Years ago, in a chapter concerning eyes in a book of Patagonian memories, I spoke of the unpleasant sensations produced in me by the sight of stuffed birds. Not bird skins in the drawers of a cabinet, it will be understood, these being indispensable to the ornithologist, and very useful to the larger class of persons who without being ornithologists yet take an intelligent interest in birds. The unpleasantness was at the sight of skins stuffed with wool and set up on their legs in imitation of the living bird, sometimes (oh, mockery!) in their "natural surroundings." These "surroundings" are as a rule constructed or composed of a few handfuls of earth to form the floor of the glass case—sand, rock, clay, chalk, or gravel; whatever the material may be it invariably has, like all "matter out of place," a grimy and depressing appearance. On the floor are planted grasses, sedges, and miniature bushes, made of tin or zinc and then dipped in a bucket of green paint. In the chapter referred to it was said, "When the eye closes in death, the bird, except to the naturalist, becomes a mere bundle of dead feathers; crystal globes may be put into the empty sockets, and a bold life-imitating attitude given to the stuffed specimen, but the vitreous orbs shoot forth no life-like glances: the 'passion and the life whose fountains are within' have vanished, and the best work of the taxidermist, who has given a life to his bastard art, produces in the mind only sensations of irritation and disgust."
That, in the last clause, was wrongly writ. It should have been my mind, and the minds of those who, knowing living birds intimately as I do, have the same feeling about them.
This, then, being my feeling about stuffed birds, set up in their "natural surroundings," I very naturally avoid the places where they are exhibited. At Brighton, for instance, on many occasions when I have visited and stayed in that town, there was no inclination to see the Booth Collection, which is supposed to be an ideal collection of British birds; and we know it was the life-work of a zealous ornithologist who was also a wealthy man, and who spared no pains to make it perfect of its kind. About eighteen months ago I passed a night in the house of a friend close to the Dyke Road, and next morning, having a couple of hours to get rid of, I strolled into the museum. It was painfully disappointing, for though no actual pleasure had been expected, the distress experienced was more than I had bargained for. It happened that a short time before, I had been watching the living Dartford warbler, at a time when the sight of this small elusive creature is loveliest, for not only was the bird in his brightest feathers, but his surroundings were then most perfect—
The whin was frankincense and flame.
His appearance, as I saw him then and on many other occasions in the furze-flowering season, is fully described in a chapter in this book; but on this particular occasion while watching my bird I saw it in a new and unexpected aspect, and in my surprise and delight I exclaimed mentally, "Now I have seen the furze wren at his very best!"
It was perhaps a very rare thing—one of those effects of light on plumage which we are accustomed to see in birds that have glossed metallic feathers, and, more rarely, in other kinds. Thus the turtle-dove when flying from the spectator with a strong sunlight on its upper plumage, sometimes at a distance of two to three hundred yards, appears of a shining whiteness.
I had been watching the birds for a couple of hours, sitting quite still on a tuft of heather among the furze-bushes, and at intervals they came to me, impelled by curiosity and solicitude, their nests being near, but, ever restless, they would never remain more than a few seconds at a time in sight. The prettiest and the boldest was a male, and it was this bird that in the end flew to a bush within twelve yards of where I sat, and perching on a spray about on a level with my eyes exhibited himself to me in his characteristic manner, the long tail raised, crest erect, crimson eye sparkling, and throat puffed out with his little scolding notes. But his colour was no longer that of the furze wren: seen at a distance the upper plumage always appears slaty-black; near at hand it is of a deep slaty-brown; now it was dark, sprinkled or frosted over with a delicate greyish-white, the white of oxidised silver; and this rare and beautiful appearance continued for a space of about twenty seconds; but no sooner did he flit to another spray than it vanished, and he was once more the slaty-brown little bird with a chestnut-red breast.
It is unlikely that I shall ever again see the furze wren in this aspect, with a curious splendour wrought by the sunlight in the dark but semi-translucent delicate feathers of his mantle; but its image is in the mind, and, with a thousand others equally beautiful, remains to me a permanent possession.
As I went in to see the famous Booth Collection, a thought of the bird I have just described came into my mind; and glancing round the big long room with shelves crowded with stuffed birds, like the crowded shelves of a shop, to see where the Dartford warblers were, I went straight to the case and saw a group of them fastened to a furze-bush, the specimens twisted by the stuffer into a variety of attitudes—ancient, dusty, dead little birds, painful to look at—a libel on nature and an insult to a man's intelligence.
