My mother hated birds. There was nothing that carried more bad luck or was a worse omen than a bird. There was an order to this, a peculiar kind of taxonomy of doom. Seagulls weren’t so bad, because if you saw one you were probably at the beach, and if you were at the beach, you were doing what my mother loved best: baking in the sun, her body a reflector of oil. Birds in the trees outside her home were tolerable, but their incessant morning chatter didn’t do anyone any good. Pictures of birds were an atrocity, and if I ever brought one into the house, it had to be disposed of immediately. A stuffed bird was unbearable, the devil its taxidermist. But the highest order of ill came from the worst of the suburban milieu. Many of my friends had them. I would often come home for dinner to tell her of my sightings. She would listen intently, as if I was telling her the most sordid evil tale, and I knew that she was secretly uttering ‘Kayn aynhoreh! - Evil eye!’ She was both attracted and utterly repelled by this, her greatest fear, her deepest horror: a bird in a cage.
My mother’s fear of birds was a stitch of Russian threads woven into her by her mother and her mother before her. It was part of a whole system of superstition that, while obviously at odds with the modern world, my mother heartily embraced and was never embarrassed by, never apologetic. When my mother was 18 she would sneak out of her house in Brockton and drive with friends into Boston to see jazz at Wally’s and the Jazz Workshop. She thrived here, smoked hash with musicians, danced and snapped her fingers. But she would have been equally at home fifty years earlier, hammering out Psalms on tin and copper for amulets to hang over her door - to keep the birds away.
CROW: Corvus brachyrhynchos
In the city, crows are abundant. They often wake you in the morning calling back and forth to each other from roofs and wires. I have watched crows dogfight with red-tailed hawks, speed away from angry mockingbirds, and fly in murders of hundreds across a winter sky. I once saw a crow purposefully tip over a garbage bucket to get the tasty morsels inside. Seeing them flying overhead, being woken by them every morning, watching their antics in the trees, I gradually began to admire, and even to love them. But as my mother was dying, I also began to mistrust them. They were carrion feeders after all, named in Leviticus as part of the group of birds considered unclean, an ‘abomination’. When I heard them caw, the harsh and prideful call, precocious like a child, I recognized in them the death they had come to represent. No matter that a raven had been the first bird Noah sent from the ark, or that God promised the prophet Elijah he would be fed by them, the commandment was for a reason. These awful foul birds could be seen picking at the stringy entrails of a squirrel on the side of the road.
In Bernard Malamud’s story ‘The Jewbird’, a crow of sorts flies into the window of a man named Cohen and his family, claiming to be Jewish, hiding from those who hate him, and looking for food. Cohen asks, almost at once, ‘You’re sure you’re not some kind of a ghost or dybbuk?’ But for me, there was no hidden spirit in these birds. It was obvious what they were, little devils, as obvious as the men who came to the house to remove the body of my mother while my father and I sat in the living room, our backs to the door. How much more of this did we need to see, having seen her last breath?
For a time, many years earlier, I often thought birds were carrying secret messages to me. In their songs, hidden under a layer of feather, I heard them calling out to me in a code I could never decipher. It seemed as though everything I needed to know was in an ancient language whose alphabet I knew, but not the grammar. And the birds spoke it fluently. It was often while walking with friends down the train tracks that would bring me home from the city that I heard them. We would step from tie to tie, straining to hear a distant horn or to feel that strange sudden knowing that a train was approaching. Then we would simply hop off to the side and wait for a few minutes, sometimes longer. But the train always came. I had been riding this line for years, but when I would see it from the side of the tracks it was a phantom, a spirit of a train coming from nowhere I had ever been to and somewhere I would never go. Then with a squeal and a blazing horn it would pass us, the wind of it always catching us off guard. As it passed, we would slowly make our way back to the middle of the tracks and walk.
And when the noise of the train faded, I would listen for birds. Out behind a cemetery and a quarry, I would often hear crows. And it always meant bad news.
The poet Ted Hughes tried with all his might to understand the crow. An entire cycle of poems, Crow (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), tries to help the crow rise out of its poor favour. But here is the poor bastard crow again, the ‘King of Carrion’:
His Kingdom is empty -
The empty world, from which the last cry
Flapped hugely, hopeless away
Into the blindness and dumbness of the gulf
Returning, shrunk, silent
To reign over silence.
Maybe this is why the story tells us that Noah sent the raven first, because he knew that there would still only be waters, and the crow can never be the bringer of life.
