27 May 2006

The sacred kingfisher

Seen through binoculars, every detail of the bird has its own presence—the slight iridescence of the primary feathers; softness of breast and belly; hard, clean lines of the bill; a dark eye reflecting the afternoon sun as a brilliant highlight. The bird sways just perceptibly on the braided wire stretched between poles. It turns its head—and I see its left eye, clouded, pale, opaque. Blind. The sight is like a blow, like seeing the bird’s moment of death.

I’m helpless. There’s nothing I can do; the bird is wild, alert, seemingly unperturbed. There’s no hope of catching it—and if I did, what then? The likelihood that anyone could do anything to restore sight to that milky eye is hopelessly small. But how can it judge distance? Binocular vision would seem to be essential, particularly for a kingfisher plummeting from its high wire to snatch a lizard or beetle from the ground. How can it catch prey? How does it avoid striking branches when it arrows through the willows?

I watch, wondering how long the bird will survive. I know I’ll now look carefully at every kotare near here, looking for the bird with one eye, hoping to see it so I know it’s still alive. In a strange, macabre way, this bird has become an individual; I know it’s this kotare, not another, because of its injury.

How did it happen? Injury or disease? How long has it been like this? How has it managed to survive? Again I’m hit by that helplessness, the wanting to do something, the awareness of futility. The bird turns its head, looks at me with its good eye. I study it even more carefully, looking for other signs of ill health, but it seems fine. It turns away, its dead eye towards me. I move a little closer, stopping when it checks me again with the good eye. It’s late autumn here, less than a month from the shortest day. I can’t help thinking this small bird, now so alive, won’t see the Spring—it can’t possibly survive the winter with a handicap like that.

And then I think, what’s the tragedy? What difference does it make if it dies this winter or next? Eventually all birds die, like us. Life implies death; death implies life. If death is inevitable, then the tragedy must be because this one is somehow premature. But some birds die earlier than others—most, I suspect never reach adulthood. Perhaps this is an old bird; perhaps its blindness is at least partly because it’s old? Even if it is young, even if it will die before reaching the average life expectancy, that simply influences, to a tiny degree, that average life expectancy: in other words, some birds have to die before that age. Half, in fact.

I don’t know whether these thoughts are a comfort or not. I look at the bird, watching its brilliant, sunlit eye looking back at me. I lower the binoculars to see it with my own eyes, so there’s nothing between us. We look at each other for a while, then it takes to the air, speeding away towards the willows. It alights on a branch; no hesitation, perfectly judged.

In that moment of hope, I wonder why death terrifies so many of us, wonder, perhaps, whether I have the right to accept my own eventual death but not that of others—the right to say spare me the technology to keep me alive but not the right of another to postpone his own death. And if, somehow, I could have caught the kotare and found a way to heal it, to restore the sight in that eye? I’d have done it.

I walk back up the road, leaving a good luck wish hanging silently in the air, a small attempt to reciprocate the blessing. Thinking about the name:

Kotare, Halcyon sancta. The sacred kingfisher.

[1] I still can't work out why blogger decides to display some photos at their original size but others reduced (for example. the original Melianthus and blackberry photos are exactly the same dimensions but the blackberry photo won't display at the reduced size (400 pixels wide)). If anyone knows what's happening, please email me (the address is under my profile photo)).

[2] As is often the case, these photos are not intended to illustrate the post. There's a connection, but they're not riddles—my hope is that you'll simply understand (at some level) the relationship between text and image. What you might find and be able to articulate is an intellectual exercise: interesting, but not essential. I've probably said too much anyway.

Photo 1: Cape honey flower, Melianthus major; Point Arthur, Eastbourne.
Photo 3: Evening beach near Pencarrow Head, Wellington harbour.
Photo 3: Wild blackberry flower; Pohangina Valley.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor


Duncan said...