It was a relief to go from this case to the others, which were not of the same degree of badness, but all, like the furze wrens, were in their natural surroundings—the pebbles, bit of turf, painted leaves, and what not, and, finally, a view of the wide world beyond, the green earth and the blue sky, all painted on the little square of deal or canvas which formed the back of the glass case.
Listening to the talk of other visitors who were making the round of the room, I heard many sincere expressions of admiration: they were really pleased and thought it all very wonderful. That is, in fact, the common feeling which most persons express in such places, and, assuming that it is sincere, the obvious explanation is that they know no better. They have never properly seen anything in nature, but have looked always with mind and the inner vision preoccupied with other and familiar things—indoor scenes and objects, and scenes described in books. If they had ever looked at wild birds properly—that is to say, emotionally—the images of such sights would have remained in their minds; and, with such a standard for comparison, these dreary remnants of dead things set before them as restorations and as semblances of life would have only produced a profoundly depressing effect.
We hear of the educational value of such exhibitions, and it may be conceded that they might be made useful to young students of zoology, by distributing the specimens over a large area, arranged in scattered groups so as to give a rough idea of the relationship existing among its members, and of all together to other neighbouring groups, and to others still further removed. The one advantage of such a plan to the young student would be, that it would help him to get rid of the false notion, which classification studied in books invariably produces, that nature marshals her species in a line or row, or her genera in a chain. But no such plan is ever attempted, probably because it would only be for the benefit of about one person in five hundred visitors, and the expense would be too great.
As things are, these collections help no one, and their effect is confusing and in many ways injurious to the mind, especially to the young. A multitude of specimens are brought before the sight, each and every one a falsification and degradation of nature, and the impression left is of an assemblage, or mob, of incongruous forms, and of a confusion of colours. The one comfort is that nature, wiser than our masters, sets herself against this rude system of overloading the brain. She is kind to her wild children in their intemperance, and is able to relieve the congested mind, too, from this burden. These objects in a museum are not and cannot be viewed emotionally, as we view living forms and all nature; hence they do not, and we being what we are, cannot, register lasting impressions.
It needed a long walk on the downs to get myself once more in tune with the outdoor world after that distuning experience; but just before quitting the house in the Dyke Road an old memory came to me and gave me some relief, inasmuch as it caused me to smile. It was a memory of a tale of the Age of Fools, which I heard long years ago in the days of my youth.
I was at a small riverine port of the Plata river, called Ensenada de BarragŠn, assisting a friend to ship a number of sheep which he had purchased in Buenos Ayres and was sending to the Banda Oriental—the little republic on the east side of the great sea-like river. The sheep, numbering about six thousand, were penned at the side of the creek where the small sailing ships were lying close to the bank, and a gang of eight men were engaged in carrying the animals on board, taking them one by one on their backs over a narrow plank, while I stood by keeping count. The men were gauchos, all but one—a short, rather grotesque-looking Portuguese with one eye. This fellow was the life and soul of the gang, and with his jokes and antics kept the others in a merry humour. It was an excessively hot day, and at intervals of about an hour the men would knock off work, and, squatting on the muddy bank, rest and smoke their cigarettes; and on each occasion the funny one-eyed Portuguese would relate some entertaining history. One of these histories was about the Age of Fools, and amused me so much that I remember it to this day. It was the history of a man of that remote age, who was born out of his time, and who grew tired of the monotony of his life, even of the society of his wife, who was no whit wiser than the other inhabitants of the village they lived in. And at last he resolved to go forth and see the world, and bidding his wife and friends farewell he set out on his travels. He travelled far and met with many strange and entertaining adventures, which I must be pardoned for not relating, as this is not a story-book. In the end he returned safe and sound to his home, a much richer man than when he started; and opening his pack he spread out before his wife an immense number of gold coins, with scores of precious stones, and trinkets of the greatest value. At the sight of this glittering treasure she uttered a great scream of joy and jumping up rushed from the room. Seeing that she did not return, he went to look for her, and after some searching discovered that she had rushed down to the wine-cellar and knocking open a large cask of wine had jumped into it and drowned herself for pure joy.
