Monthly Archives: April 2011

Happy 226th, J.J. Audubon!

Blissful birders! Google has posted a beautifully birdful logo in honor of John James Audubon’s 226th Birthday! Here it is (but don’t try to click on the Audubon site; the excess traffic has caused the site to crash, alas):

I didn’t know that John James was actually born Jean Jacques and also happened to be the illegitimate son of a sailor. What is more, it turns out he studied painting in Paris under Jacques Louis David (definitely not my favorite painter, but if neoclassicism is your persuasion, then chances are you’ll love him). I had no idea that Audubon ended up in Philadelphia in order to avoid being drafted for the Napoleonic Wars. Had Audubon Sr. (the sailor) not sent his son to the US, John James Audubon may well have ended up writing a book called Birds of the Russian Empire instead of his magisterial Birds of America. Ah, the twists of fate.

I haven’t yet read Katherine Govier’s Creation, which is a fictionalized account of Audubon’s life, but it looks fabulous and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.

In any event, Happy Birthday, Audubon (1785-1851)! Here is a portrait of him in his explorer’s garb:

And yes, in case you were wondering, Audubon did in fact shoot every single bird he painted, but we forgive him since the paintings are so stunning.

Me, a Mallard, some Sharks and short stories

Don’t get me wrong. I’m seriously excited by the return of Spring weather, but I had forgotten how cruel and volatile this season can be! It snowed the other day. It all happened while I was walking in the Beaches (which has now been renamed and is simply called “the Beach”, but I still prefer to use the old name) and came face to face with a Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos).

This picture is perfect, because there were actually two of them walking toward me, a male and female, and they stopped when they reached me. I’ve seen this commonest of ducks countless times, but I realized the other day that this was the first time I could name it for what it was. I used to refer to them as green headed ducks, but this time, the mallards and I had a chat about the weather, the muffin I had just eaten, the perfect cup of coffee I had just consumed. I wish you could have been there to see us talking.

Hopefully the weather will stop messing with my hair (rain tends to give me Big Hair, snow tends to reduce body of said hair to nothing, and extreme fluctuations in temperature just confuse me entirely) and Spring life will get back to normal. Winter this year was so grey that I nearly maxed out my credit card. After the stunning red boots, I went ahead and ordered myself a pair of Red patent leather Eelskin Clogs:

Dansko makes a mean clog, but they’re orthopedic shoes (right?) so really, I’m just investing in longtime foot care and working to offset a future podiatrist bill that I’ll invariably have to cope with in my 70s or 80s. Really, I’m being frugal. I fight gray weather the only way I can — with shoes.

Apart from my shoe-related shopping spree (I should have married a cobbler, clearly), I’ve also been buying books with a certain abandon. The best thing I’ve read this past week has been Jessica Westhead’s fabulous short story collection, And Also Sharks. The stories are hilarious and devastating at the same time; the characters are lovable for all their quirky flaws and insecurities. I couldn’t put the book down. (The second best thing I read was Bossypants, but I assume the entire universe is talking about Tina Fey, with good reason, so I won’t go any further.)

And while I’m on the topic of short stories, have you heard of this amazing initiative called YOSS that promotes short fiction? Why it’s YEAR OF THE SHORT STORY! Check out the website, and while you’re at it, how about reading a few short stories this year? And next year, and for the rest of your life! (If you need reading suggestions, just email me!) Some of my favorite collections are (in no particular order) anything by Chekhov (and I do mean *anything*, because he’s a master of everything, especially weather, which is always topical), Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, and, more recently, Light Lifting by Alexander McLeod, and This Cake is for the Party by Sarah Selecky. So, read a short story.

And while we’re YOSSing — I’d love some recommendations for short fiction that features BIRDS!

More Magic!

It’s no secret that here at Birds and Words we love birthdays, mail, and especially packages. Imagine my utter delight when I opened my mailbox and found this gift:

It’s a Hooded Warbler (Wilsonia citrina) and when you press on it, the bird sings its distinctive call! I’ve been listening to it nonstop, trying to memorize the distinct notes and it brings me back to Solfege class, which I had to take before my gr. 10 Royal Conservatory of Music piano exam because my sense of pitch was too awful to tell a minor sixth interval from a perfect fifth. And the more I thought about it, the more they sounded identical to me. I tried to memorize as many mnemonic techniques as I could, and then the day of the exam forgot which ditty corresponded to which musical interval. It was an awful day, and my examiner felt sorry for me, and I nearly failed my ear training section of the exam.

Here I am trying to sing along with my new plush Hooded Warbler, trying to memorize its call, and I have to admit, we both sound astonishingly bad and out of tune with one another, which is probably largely my fault. But opening a package from Providence, RI and seeing a didactic bird toy for ages 3 and up was nothing short of magic in and of itself.

The bird really looks like this:

The resemblance is….. well, it’s not bad for a plush toy, don’t you think?

The Magic of Birds

Once again, Jonathan Franzen says it perfectly in his essay about solitude, escapism, Robinson Crusoe, David Foster Wallace, and birds (in this week’s New Yorker):

When I go looking for new bird species, I’m searching for a mostly lost authenticity, for the remnants of a world now largely overrun by human beings but still beautifully indifferent to us; to glimpse a rare bird somehow persisting in its life of breeding and feeding is an enduringly transcendent delight.

His words resonate with me — especially since just about every bird I see is a new bird species for me.