But I don’t blame the crow. Really. And I think my mother would have liked - secretly - to have had a crow outside her window when she died, a kind of perfection of what she thought of birds after all.
RED-TAILED HAWK: Buteo jamaicencis
Before the funeral, I watched as the men in my family struggled with the thin, faux-silk yarmulkes given to them by the chapel administrator. They fit very poorly. But we are Jews, so we wear them at funerals and weddings and the like. The yarmulkes bunch up into a point and balance precariously on the tops of our heads. There was very little in my upbringing to prepare me for the death of my mother. But, really, only death can prepare you for death. What I needed to know was not how to mourn or witness the grief of my family, but how to find meaning in it. And in Judaism, so replete with ritual and structure, one might think meaning would be right at our feet, spilling out of the small synagogue into the waiting room, soaking our shoes. But it wasn’t. We were all confused and tired and God might be in the next room with the rabbi, but He was not here with us now. Even with our ill-fitting yarmulkes.
We walked into the chapel and sat before the coffin, closed of course. There she is in that box, I thought. There’s my mother.
I am extremely grateful for the closed casket in the Jewish tradition. My mother would have hated for us to see her as a simulacrum of herself. She had died in a way that was alive to us, her skin with still a hint of dark from her fiery red summer tan and her hair uncombed, but still somehow glamorous. What need she with a perfect visage? - from dust thou art . . . And honestly, I could not have handled it, seeing her in a coffin. None of us could. I tried to imagine her wrapped in her shroud, all hint of modernity scrubbed off of her. She was not even buried with jewellery on. The purity of a Jewish burial is a comfort, and yet, how could I imagine my mother without her worldly garments: high heels, a cigarette dangling between the diamonds on her fingers, multicoloured scarves, and a gold star of David around her neck?
We were all there in the chapel, my father, my sisters, my brother and my wife. My mother had worked as a receptionist for a state college, and there were more students here that knew her than family. I had never met one of these people, ever. We were all crying so loudly it is a wonder we could hear the rabbi at all. I was aware of so many things in that moment: the hardness of the bench, my oldest sister’s hand on my arm, the slight stuffiness and heat of the room. The rabbi was saying, ‘Though I walk through a valley of darkness I shall fear no harm.’ But for all the whirlwind of sensations around me, my eyes were locked on the coffin and I thought if I moved them away I would dissolve into a flutter of anxiety, fear and grief. It was as if the only thing keeping me solid was the wood of the box, the most real thing I had ever seen.
For a moment it made sense that she died, that we all die, that God exists, and that He really exists in this moment. It made sense that, soul or no soul, heaven or not, those things were not what matter because God was here and so was the body of my mother, the part of her that lived in the world, that drank coffee and smoked enough cigarettes to kill her, that had a love affair with my father. This body in the coffin, this is the form, not the shadow. Nothing more transcendent or perfect ever need happen, for that has already occurred.
I tried to hold on to this idea, but the days after my mother died were a pockmarked minefield. I stumbled over holes of meaning, struggling to regain my balance, to get to some kind of safe ground. I could barely do anything without a kind of trapdoor in my stomach opening; any kind of significance I thought life had would tumble out. God was nowhere, it seemed, but there were signs of his abandonment everywhere. It is a terrible thing to be both an atheist and superstitious.
Around the time my mother died hawks became abundant around the city. At first it seemed like a miracle to see one. Near the Harvard Natural History Museum, I would sometimes spot one feeding on a pigeon or sitting on the roof of one the University’s buildings. The red-tail is a smallish type of hawk when sitting, but it unleashes a terrific wingspan in flight. And there is no mistaking the soaring of a hawk, especially above a congested and dense urban area. The first time I saw a hawk, something shifted in me. There was a secret language after all, a hidden purpose and destiny to the world. But it was not veiled in the way I had thought. I knew it had something to do with birds, but I still could not be sure how. So I became a birdwatcher. And once I started looking, I couldn’t help but see the hawks.
I am fortunate to live between two rivers, the Charles and the Mystic, both of which are home to many species of birds. As a birdwatcher, and a Jew, I know the importance of exegesis, on finding the right hermeneutics of birds.
The market is awash with birding guides. Some use illustration, others photographs. There are guides divided by east and west, guides only for the central states. There are guidebooks indexed by colour and by species. You can even get bird guides for children that double as sticker books. And for all the variety of bird books, one might imagine that there must be quite a love affair with birds going on. Yet, while most of these field guides are rich in fact and form, they offer very little in the way of wonder. What they are missing, it seems, is a little faith.