"Thus happily ended his adventures," concluded the one-eyed cynic, and they all got up and resumed their work of carrying sheep to the boat.
It was one of the adventures met with by the man of the tale in his travels that came into my mind when I was in the Booth Museum, and caused me to smile. In his wanderings in a thinly settled district, he arrived at a village where, passing by the church, his attention was attracted by a curious spectacle. The church was a big building with a rounded roof, and great blank windowless walls, and the only door he could see was no larger than the door of a cottage. From this door as he looked a small old man came out with a large empty sack in his hands. He was very old, bowed and bent with infirmities, and his long hair and beard were white as snow. Toddling out to the middle of the churchyard he stood still, and grasping the empty sack by its top, held it open between his outstretched arms for a space of about five minutes; then with a sudden movement of his hands he closed the sack's mouth, and still grasping it tightly, hurried back to the church as fast as his stiff joints would let him, and disappeared within the door. By and by he came forth again and repeated the performance, and then again, until the traveller approached and asked him what he was doing. "I am lighting the church," said the old man; and he then went on to explain that it was a large and a fine church, full of rich ornaments, but very dark inside—so dark that when people came to service the greatest confusion prevailed, and they could not see each other or the priest, nor the priest them. It had always been so, he continued, and it was a great mystery; he had been engaged by the fathers of the village a long time back, when he was a young man, to carry sunlight in to light the interior; but though he had grown old at his task, and had carried in many, many thousands of sackfuls of sunlight every year, it still remained dark, and no one could say why it was so.
It is not necessary to relate the sequel: the reader knows by now that in the end the dark church was filled with light, that the traveller was feasted and honoured by all the people of the village, and that he left them loaded with gifts.
Parables of this kind as a rule can have no moral or hidden meaning in an age so enlightened as this; yet oddly enough we do find among us a delusion resembling that of the villagers who thought they could convey sunshine in a sack to light their dark church. It is one of a group or family of indoor delusions and illusions, which Mr Sully has not mentioned in his book on that fascinating subject. One example of the particular delusion I have been speaking of, in which it is seen in its crudest form, may be given here.
A man walking by the water-side sees by chance a kingfisher fly past, its colour a wonderful blue, far surpassing in beauty and brilliancy any blue he has ever seen in sky or water, or in flower or stone, or any other thing. No sooner has he seen than he wishes to become the possessor of that rare loveliness, that shining object which, he fondly imagines, will be a continual delight to him and to all in his house,—an ornament comparable to that splendid stone which the poor fisherman found in a fish's belly, which was his children's plaything by day and his candle by night. Forthwith he gets his gun and shoots it, and has it stuffed and put in a glass case. But it is no longer the same thing: the image of the living sunlit bird flashing past him is in his mind and creates a kind of illusion when he looks at his feathered mummy, but the lustre is not visible to others.
It is because of the commonness of this delusion that stuffed kingfishers, and other brilliant species, are to be seen in the parlours of tens of thousands of cottages all over the land. Nor is it only those who live in cottages that make this mistake; those who care to look for it will find that it exists in some degree in most minds—the curious delusion that the lustre which we see and admire is in the case, the coil, the substance which may be grasped, and not in the spirit of life which is within and the atmosphere and miracle-working sunlight which are without.
To return to my own taste and feelings, since in the present chapter I must be allowed to write on Man (myself to wit) and Birds, the other chapters being occupied with the subject of Birds and Man. It has always, or since I can remember, been my ambition and principal delight to see and hear every bird at its best. This is here a comparative term, and simply means an unusually attractive aspect of the bird, or a very much better than the ordinary one. This may result from a fortunate conjunction of circumstances, or may be due to a peculiar harmony between the creature and its surroundings; or in some instances, as in that given above of the Dartford warbler, to a rare effect of the sun. In still other cases, motions and antics, rarely seen, singularly graceful, or even grotesque, may give the best impression. After one such impression has been received, another equally excellent may follow at a later date: in that case the second impression does not obliterate, or is not superimposed upon the former one; both remain as permanent possessions of the mind, and we may thus have several mental pictures of the same species.
