one of the thickest fogs in years. The ceiling was absolutely zero. All    planes were grounded, and even a pedestrian could hardly see his outstretched hand before him.

I was groping across a field in the general direction of the railroad station,    following a dimly outlined path. Suddenly out of the fog, at about the level of my   eyes, and so closely that I flinched, there flashed a pair of immense black wings and a huge beak. The whole bird rushed over my head with a frantic cawing outcry of such hideous terror as I have never heard in a crow’s voice before and never expect to hear again.

He was lost and startled, I thought, as I recovered my poise. He ought not to have flown out in this fog. He’d knock his silly brains out.

All afternoon that great awkward cry rang in my head. Merely being lost in a fog   seemed scarcely to account for it—especially in a tough, intelligent old bandit such as I knew that particular crow to be. I even looked once in the mirror to see what it might  be about me that had so revolted him that he had cried out in protest to the very stones.

Finally, as I worked my way homeward along the path, the solution came to me.

It should have been clear before. The borders of our worlds had shifted. It was the fog that had done it. That crow, and I knew him well, never under normal circumstances flew low near men. He had been lost all right, but it was more than that.

He had thought he was high up, and when he encountered me looming gigantically through the fog, he had perceived a ghastly and, to the crow mind, unnatural sight.

He had seen a man walking on air, desecrating the very heart of the crow   kingdom, a harbinger of the most profound evil a crow mind could conceive of—air- walking men. The encounter, he must have thought, had taken place a hundred feet over the roofs.

********************************

 At the conclusion of Coleridge’s poem, the mariner offers this moral:

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
 He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.
 A simple, almost simplistic homily – and yet what profundity lies therein! Away up in his Scottish Highland fastness, Sir John Lister-Kaye has been living this creed every day for decades.
Sir John Lister-Kaye

Sir John Lister-Kaye

2 Comments

  1. navasolanature said,

    What a wonderful post on such a character. I love the willow warbler observations. What a love and such insight into nature.

  2. kdwisni said,

    Eloquent post, Roberta. Thank you. If only the extremists (of any stripe) would grasp the enormity of extinguishing “the green fire.”

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