One morning, I watched as a hawk about the size of a small turkey eat a pigeon with precision and care. I took careful note of the bird, its colouring and shape, and went home to my Sibley's Guide to Birds to try and discover what it was.
Looking up my bird, I was able to discern that it was red-tailed hawk, and learned that the hawk is ‘the buteo to which all others are compared . . . [and] often perches along the roadsides. It hunts mainly mammals from a perch or by kiting.’ Flipping through the book to find the bird, my heart pounded. To spot this hawk feeding in the city was thrilling, and I was almost giddy when I located it in Sibley’s book. Sibley, alas, didn’t seem quite as excited. Sibley’s Guide to Birds is a remarkable accomplishment. Over five hundred pages, it includes more than six thousand watercolour illustrations. It’s a masterpiece of detail, scientific data, and environmentalist sensibilities. But it’s an awful bore. It belongs perfectly to a tradition that no longer wants any hint of religious reverence in the world of the natural field guide.
In 1840, John James Audubon’s Birds of America was printed in what is called the ‘First Octavo Edition’. The purpose of this edition was to make a smaller and more manageable version of Audubon’s work for a popular audience. Audubon’s first edition of his Birds of America was in fact a portfolio of 435 life-sized plates, watercolour paintings of each bird with an accurate branch of tree or other flora native to the species. Only two hundred sets were engraved, and of these only about one hundred are complete. They are nested in libraries and museums. The Octavo Edition, on the other hand, was immensely successful and went into seven printings. The miniaturization of the original watercolours was done with what as the time a novel invention: the camera Lucida.
Simply stated, the camera Lucida was a technique by which an image is projected in miniature on a sheet of paper and is then ‘traced’ by hand with a stylus. There is a curious relationship here between the viewing and drawing of birds for the purposes of extending that vision to a popular audience. Audubon drew his subjects from life and insisted that the first edition of his prints be life-size so as to allow the audience a full appreciation of the details of what he believed was evidence of a Designer. On the other hand, as a popular demand for bird guides grew, Audubon’s pure religious vision was scaled down towards a more scientific, less emotive rendering of birds, palatable to the new naturalists no longer interested in teasing out evidence of God’s will from nature. From Audubon to Sibley, the projection narrowed until the bird was rendered into nothing more than bird.
In Audubon’s Ornithological Biography, the naturalist often speckles small biographical notes inside his very precise observations on birds. In the section on the Pewee Flycatcher, Audubon writes of walking along a creek he names the Perkioming, in Pennsylvania:
I was extremely fond of rambling along its rocky banks, for it would have been difficult to do so either without meeting with a sweet flower, spreading open its beauties to the sun, or observing the watchful King’s-fisher perched on some projecting stone over the clear water of the stream. Nay, now and then, the Fish Hawk itself, followed by a White-headed Eagle, would make his appearance, and by his graceful aerial motions, raise my thoughts far above them into the heavens, silently leading me to the admiration of the sublime Creator of all.
What is most interesting about this passage is that it is written in the negative, as if Audubon is apologetic for what happens to him, as if it is not his fault that God is so obvious a thing in his observations. There is a foreshadowing that this kind of language will one day no longer belong in a book about birds, a scientific book. The divorce would soon be final.
Fast forward to mid-century, and the National Audubon Society is printing small, illustrated, bird guides. They are perfect for fitting in a backpack along with a pair of binoculars, birders thankfully no longer needing to shoot down their specimens for an appropriate examination of them. TheAudubon Land Bird Guide (1949) includes 48 pages of plates of drawings. While perfectly acceptable, of course they are nothing like Audubon’s. The drawings are, in their own way, another narrowing of the vision, another step down towards the ‘reality’ of the bird. There is no looking up towards the heavens. Even the descriptions are flat, utilitarian, and without any sense of reverence for their subjects. The original Audubon paintings are more than representations of birds. Even in the paintings, there is a kind of mystical appropriation of the essence of the birds. They are iconic.
The current field guides say there is no mystery here. But I know they’re wrong. I beheld the mystery watching my mother die, then saw it again bird after bird after bird.
Peter Bebergal is co-author, with Scott Korb, of The Faith Between Us, forthcoming from Bloomsbury USA, a collection of personal essays that tells the story of a religious friendship between a Jew and a Catholic. He is also an editor at www.zeek.net