It is the same with all minds with regard to the objects and scenes which happen to be of special interest. The following illustration will serve to make the matter clearer to readers who are not accustomed to pay attention to their own mental processes. When any common object, such as a chair, or spade, or apple, is thought of or spoken of, an image of a picture of it instantly comes before the mind's eye; not of a particular spade or apple, but of a type representing the object which exists in the mind ready for use on all occasions. With the question of the origin of this type, this spade or apple of the mind, we need not concern ourselves here. If the object thought or spoken of be an animal—a horse let us say, the image seen in the mind will in most cases be as in the foregoing case a type existing in the mind and not of an individual. But if a person is keenly interested in horses generally, and is a rider and has owned and loved many horses, the image of some particular one which he has known or has looked at with appreciative eyes will come to mind; and he will also be able to call up the images of dozens or of scores of horses he has known or seen in the same way. If on the other hand we think of a rat, we see not any individual but a type, because we have no interest in or no special feeling with regard to such a creature, and all the successive images we receive of it become merged in one—the type which already existed in the mind and was probably formed very early in life. With the dog for subject the case is different: dogs are more with us—we know them intimately and have perhaps regarded many individuals with affection; hence the image that rises in the mind is as a rule of some dog we have known.
The important point to be noted is, that while each and everything we see registers an impression in the brain, and may be recalled several minutes, or hours, or even days afterwards, the only permanent impressions are of the sights which we have viewed emotionally. We may remember that we have seen a thousand things in which at some later period an interest has been born in the mind, when it would be greatly to our pleasure and even profit to recover their images, and we strive and ransack our brains to do so, but all in vain: they have been lost for ever because we happened not to be interested in the originals, but viewed them with indifference, or unemotionally.
With regard to birds, I see them mentally in two ways: each species which I have known and observed in its wild state has its type in the mind—an image which I invariably see when I think of the species; and, in addition, one or two or several, in some cases as many as fifty, images of the same species of bird as it appeared at some exceptionally favourable moment and was viewed with peculiar interest and pleasure.
Of hundreds of such enduring images of our commonest species I will here describe one before concluding with this part of the subject.
The long-tailed or bottle-tit is one of the most delicately pretty of our small woodland birds, and among my treasures, in my invisible and intangible album, there were several pictures of him which I had thought unsurpassable, until on a day two years ago when a new and better one was garnered. I was walking a few miles from Bath by the Avon where it is not more than thirty or forty yards wide, on a cold, windy, very bright day in February. The opposite bank was lined with bushes growing close to the water, the roots and lower trunks of many of them being submerged, as the river was very full; and behind this low growth the ground rose abruptly, forming a long green hill crowned with tall beeches. I stopped to admire one of the bushes across the stream, and I wish I could now say what its species was: it was low with widespread branches close to the surface of the water, and its leafless twigs were adorned with catkins resembling those of the black poplar, as long as a man's little finger, of a rich dark-red or maroon colour. A party of about a dozen long-tailed tits were travelling, or drifting, in their usual desultory way, through the line of bushes towards this point, and in due time they arrived, one by one, at the bush I was watching, and finding it sheltered from the wind they elected to remain at that spot. For a space of fifteen minutes I looked on with delight, rejoicing at the rare chance which had brought that exquisite bird- and plant-scene before me. The long deep-red pendent catkins and the little pale birdlings among them in their grey and rose-coloured plumage, with long graceful tails and minute round, parroty heads; some quietly perched just above the water, others moving about here and there, occasionally suspending themselves back downwards from the slender terminal twigs—the whole mirrored below. That magical effect of water and sunlight gave to the scene a somewhat fairy-like, an almost illusory, character.
Such scenes live in their loveliness only for him who has seen and harvested them: they cannot be pictured forth to another by words, nor with the painter's brush, though it be charged with tintas orientales; least of all by photography, which brings all things down to one flat, monotonous, colourless shadow of things, weary to look at.
From sights we pass to the consideration of sounds, and it is unfortunate that the two subjects have to be treated consecutively instead of together, since with birds they are more intimately joined than in any other order of beings; and in images of bird life at its best they sometimes cannot be dissociated;—the aŽrial form of the creature, its harmonious, delicate tints, and its grace of motion; and the voice, which, loud or low, is aŽrial too, in harmony with the form.