Strangely, I had a similar experience the other day. I was looking at some images I had taken of King Parrots at the bird bath, and there was one with a blind left eye. The bird was a magnificent adult and didn't appear to be handicapped in any way. The sight gave me a jolt too. It's amazing how they adapt and survive though, we had an Eastern Rosella feeding on eucalypt seed in our garden years ago, it was completely missing the top member of its beak. The bottom was very overgrown, but it was using it dexterously to extract the seed from the woody fruit. Whether it was congenital, or the result of an injury we don't know, but it was surviving very well.t

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why other people fear death. For myself it is the fear of nothingness. When I think of death I try and wrap my head around the idea of not existing and I can not. It is too large of an idea for this small brain. I know that it is illogical that when I cease to exist there will be nothing left to comprehend it but still. I remember as a child I had a recurring nightmare, which basically was a calm calm sea, stretching off forever. To this day I can't tell you why it scared me so, but I think it is the same.. the emptiness. As far as the death of others, I fear not having them around. I can't imagine life without my parents but know that I will have to face it.

When Janice got sick we wanted to do as much as we could so as not to give in to death. At the same time, she did not want her death prolonged needlessly. It becomes a line that is too nebulous to define properly. Measures get more extraordinary as you want to continue the fight. And you don't want to let go of each other. You just don't want to let go.

Anonymous said...

Have plenty of hope for your special kotare, Pete. With eyes placed to the side it has a fairly small angle of binocular vision and perhaps it has adapted well to its visual limitations. Certainly a lack of binocular sight makes the judgement of distance difficult, but not impossible, surely. Try going around with monocular vision yourself - one eye shut - and you'll find you can still judge distance pretty well (although I guess you have no need to make the rapid and fine judgements a feeding kingfisher does!) For one thing, objects get bigger the closer you approach them and perhaps the experience of previous binocular vision helps. You observed no obvious recent injury that might have caused the blindness, the bird looked fit and well, it flew to another perch and landed expertly. Perhaps that eye has been blind for a while. One danger, though, is increased by its lack of vision to the whole of one side - it is more vulnerable to predators. However, as long as it turns to monitor its blind side, as it did when you were watching it, it stands a fair chance of noticing these in time to evade them.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. I don't want it to die, either.

As to accepting your own eventual death but not that of others: the short answer is that for the latter you'll still be around to suffer the loss, but your own death, once accomplished, will not be your concern. That's a bit bald, though. We're creatures of emotions and we respond to the fundamental element of life in others. Thinking back to your special Halcyon sancta: who wouldn't want it to live? If it had been found dead, wouldn't we have been touched by the stilling of its life, the decay of its physical beauty, the end to its graceful movement? Aren't we who have only seen it vicariously also touched by its recognition of another living creature, its determination to live against the odds? In death, the body becomes a shell from which the indefinable spirit that informs it has gone and the loss is felt by the living who observe it.
I wrote that late last evening, intending to check it over before posting to make sure that I had said what I intended. I got up this morning to my own tiny grief. A couple of days ago, in late, grey, damp afternoon, I rescued a female monarch butterfly from the middle of the driveway where, running out of energy with a drop in air temperature, it had settled. I had hoped to warm it sufficiently indoors so that it would feed on syrup, then I could release it on the next warm sunny day in the hope that, well-fed, it would find its way back to its local wintering-over place. Alas, with a lack of sunshine yesterday it never recovered sufficiently to feed and this morning I found it upside-down and dead on the floor of its makeshift butterfly-house. In hindsight, would leaving it outside for a speedier death have been preferable? I hope I have more success with the lone monarch caterpillar which has survived against the odds for six or seven weeks on a small self-sown swan plant seedling and which I found yesterday setting off to pupate. With the cool grey days we are having, and frosts imminent, its chance of completing its life cycle was slim. I brought it indoors and at present it is hanging in an inverted comma from a twig in the butterfly-house. I hope that in due course it is able to emerge successfully as a butterfly and be released on a warm winter's day when we see other monarchs about.

Anonymous said...

I look at the whales and the polar bears,
and the three bears our forebears,
and humans - it's strictly the humans -
wiping these LIVINGS out -
to descend to one man, alone on earth -
not a woman -
and then we can wrap things up, thru his eyes;
and view the weatherless sea we so desire...

I hate that man;
I hate that ash flat -
I have lain face down in it,
burns on my back,
wishing to evaporate,
and ascend...

I'm going to die.

We're all going to die.

It's individuals that die.

To end the whales by hate is a grave gift.
We take.

Ending life is our specialty.

To the end we come, with every gathered thing.

