For the birds

For the birds blog

The AGM of the American Acclimatization Society (A5 ink and coloured pencil 2019)

On one of those leisurely disengaged days between Christmas and New Year – you know, you’ve just finished an extended breakfast at around 11 and have no particular plans for the day – a few of us started discussing murmurations of starlings. I wondered aloud if starlings were common in the U.S. and it transpires that they are, all thanks to the American Acclimatization Society and especially a man called Eugene Schieffelin.

It is said, though not proven, that Eugene insisted that as an aesthetic goal the organization should introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare (of whom Eugene was an avid admirer). Whether you think Eugene was a hero or a villain depends on your view of Victorian scientists playing God. One could argue that if the Deity had wanted there to be starlings in North America, He, above all, was well-placed to put them there. Whether it would be wise to wait for a rather obsessive New York pharmacist to get the itch seems rather hit and miss to me.

It’s usually the case that if you introduce a foreign species into an ecosystem things start to go wrong in a Sorcerer’s Apprentice kind of way. Sure enough, the 100 or so starlings that the Society let go in Central Park now number over 200 million across North America. They have endangered other native species competing for nesting places and food – especially the delightfully-named sapsucker – and have even been blamed for the spread of English ivy throughout the continent. In 2007 the San Francisco Chronicle called Eugene’s Society “the canonic cautionary tale of biological pollution.” That’s a high price to pay even for some pretty spectacular murmurations out west.

It’s not recorded whether the members of the AAS dressed up in comedy bird beaks, indulged in avian puns and got up to the sort of high jinks  pictured above, but I like to think they did. You had to make your own entertainment in those days, after all. They strike me as an idealistic, sentimental and innocent bunch, but as history as demonstrated time and again, those are probably the most dangerous people of all.

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Listen

Listening (A2 charcoal 2017)

It’s nightingale time in Eastern England.

These shy creatures with their beautiful music are heard throughout the month of May, filling the evening woodlands with their magical song. I’ll never forget one springtime when my former partner and I took my daughter out into the woods of Snape Warren as the light began to fade. We wandered quietly through the trees for some time. Just when we thought there was nothing to hear, there was that unique music floating around us in the growing darkness.

Now there is a fashion for accompanying the nightingale. Suddenly, this lovely sound which has charmed poets and composers for centuries is no longer complete unless it can be used as a background for someone mooing along with a folk song or playing the flute or plucking a guitar. If there’s a better definition of gilding the lily, I can’t think of it at the moment.

The voice I hear this passing night was heard
         In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
         Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
                She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
                        The same that oft-times hath
         Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
                Of perilous seas…
Dear old Keats was happy just to listen and, of course, contemplate Death. He found beauty and inspiration in its song and in the fleeting nature of its presence:
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
         Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
                Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
                        In the next valley-glades:
         Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
                Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
May I ask that if you feel the need to sing Spencer the Rover or play your pan-pipes along with a nightingale, that you use one of the many recordings of this bird and do so in your own home?

Let the rest of us just listen, in a twilight coppice, to that magical sound that inspired the likes of John Keats.

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Birds

Birds blog

Birds (A5 mixed media on a Moleskine sketchbook 2016)

Something pretty grim must have taken place in our garden in the early hours of Saturday morning.

When we went outside to breakfast in the pale sunshine of an English summer morning, we found a perfect young female blackbird dead on the lawn. A few metres away were the scattered feathers of a male with more under the mulberry tree. Who was responsible for this carnage? A sparrowhawk? One of the evil cats that stalk our quiet road?

For me the blackbird’s song is the sound of summer. That melodic trilling they do when seeking a mate is so evocative of warm summer evenings, of peace after a long day, of lying in bed as a child while it’s still light outside. To see a dead blackbird with its song forever stilled is heart-breaking.

Here’s my contribution to Draw-a-Bird Day, which happens every month on the 8th. One month I’ll draw a ‘proper’ bird – mine always seem unconvincing, like they’re made out of painted concrete or something – but here are some that I did to test a Moleskine storyboard notebook.

‘Angry crow’ is almost tautologous: have you ever seen a crow that isn’t highly annoyed about something or other? The Scribble Bird was drawn with one of those multi-coloured pencils you see in museums (Quentin Blake actually does beautiful drawings with those things). Road Kill is self-explanatory and the Gulls owe something to my new hero, Felix Scheinberger, who wrote a whole textbook on illustration in German themed around birds.

I hope you’re as happy as a seagull with a stolen chip.

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Grief is the thing with feathers

Thing with Features blog

Grief is the thing with feathers (30cms x 40cms charcoal and pastel 2016)

Recently I read Max Porter’s wonderful work of fiction, Grief is the Thing with Feathers. It concerns the efforts of a Ted Hughes scholar and his two young sons to come to terms with the death of their wife and mother. Grief is personified by a crow.

I was inspired to draw this when touched, gently,  by a grief of my own. Grief doesn’t have to be about a death: it can be about a loss of a friendship or love, even about a place or the passing of time. Just as one can be lonely in a crowd one can feel grief when surrounded by life.

I covered a piece of paper with charcoal and soft pastel dust and worked it in with my fingers (wonderful!). I then started to carve the drawing out of the darkness with an eraser, white pastel and a black charcoal pencil. Soon the image of the Hughes scholar and his grief emerged.

Interestingly the Emily Dickinson poem, from which the title of this wonderful piece of writing is taken, begins:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all …

Do read Max Porter’s book. Its 120 widely-spaced pages contain every emotion you can think of and the crow is surely one of fiction’s great comic characters.