We know that as with sights so it is with sounds: those to which we listen attentively, appreciatively, or in any way emotionally, live in the mind, to be recalled and reheard at will. There is no doubt that in a large majority of persons this retentive power is far less strong with regard to sounds than sights, but we are all supposed to have it in some degree. So far, I have met with but one person, a lady, who is without it: sounds, in her case, do not register an impression in the brain, so that with regard to this sense she is in the condition of civilised man generally with regard to smells. I say of civilised man, being convinced that this power has become obsolete in us, although it appears to exist in savages and in the lower animals. The most common sounds, natural or artificial, the most familiar bird-notes, the lowing of a cow, the voices of her nearest and dearest friends, and simplest melodies sung or played, cannot be reproduced in her brain: she remembers them as agreeable sounds, just as we all remember that certain flowers and herbs have agreeable odours; but she does not hear them. Probably there are not many persons in the same case; but in such matters it is hard to know what the real condition of another's mind may be. Our acquaintances refuse to analyse or turn themselves inside out merely to gratify a curiosity which they may think idle. In some cases they perhaps have a kind of superstition about such things: the secret processes of their mind are their secret, or "business," and, like the secret and real name of a person among some savage tribes, not to be revealed but at the risk of giving to another a mysterious power over their lives and fortunes. Even worse than the reticent, the superstitious, and the simply unintelligent, is the highly imaginative person who is only too ready to answer all inquiries, who catches at what you say in explanation, divines what you want, and instantly (and unconsciously) invents something to tell you.
But we may, I think, take it for granted that the faculty of retaining sounds is as universal as that of retaining sights, although, speaking generally, the impressions of sounds are less perfect and lasting than those which relate to the higher, more intellectual sense of vision; also that this power varies greatly in different persons. Furthermore, we see in the case of musical composers, and probably of most musicians who are devoted to their art, that this faculty is capable of being trained and developed to an extraordinary degree of efficiency. The composer sitting pen in hand to write his score in his silent room hears the voices and the various instruments, the solos and orchestral sounds, which are in his thoughts. It is true that he is a creator, and listens mentally to compositions that have never been previously heard; but he cannot imagine, or cannot hear mentally, any note or combination of notes which he has never heard with his physical sense. In creating he selects from the infinite variety of sounds whose images exist in his mind, and, rearranging them, produces new effects.
The difference in the brains, with regard to their sound-storing power, of the accomplished musician and the ordinary person who does not know one tune from another and has but fleeting impressions of sounds in general, is no doubt enormous; probably it is as great as that which exists in the logical faculty between a professor of that science in one of the Universities and a native of the Andaman Islands or of Tierra del Fuego. It is, we see, a question of training: any person with a normal brain who is accustomed to listen appreciatively to certain sounds, natural or artificial, must store his mind with the images of such sounds. And the open-air naturalist, who is keenly interested in the language of birds, and has listened with delight to a great variety of species, should be as rich in such impressions as the musician is with regard to musical sounds. Unconsciously he has all his life been training the faculty.
With regard to the durability of the images, it may be thought by some that, speaking of birds, only those which are revived and restored, so to speak, from time to time by fresh sense-impressions remain permanently distinct. That would naturally be the first conclusion most persons would arrive at, considering that the sound-images which exist in their minds are of the species found in their own country, which they are able to hear occasionally, even if at very long intervals in some cases. My own experience proves that it is not so; that a man may cut himself off from the bird life he knows, to make his home in another region of the globe thousands of miles away, and after a period exceeding a quarter of a century, during which he has become intimate with a wholly different bird life, to find that the old sound-images, which have never been refreshed with new sense-impressions, are as distinct as they ever were, and seem indeed imperishable.
I confess that, when I think of it, I am astonished myself at such an experience, and to some it must seem almost incredible. It will be said, perhaps, that in the infinite variety of bird-sounds heard anywhere there must be innumerable notes which closely resemble, or are similar to, those of other species in other lands, and, although heard in a different order, the old images of cries and calls and songs are thus indirectly refreshed and kept alive. I do not think that has been any real help to me. Thus, I think of some species which has not been thought of for years, and its language comes back at call to my mind. I listen mentally to its various notes, and there is not one in the least like the notes of any British species. These images have therefore never received refreshment. Again, where there is a resemblance, as in the trisyllabic cry of the common sandpiper and another species, I listen mentally to one, then to the other, heard so long ago, and hear both distinctly, and comparing the two, find a considerable difference, one being a thinner, shriller, and less musical sound than the other. Still again, in the case of the blackbird, which has a considerable variety in its language, there is one little chirp familiar to every one—a small round drop of sound of a musical, bell-like character. Now it happens that one of the true thrushes of South America, a bird resembling our song-thrush, has an almost identical bell-like chirp, and so far as that small drop of sound is concerned the old image may be refreshed by new sense-impressions. Or I might even say that the original image has been covered by the later one, as in the case of the laughter-like cries of the Dominican and the black-backed gulls. But with regard to the thrushes, excepting that small drop of sound, the language of the two species is utterly different. Each has a melody perfect of its kind: the song of the foreign bird is not fluty nor mellow nor placid like that of the blackbird, but has in a high degree that quality of plaintiveness and gladness commingled which we admire in some fresh and very beautiful human voices, like that described in Lowell's lines "To Perdita Singing":—
It hath caught a touch of sadness,
Yet it is not sad;
It hath tones of clearest gladness,
Yet it is not glad.
