Shell and Feather—songbirds in the line of fire
January 24 | 2024
Walking on eggshells … We all know the idiom—and how an egg, …
January 24 | 2024
Walking on eggshells … We all know the idiom—and how an egg, near synonymous with fragility, isn’t made to endure. For me, then, this wooden box of unhatched birds’ eggs, gathered more than a century ago on the battleground of Flanders Fields, brings to mind the pugnacity of sallies and wingbeats and the feathering of nests among the fallen dead.
Information about the birds’ eggs is scant, their story largely unknown. They were collected in Ploegsteert, Belgium—nicknamed by the British troops “Plugstreet”—in May 1915, near to the firing line with its trenches and parapets. Now the box is conserved in a small museum in southwestern England: 31 eggs in total, 15 pairs nestled in protective moss, plus, in a lone compartment, a solitary egg. Although I’m no expert in oology, the study of birds’ eggs, I can venture an educated guess about some of the field and woodland species represented here: blackbird and robin, chaffinch and tree sparrow, all of the European or Eurasian variety. Perhaps even yellowhammer or skylark.
More intriguing to me, though, is the why of the eggs’ rescue from the battlefield. Was their removal an act of collecting for an amateur naturalist? An effort to secure a keepsake for a child or a sweetheart back home? An attempt to salvage the unborn chicks, to oversee their hatching in a shelter removed from combat? Or a memory prompt for the future, recalling a moment of serenity in wartime? And did the person who collected them, in all probability a boy or man, himself survive?
Anyone who’s taken part in an egg and spoon race has deferred to the fragility of an egg. Whoever removed these birds’ eggs from the line of fire thus demonstrated care and agility in the face of horror and destruction. He, or she, recognized their worth.
Only rarely do we hear about the impacts of war on species other than our own. Recent research from the Conflict and Environment Observatory suggests how about 16 million animals played a role in the First World War, with approximately 484,143 horses, mules, camels, and bullocks having lost their lives serving alongside the British troops. Birds and other wildlife in war zones experience habitat destruction and pollution, food shortages, random cruelty, and heightened risk of both disease and death. In Ypres, just 15 kilometres north of Ploegsteert, the remembrance of World War One persists in the soil some hundred years after battle—in elevated levels of copper and lead, both toxic to birds.
A recent diary entry from a writer in Gaza notes that “in hard times, being kind is one of the most difficult things to do.” Rescuing the eggs more than a century ago was such a gesture—an act of caring in a time of brutality. The fact that they never hatched, however troubling, has allowed them to serve as messengers, reminding us of the breadth and tenacity of life and the will to perpetuate it, even in the line of fire.
October 11 | 2023
For the e-readers among you, I’m excited to announce that my award-winning memoir and family history is now available in a 2nd edition. This new e-book version of The Smallest Objective introduces family photos, along with expanded material about Jockey Fleming, my great-uncle and a notorious rogue and raconteur of mid-century Montreal. The journalist Al Palmer, author of Montreal Confidential, wrote of Jockey: “Visiting celebrities vie for the honour of inviting him to dinner. He knows—and this is important—and keeps more secrets of the underworld than any ten men.”
The 2nd edition is available here. I’m hoping you enjoy it.
May 1 | 2023
May Day, a celebration of spring, marks the appearance in The Razor of my short story “How a Tall Man Sat on a Small Chair.” As the literary magazine of Gotham Writers’ Workshop, the largest adult-education writing school in the United States, The Razor is endowed with many wonderful resources. In particular, the editors commission an audio version of each story, as well as an accompanying illustration, both by professional artists. I’m especially grateful to audio narrator and actor Meliora Dockery and artist Gerard Pefung for their inventive and playful interpretations of “How a Tall Man Sat on a Small Chair.”
April 10 | 2023
I’m delighted to announce today’s publication in Terrain magazine of my illustrated essay “Its Petrified Imprint”: <https://www.terrain.org/2023/nonfiction/its-petrified-imprint/>
The essay details my efforts to glimpse my paternal grandfather, Dr. Simon Kirsch (above), by means of the Lithuanian landscapes characterizing his early childhood. As some of you will know from my memoir and family history, The Smallest Objective, Simon immigrated to Montreal at the age of six, having spent his early years in the Jewish settlement of Vilkomir, Lithuania. His profession of botany originated, perhaps, in the country of his birth—a country abounding in pristine forests and the last nation in Europe to abandon pagan rites.
The lantern slide shown here was one that Simon used when teaching at McGill University in Montreal. It consists of a cross-section of a beech tree magnified by 25 times and would have been viewed through a magic lantern, the earliest form of a slide projector. Like Simon himself, the beech is a species to be found both in Europe and North America.
