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Wisdom, Knowledge, Birdsong

By Christopher Andreae / February 13, 1992

I'M sure I'm better at identifying wildflowers than birds. But all the same, that doesn't mean I could pass an exam on the botanographical divergences between figwort, cornish moneywort, and common cow-wheat, to name but a few (plants, that is).

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Birds are even more baffling to me than plants. I just wish I knew a yellow wagtail from a gray one (it's not as simple as it sounds) or could at a glance tell a swift from a swallow in wheeling summer flight. Or could instantly identify a kestrel when someone says "Look at that buzzard!" I went on an Audubon bird-identification day once, but it didn't seem to dent me much.

On the other hand, Richards Adams of rabbit and "Watership Down" fame once pointed out that a walk in the country should not become a guilt trip just because you don't happen to know by heart the names of every last item of herbiage, insectage, birdage, or animalage that passes underfoot or overhead. Nomenclature is not an essential prerequisite of genuine pleasure felt for field and stream. All the same, I still am attracted to the notion of rather less minimal know-how, or know-what, rurally speaking.

The truth is I greatly admire, and even to a degree envy, those (generally tweed clad) personages who accost me with such murmurations as "Saw my first dunlin of the year this morning - just after dawn, it was, feeding well," or "I see the reed buntings are nesting in a marshy tussock down by the saltings, three eggs already laid." Such utterings leave me gasping with would-be delight at the mere thought that if I practice hard, one day I too might convincingly pull off a passing ornithological observati on with like insouciance. As it is, I feel tongue-twisted in the company of such rustic eloquence.

Ignorance, whatever they say, isn't automatically bliss. Or I would be a lot more blissful. But knowledge, I have long mused, is a strange creature. How come everyone else has so much more of it than I do? Was I the only person who, at 19 or 20, continually wondered how it could have happened that my peers had already read the entire works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Proust, not to mention Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, had completely understood Marxist-Leninist political theory, grasped Einstein's relativity , had had tea at Kings College with E. M. Forster, and rowed for Cambridge. Didn't they ever sleep, I asked myself. Where have I been all my life? Why is it that I am forever trying to catch up?

And it was the silent students that bothered me most. How much they knew! What storehouses of erudition they were! I remember one fellow in particular. He was a deep well of knowledge, even of wisdom. He spoke perhaps once a week. Words were for him a rare species of plant to be hidden in case some rash boot appear to trod on them. When he gave them public exposure, it was with scrupulous care and selectivity. The rest was silence.

It took me 20 years or so - since I have always been the archetypal empty barrel that makes the most sound - to arrive at sufficient skepticism to wonder if this profound youth had not, just possibly, been silent because ... he actually had nothing to say. Maybe we read into his vocal reticence a profundity that wasn't there at all. Who knows? Anyway, I have always preferred people who talk far too much about things they know nothing about - fellow travelers - to people who never breathe a word, never be tray an inner thought. They inspire nothing but self-doubt.

BUT back to birds. To me they are like music. I love Mozart, though I haven't the slightest acquaintance with sonata form or Kochel numbering. Handel - particularly the "Messiah takes me away with an elevated glory that half persuades me I am musical. I haven't a clue what key any part of it is in and am not too certain whether I am hearing trumpets or woodwinds, tenor or bass, at certain impressive junctures during its compelling surge of wonderfulness.

Birdsong is the same. I have walked among tall trees at midnight and listened as birds sing with an ecstatic liberality, a silver-sounding lucidity that invites shiverings up and down the spine. I have fancied they are nightingales. I have recited Keats. Later, I have been firmly informed they were just common, garden blackbirds who, because of the street lighting, were under the mistaken impression that sunrise was upon them. But I can still say, with due awe: "I have heard the blackbirds singing each t o each" or, in the immortal words of the Beatles, "Blackbird singing in the dead of night...."