Again, that foreign song is composed of many notes, and is poured out in a stream, as a skylark sings; and it is also singular on account of the contrast between these notes which suggest human feeling and a purely metallic, bell-like sound, which, coming in at intervals, has the effect of the triangle in a band of wind instruments. The image of this beautiful song is as distinct in my mind as that of the blackbird which I heard every day last summer from every green place.
Doubtless there are some and perhaps a good many ornithologists among us who have been abroad to observe the bird life of distant countries, and who when at home find that the sound-impressions they have received are not persistent, or, if not wholly lost, that they grow faint and indistinct, and become increasingly difficult to recall. They can no longer listen to those over-sea notes and songs as they can, mentally, to the cuckoo's call in spring, the wood-owl's hoot, to the song of the skylark and of the tree-pipit, the reeling of the night-jar and the startling scream of the woodland jay, the deep human-like tones of the raven, the inflected wild cry of the curlew, and the beautiful wild whistle of the widgeon, heard in the silence of the night on some lonely mere.
The reason is that these, and numberless more, are the sounds of the bird life of their own home and country; the living voices to which they listened when they were young and the senses keener than now, and their enthusiasm greater; they were in fact heard with an emotion which the foreign species never inspired in them, and thus heard, the images of the sounds were made imperishable.
In my case the foreign were the home birds, and on that account alone more to me than all others; yet I escaped that prejudice which the British naturalist is never wholly without—the notion that the home bird is, intrinsically, better worth listening to than the bird abroad. Finally, on coming to this country, I could not listen to the birds coldly, as an English naturalist would to those of, let us say, Queensland, or Burma, or Canada, or Patagonia, but with an intense interest; for these were the birds which my forbears had known and listened to all their lives long; and my imagination was fired by all that had been said of their charm, not indeed by frigid ornithologists, but by a long succession of great poets, from Chaucer down to those of our own time. Hearing them thus emotionally their notes became permanently impressed on my mind, and I found myself the happy possessor of a large number of sound-images representing the bird language of two widely separated regions.
To return to the main point—the durability of the impressions both of sight and sound.
In order to get a more satisfactory idea of the number and comparative strength or vividness of the images of twenty-six years ago remaining to me after so long a time than I could by merely thinking about the subject, I drew up a list of the species of birds observed by me in the two adjoining districts of La Plata and Patagonia. Against the name of each species the surviving sight- and sound-impressions were set down; but on going over this first list and analysis, fresh details came to mind, and some images which had become dimmed all at once grew bright again, and to bring these in, the work had to be redone; then it was put away and the subject left for a few days to the "subliminal consciousness," after which I took it up once more and rewrote it all—list and analysis; and I think it now gives a fairly accurate account of the state of these old impressions as they exist in memory.
This has not been done solely for my own gratification. I confess to a very strong feeling of curiosity as to the mental experience on this point of other field naturalists; and as these, or some of them, may have the same wish to look into their neighbours' minds that I have, it may be that the example given here will be followed.
My list comprises 226 species—a large number to remember when we consider that it exceeds by about 16 or 18 the number of British species; that is to say, those which may truly be described as belonging to these islands, without including the waifs and strays and rare visitants which by a fiction are described as British birds. Of the 226, the sight-impressions of 10 have become indistinct, and one has been completely forgotten. The sight of a specimen might perhaps revive an image of this lost one as it was seen, a living wild bird; but I do not know. This leaves 215, every one of which I can mentally see as distinctly as I see in my mind the common species I am accustomed to look at every day in England—thrush, starling, robin, etc.
