The Shock of Holy Dread

Birdsong is meant – really and truly – for the birds. No irony intended.

Straightaway, let me admit: nature mysticism is not my native habitat. Operatic confessions of communion with nature leave me unmoved. Wishful interpretations of the more agreeable aspects of the material world strike me as little more than sublimated superstition, entry points for idolatry.

“Listen to Our Singing Planet,” a recent essay by Mary Colwell in The Tablet, reminded me how tiresome is the frayed Romanticism, inter alia, of Laudato Sí. Equally tedious is the appropriation of Francis of Assisi – the morning star of sentimental Greens – for purposes to which the man himself, were he living today, might not assent. The encyclical and the saint, both curtsied to here, are pretexts for the cult of environmentalism that moves Catholic dilettanti to flights of poesy.

But let me stay with the essay. Under house arrest by the latest virus, the Tablet author has time now to follow the “harmonious score” of the earth – composed, as you might guess, by birds.

There Will Be a Party in the Forest by Neils Wivel, 1935 [from a Danish children’s book]
No more skylark, please.

Their “cadences of joy” pipe from every limb and branch. Ms. Colwell melts as she hears “the liquid-gold song of the blackbird.” Listening to the arias of a wren, she finds herself “in sympathy with the universe.” The “choir of seraphs” in her “global orchestra” brims with a field-guide list of performing species, but not – thank goodness! – the skylark. A welcome omission. That “bird that never wert” was only barely an egg-laying, feathered vertebrate. Its existence was a prompt to what Thomas Hardy hailed as Shelley’s “ecstatic heights in thought and rhyme.”

In other words, it is ultimately literature – Art, if you prefer – that preempts nature as an object of elated reverie. Ms. Colwell writes as someone less interested in birds than in the charm of her own sensitivity to them. Ah, so lovely those belletristic leanings!

If birds were the true object of her attention, their concrete reality would put brakes on the anthropomorphism running at full throttle in the essay. She would admit that the sweet sounds she hears in the morning are not meant for human ears. Rather, they are self-assertive announcements from one bird – almost always male – to his neighbors.

Songbirds (chose your favorite vocalist) sing to establish their territory. They declare their rights to the spot they have marked for themselves: “This is mine! Stay away!” Pretty macho stuff.

Skua Gulls Fighting Over Some Blubber, 1911 [From the final expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Cape Adare, Antarctica)
Breeding potential prompts the nightingale.

Our bird (again, a male) uses his vocal range to display his desirability to females. All that birdsong stirring rhapsodies in humans is an acoustic version of the splendor of a male peacock’s tail: “Look at me! See how fit I am!”

A warbler on the make has to sing better to get ahead in the mating game: “Listen! I’m your man!” Breeding potential prompts the nightingale. Like all other males in Colwell’s “global orchestra,” that night-singing metaphor for beauty, love, and poetry, performs for the sake of property and pairing.

Exceptions to male-only soloists are rare. Among the few is a certain strain of African shrikes who defend their claim with male-female duets. (Unlike the individual piano concertos of Clara and Robert Schumann, Mr. & Mrs. Shrike are considered equally tuneful.) So it is safe to say that bird song is a vigorous expression of male dominance – a natural, sustainable product of avian patriarchy. An ungainly thought comes to mind: testosterone rules the roost.

Lady Concert by Master of the Female Half-lengths, c. 1530 [Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg]
Consolation and connection.

It is easy to poeticize the natural world when it comes to us filtered through windows. A window is the urbanite’s perch. Colwell croons: “In the middle of the sadness of the coronavirus pandemic and the silence of the lock-down, city-dwellers have found consolation and connection in the sound of birdsong.”

How might that apply to the high-pitched alarms of three songbirds that I saw racing after a hawk?  The triumphant predator had just stolen a nestling from their roost in a nearby Douglas fir. I watched the angry little posse follow the thief into a pine canopy across the pond and disappear. Doubtless, it ended poorly for the baby bird, Hardy’s “little ball of feather and bone.”

Eagles Attacking Chickens by Melchior de Hondecoeter, 1673 [Louvre, Paris]
Red in tooth and claw.

One day last week, I drove home past a dead squirrel on the road near my driveway. A couple of ravens were picking at the remains. It was a lively dinner party, with much croaking and cawing. In concert terms, you could call it an accidental composition, more John Cage than Colwell’s “harmonious score of the planet.”

Suddenly the music stopped. Overhead I caught a quick glimpse of a large, broad-winged black raptor – a local buzzard? a turkey vulture? – banking toward the road. Why the abrupt silence? I walked downhill past the trees to get a closer look. Every bird was gone. So was the squirrel. Nothing was left except a stain on the asphalt. The invader had scooped up the entire carcass and flown off with it.

Birds with a taste for carrion are not likely to be found among the panoply of lyrical consolations. If we love nature as much as we love the sound of ourselves proclaiming it, we would be awestruck by those aspects of nature that refuse to please us.

The natural world is as fearsome as it is wondrous. The full, undivided drama of creation includes even those things that repel, threaten, or frighten us. Yet we aestheticize selected features that delight us while we turn eyes away from the rest. In that way, we shield ourselves from the shock of holy dread.

Killing a Bird from cartoons by Willem Tons, 16th century [detail in a Brussels tapestry]

Maureen Mullarkey is a painter and a critic. A member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA), her essays on art and its intersection with religion and politics have appeared in various publications. Currently, she is a senior contributor to The Federalist and keeper of a weblog titled Studio Matters. She is represented by George Billis Gallery, NYC. Follow her on Twitter, @mmletters.