March 17 | 2023
I was lucky enough recently to visit Dublin, including the reconstructed studio of maverick painter Francis Bacon. When Bacon died in 1992, his heir arranged for the artist’s London studio and its contents to be dismantled and reassembled in Dublin, where Bacon was born. Inevitably, the word that comes to mind upon first glimpse of the artist’s space is mess—or, more charitably, unchecked exuberance.
Bacon’s studio is strewn with newspaper clippings, paint brushes and tins, canvases, magazines, a tarnished mirror, books stacked precariously, walls splattered with paint, naked light bulbs, even a pair of corduroy trousers. Although the arrangement evolved organically over the years according to the artist’s creative impulses and material needs, the team dismantling and reassembling the studio treated it as a fixed piece, numbering each item and documenting its precise position in the whole.
I began to wonder whether any writer of renown could rival Francis Bacon in the density and accretion of debris and objects in a work space. After much searching—many authors who’ve volunteered glimpses of their work rooms appear to be scrupulously tidy or have cleared up in advance—I happened upon Russell Hoban.
Like Bacon, Hoban was born in one place, Lansdale, Pennsylvania, and concluded his life and career elsewhere, in London, England. (As I set their names side by side, I notice, too, that the pair’s surnames are near anagrams, with a matching four letters out of five.) Hoban said of his writer’s room in a Guardian interview dated November 9, 2007:
This room is composed of tottering stacks and shaky heaps of DVDs and videos, bulging shelves of books, slithery carpets of undiscarded draft pages, and delicately balanced objects of various weight and fragility poised to fall on my head. I have often been buried under DVD slides and video-topplings and once the TV fell on me while I was trying to squeeze between it and a precarious stack.
Are the surrounds of an artist’s space random and superfluous? Inspiring and essential? Russell Hoban supplied a ready answer. The author of the children’s book The Mouse and His Child, along with the science fiction classic Riddley Walker, described the clutter in his writer’s room as no less than his “exobrain.”
The above image suggests the kinds of items found in both artists’ spaces.
February 1 | 2023
February in the Northern Hemisphere is a chill month, brittle and unripe. Yet it’s also by way of Valentine’s Day a celebration of flowers—bouquets as eloquent as they are lovely.
The language of flowers—illustrated catalogues of their meanings and sentimental associations—became popular in book form during the Victorian era in England, France, the US, and Canada. The first literary mention in English, however, was some 100 years earlier by Christopher Smart in his exuberant and sprawling poem “Jubilate Agno”:
For flowers are good both for the living and the dead.
For there is a language of flowers.
For there is a sound reasoning upon all flowers.
For elegant phrases are nothing but flowers.
—Fragment 3, Part B, c. 1759–63
The array of blossoms shown here were plucked from the gardens of 17th-century Ham House on the River Thames in Richmond, England. As transitory as an elegant phrase, each bloom has acquired meanings and associations harking back not merely to the Victorian era but to antiquity and traditions of thought in ancient China, Japan, Turkey, Greece, and Rome.
If these flowers could speak, here’s a whisper of what they might tell us of themselves:
Borage (blue, lower left): Courage, romantic longing, and purging of melancholy, especially when consumed with wine
Cornflower aka Bachelor Button (blue, centre left): patience, hope for love, once worn by young men to indicate they were eligible
Heartsease aka Johnny Jump Up (purple, yellow, and white, upper left): peace of mind, love, three colours interpreted as the Holy Trinity
Marigold (shades of orange, lower left): power, passion, optimism, renewal, vitality, occasionally grief
Nasturtium (shades of orange, upper right): victory, patriotism, loyalty, strength
Nonetheless it’s the rose (pink, centre right) that’s most closely associated with Valentine’s Day. Roses are inseparable, it seems, from love, romance, and beauty. In one telling, red roses originated when Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, ran to Adonis, her mortal lover who’d been fatally wounded by a wild boar. In her haste to save Adonis, Aphrodite pricked her foot on the thorn of a white rose, staining the blossom with her blood.
December 5 | 2022
As Montreal, city of my birth, prepares to host Cop15, I’m engrossed in a celebration of nature and place written more than a half century ago by a woman for whom a few acres in northern Ontario inspired a lifetime of words. Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, author of The Lovely and the Wild, immigrated from Sweden to Canada in 1927 and years later began searching for a piece of land where she “could live and take root.”
Louise considered her discovery and acquisition of her property at Pimisi Bay, 320 km northwest of Ottawa, to be “a dream come true.” But the fulfilment of her dream meant, for this Swedish aristocrat, a life of simplicity and physical hardship as the price for her intimacy with the natural world. Her dream, once realized, thus turned out to be missing “part of the original ingredients,” and yet Louise found that the reality of her life was “acceptable without them.”