A different story has to be told with regard to the language. To begin with, there are no fewer than 34 species of which no sound-impressions were received. These include the habitually silent kinds—the stork, which rattles its beak but makes no vocal sound, the painted snipe, the wood ibis, and a few more; species which were rarely seen and emitted no sound—condor, Muscovy duck, harpy eagle, and others; species which were known only as winter visitants, or seen on migration, and which at such seasons were invariably silent.
Thus, those which were heard number 192. Of these the language of 7 species has been completely forgotten, and of 31 the sound-impressions have now become indistinct in varying degrees. Deducting those whose notes have become silent and are not clearly heard in the mind, there remain 154 species which are distinctly remembered. That is to say, when I think of them and their language, the cries, calls, songs, and other sounds are reproduced in the mind.
Studying the list, in which the species are ranged in order according to their affinities, it is easy to see why the language of some, although not many, has been lost or has become more or less indistinct. In some cases it is because there was nothing distinctive or in any way attractive in the notes; in other cases because the images have been covered and obliterated by others—the stronger images of closely-allied species. In the two American families of tyrant-birds and woodhewers, neither of which are songsters, there is in some of the closely-related species a remarkable family resemblance in their voices. Listening to their various cries and calls, the trained ear of the ornithologist can easily distinguish them and identify the species; but after years the image of the more powerful or the better voices of, say, two or three species in a group of four or five absorb and overcome the others. I cannot find a similar case among British species to illustrate this point, unless it be that of the meadow- and rock-pipit. Strongly as the mind is impressed by the measured tinkling notes of these two songs, emitted as the birds descend to earth, it is not probable that any person who had not heard them for a number of years would be able to distinguish or keep them separate in his mind—to hear them in their images as two distinct songs.
In the case of the good singers in that distant region, I find the voices continue remarkably dis tinct, and as an example will give the two melodious families of the finches and the troupials (Icteridae), the last an American family, related to the finches, but starling-like in appearance, many of them brilliantly coloured. Of the first I am acquainted with 12 and of the second with 14 species.
Here then are 26 highly vocal species, of which the songs, calls, chirps, and various other notes, are distinctly remembered in 23. Of the other three one was silent—a small rare migratory finch resembling the bearded-tit in its reed-loving habits, its long tail and slender shape, and partly too in its colouring. I listened in vain for this bird's singing notes. Of the remaining two one is a finch, the other a troupial; the first a pretty bird, in appearance a small hawfinch with its whole plumage a lovely glaucous blue; a poor singer with a low rambling song: the second a bird of the size of a starling, coloured like a golden oriole, but more brilliant; and this one has a short impetuous song composed of mixed guttural and clear notes.
Why is this rather peculiar song, of a species which on account of its colouring and pleasing social habits strongly impresses the mind, less distinct in memory than the songs of other troupials? I believe it is because it is a rare thing to hear a single song. They perch in a tree in company, like birds of paradise, and no sooner does one open his beak than all burst out together, and their singing strikes on the sense in a rising and falling tempest of confused sound. But it may be added that though these two songs are marked "indistinct" in the list, they are not very indistinct, and become less so when I listen mentally with closed eyes.
In conclusion, it is worthy of remark that the good voices, as to quality, and the powerful ones, are not more enduring in their images than those which were listened to appreciatively for other reasons. Voices which have the quality of ventriloquism, or are in any way mysterious, or are suggestive of human tones, are extremely persistent; and such voices are found in owls, pigeons, snipe, rails, grebes, night-jars, tinamous, rheas, and in some passerine birds. Again, the swallows are not remarkable as singers compared with thrushes, finches, and other melodists; but on account of their intrinsic charm and beauty, their interesting habits, and the sentiment they inspire, we listen to them emotionally; and I accordingly find that the language of the five species of swallows I was formerly accustomed to see and hear continues as distinct in my mind as that of the chimney swallow, which I listen to every summer in England.
I had meant in this chapter to give three or four or half a dozen instances of birds seen at their best, instead of the one I have given—that of the long-tailed tit; and as many more images in which a rare, unforgettable effect was produced by melody. For as with sights so it is with sounds: for these too there are "special moments," which have "special grace." But this chapter is already longer than it was ever meant to be, and something on another subject yet remains to be said.
The question is sometimes asked, What is the charm which you find, or say you find, in nature? Is it real, or do these words so often repeated have a merely conventional meaning, like so many other words and phrases which men use with regard to other things? Birds, for instance: apart from the interest which the ornithologists must take in his subject, what substantial happiness can be got out of these shy creatures, mostly small and not too well seen, that fly from us when approached, and utter sounds which at their best are so poor, so thin, so trivial, compared with our soul-stirring human music?
That, briefly, is the indoor view of the subject—the view of those who, to begin with, were perhaps town-born and town-bred; who have existed amid conditions, occupied with work and pleasures, the reflex effect of which, taken altogether and in the long-run, is to dim and even deaden some of the brain's many faculties, and chiefly this best faculty of preserving impressions of nature for long years or to the end of life in all their original freshness.
Some five or six years ago I heard a speech about birds delivered by Sir Edward Grey, in which he said that the love and appreciation and study of birds was something fresher and brighter than the second-hand interests and conventional amusements in which so many in this day try to live; that the pleasure of seeing and listening to them was purer and more lasting than any pleasures of excitement, and, in the long-run, "happier than personal success." That was a saying to stick in the mind, and it is probable that some who listened failed to understand. Let us imagine that in addition to this miraculous faculty of the brain of storing innumerable brilliant images of things seen and heard, to be reproduced at call to the inner sense, there existed in a few gifted persons a correlated faculty by means of which these treasured images could be thrown at will into the mind of another; let us further imagine that some one in the audience who had wondered at that saying, finding it both dark and hard, had asked me to explain it; and that in response I had shown him, as by a swift succession of lightning flashes a score or a hundred images of birds at their best—the unimaginable loveliness, the sunlit colour, the grace of form and of motion, and the melody—how great the effect of even that brief glance into a new unknown world would have been! And if I had then said: All that you have seen—the pictures in one small room in a house of many rooms—is not after all the main thing; that it would be idle to speak of, since you cannot know what you do not feel, though it should be told you many times; this only can be told—the enduring images are but an incidental result of a feeling which existed already; they were never looked for, and are a free gift from nature to her worshipper;—if I had said this to him, the words of the speech which has seemed almost sheer insanity a little while before would have acquired a meaning and an appearance of truth.
It has curiously happened that while writing these concluding sentences some old long-forgotten lines which I read in my youth came suddenly into my mind, as if some person sitting invisible at my side and thinking them apposite to the subject had whispered them into my ear. They are lines addressed to the Merrimac River by an American poet—whether a major or minor I do not know, having forgotten his name. In one stanza he mentions the fact that "young Brissot" looked upon this stream in its bright flow—
And bore its image o'er the deep
To soothe a martyr's sadness,
And fresco in his troubled sleep
His prison walls with gladness.
Brissot is not generally looked upon as a "martyr" on this side of the Atlantic, nor was he allowed to enjoy his "troubled sleep" too long after his fellow-citizens (especially the great and sea-green Incorruptible) had begun in their fraternal fashion to thirst for his blood; but we can easily believe that during those dark days in the Bastille the image and vision of the beautiful river thousands of miles away was more to him than all his varied stores of knowledge, all his schemes for the benefit of suffering humanity, and perhaps even a better consolation than his philosophy.
It is indeed this "gladness" of old sunshine stored within us—if we have had the habit of seeing beauty everywhere and of viewing all beautiful things with appreciation—this incalculable wealth of images of vanished scenes, which is one of our best and dearest possessions, and a joy for ever.
"What asketh man to have?" cried Chaucer, and goes on to say in bitterest words that "now with his love" he must soon lie in "the coldŽ grave—alone, withouten any companie."
What he asketh to have, I suppose, is a blue diamond—some unattainable good; and in the meantime, just to go on with, certain pleasant things which perish in the using.
These same pleasant things are not to be despised, but they leave nothing for the mind in hungry days to feed upon, and can be of no comfort to one who is shut up within himself by age and bodily infirmities and the decay of the senses; on the contrary, the recollection of them at such times, as has been said, can but serve to make a present misery more poignantly felt.
It was the nobly expressed consolation of an American poet, now dead, when standing in the summer sunshine amid a fine prospect of woods and hills, to think, when he remembered the darkness of decay and the grave, that he had beheld in nature, though but for a moment,
The brightness of the skirts of God.
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