Over the decades, Louise mourned the decline of bird life in her small patch of land around Pimisi Bay. Although she undoubtedly would have supported Cop15, the UN biodiversity conference to halt and reverse nature loss, Louise wasn’t by orientation a policy maker. Instead, her contribution entailed observing and recording every rock and vernal pool and woodpecker snag, every white pine and Indian Pipe and itinerant evening grosbeak in the surroundings of her home. Louise was in essence a Woman, Watching, the title of Merilyn Simonds’s beautiful and expansive new book about the life and literary output of Louise de Kiriline Lawrence.
It was Simonds’s tribute that prompted me to seek out a vintage copy of The Lovely and the Wild with its original dust jacket (shown above). I’m by no means the first reader of this copy still bearing the card pocket from Parish Memorial Library in Albuquerque. But I am not the least admiring, nor will I be the last to acknowledge the stubborn relevance of The Lovely and the Wild.
October 14 | 2022
Among the many vintage photos of my mother (bottom right), I return time and again to this one, where Rene Rutenberg, young and spontaneous, can’t stop smiling. The year, I’m guessing, is about 1950, the event depicted, perhaps a quiz night or a talent show. Nor can I be certain whether my mother and her contemporaries are spectators or spectacles. In a related and more expansive photo, a row of heads is to be seen facing the three young women, as though the trio themselves were the object of attention. Photos, like fancy dress, conceal as much as they reveal.
With Halloween imminent and Oktoberfest receding, talk of dressing up seems timely. At its most risqué or most nefarious, dressing up can be an attempt to hide from or altogether escape one’s identity. And yet the three women here appear in costume but not in disguise.
Does dressing up conceal who we are or reveal our aspirations? The young woman on the left wears a Tyrolean or Alpine hat traditional for men in lederhosen. A choice in the spirit of play? In the middle, we note the giggler in the spaghetti-hair wig. The invocation of a brunette Rapunzel? And then there’s my mother in her blonde wig—a pure caprice or a desire to change hair colour? She later did so, briefly, in her courtship with my father, becoming for a single year before marriage and motherhood a peroxide blonde.
September 16 | 2022
For most of us, seeds are a starting point, the venture capital we invest in our farms and gardens. Yet for the American goldfinch, last of the summer breeders, seeds are an end in themselves. The uncompromising vegetarians of the avian world, goldfinches postpone nesting until mid-summer, when thistle, milkweed, sunflower, and aster promise a banquet for their young.
It’s the female goldfinch that builds the nest, as elaborated by the 19th-century writer and naturalist Catharine Parr Traill in her book Pearls and Pebbles: The female bird “selects or rejects this or that . . . wool that the thorns and bushes have caught from the sheep and lambs; hair that cow or horse has let fall; grey lichens picked from a wall, and tender green moss from a fallen tree. Taking here a bit and there a morsel, to give strength or elasticity, needful warmth or softness, she weaves all together according to the family pattern.”
If goldfinches count among the last to nest and breed, those that migrate are also among the last to leave. Scientists have observed the birds mulling a crossing over a body of water, then abruptly losing their nerve and returning to the shoreline. When they do eventually summon up the will to go, the males, as depicted on this letter box in their breeding colours, will have begun to fade. The last chance to admire their luminous yellow, a distillation of the summer sun, is in September.
August 15 | 2022
In summer 2013, almost a decade ago, when George Clooney finished it with Stacey Keibler and Edward Snowden announced himself as the leaker of NSA documents, I travelled to Lithuania. I didn’t know at the time that the Baltic country—and the Suwalki Gap in particular—would become a focal point in a once-unimaginable conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The motivation for my travel, to explore my extensive family past in Lithuania, was entirely personal.
Throughout my weeks in Lithuania, I was to become engrossed in many facets of the country beyond my preconceived itinerary. Among the most memorable was my random encounter with the fanciful “Republic of Užupis” conceived by artists within a neighbourhood of Vilnius and, not least, its extraordinary Constitution. Drafted in 1998, the Constitution remains prescient nearly 25 years later. It expresses the accumulated wisdom of a community governed not only by customary law, but also by “inspirational examples, dreams, insights, mythologies.”
The first article, “Everyone has the right to live by the River Vilnele, and the River Vilnele has the right to flow by everyone,” anticipated the legal personhood of the Muteshekau Shipu (or Magpie River) in Québec, granted in 2021 and accompanied by nine rights. Article 35, “No one has the right to make another person guilty,” remains a useful precept in our era of polarization and widespread recriminations. Ditto for Article 4, “Everyone has the right to make mistakes.”
Not a few of the articles appeal for their playfulness: for instance, Article 8, “Everyone has the right to be undistinguished and unknown,” or Article 10, “Everyone has the right to love and take care of the cat.” One of my favourite articles, number 27, strikes me as at once simple, ambiguous, and profound: “Everyone shall remember their name.”