Anonymous said...

Duncan: interesting how these coincidences occur — but I'm suspicious of "coincidence"; I think it's often misunderstood, and when you think of the number of possible events, some are bound to happen and we shouldn't be surprised by those. It's good to hear your bird is doing so well — it tends to confirm what Peregrina suggests, and makes me think that initial sadness was probably misplaced.

Clare: I think you've summed up the most common attitudes very well indeed. Certainly, your feelings about death are close to mine, although I find your dream/nightmare interesting: the idea of that sea stretching on forever actually sounds like something I could long for. In some way it has that wabi-sabi element.

Peregrina: Thanks for the encouragement — and your arguments make sense. I know I'm looking forward to seeing the kotare again (soon, I trust) and I'll feel a little more hopeful in light of your comments and Duncan's experience with the King Parrot. Good luck for the monarch :^)

Anonymous: Thanks for the poem. I was particularly struck by that simple, isolated statement: "It's individuals that die." That, I think, has much to do with our fear. But, while there's so much sadness in the poem, it's important for me to remember that life is also full of joy, optimism, and delight. Hope there's plenty of that in your life, too. :^)

Anonymous said...

Pete: I agree with your comment that coincidences are often misunderstood. They can acquire a significance that doesn't actually exist if we attribute to them something other than sheer chance. There must be all those other coincidences that we haven't noticed because they haven't been relevant to us at the time. However, as humans we are programmed to observe patterns, even a pattern of two, which is no doubt why we are surprised, or at least notice, when two or more similar things happen about the same time.

Anonymous said...

Yes — how often have you heard someone remark how things "happen in threes"? Hmmm... "a pattern of two." I like the ambiguity. Thanks for the observations and insights, Peregrina. Good to see you here.

Anonymous said...

Like some wag said... "It's not that life is too short, it's just the alternative is so damn long".

Anonymous said...

Nice one Clare!

Anonymous said...

This first comment is not meant to make light of all of the above discussion - but hearing of the one-eyed Kotare suddenly brought back the memory of a one-eyed fancy rooster we once had here at the farm. Our acquisition of said rooster has always been something of joke between my husband and I. We dropped by at a fancy bird sale, just to see what was going on, and on the spur of the moment, Don bid on this beautiful big rooster as its box was placed on the auctioneer's table. We should have known there was something amiss when there were no other bids. Don picked up the bird in the box and put it in our truck. When we got home and released him, we noticed that he was missing an eye. We gave him the not-very-original name of "One-eyed Jack". He was the king of the flock -- I think you could say that he ruled the roost with an iron beak. It seems some birds (at least domestic ones), manage well despite visual handicaps.

Now, to be more serious. Regarding thoughts on death and the dying of others. Yes, I may understand what you mean. It seems harder to think about losing those close to me (human or otherwise), than thinking about my own demise. Having lost several close friends and family, I'm familiar with the sharp sadness that comes with contemplating the loss of someone. The odd part is that I worry very little about the possibility of my own death. Last year, I had an uncomfortably close brush with death and remember lying there calmly thinking, "Is this how it ends?" Fortunately, due to some good people, my story doesn't end there and I'm still kicking around. (-: I suppose I should be more afraid of death now, but oddly enough, I think it may be the reverse. However, I still worry about others.. my friends, my family, my dog, and much more beyond. Maybe that's just how it is to be a caring being. Not sure.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Bev; having had roosters of varying personalities, I can imagine yours well.

I'm interested in your close encounter, too. Several years ago I took a big fall while climbing, and remember vividly the sense of calm while I was plummeting. I truly believed I might be killed, but felt no fear — more a sense of disappointment that so much remained unfinished. Fortunately, I just busted some ribs... But, as you and others have noted, that feeling about the death of others being of more concern than your own, seems common. Whenever I think hard enough about death, life, and the very fact of existence ("being", I suppose), I seem to end up less able to comprehend those concepts. As Clare said, it's just too large an idea for my small brain.

Thanks for the thoughts, Bev.

Anonymous said...

Pete - I find it interesting that you should mention having felt "a sense of disappointment that so much remained unfinished." That's pretty much what flashed through my mind as I looked around -- a sort of sadness at what was left unfinished, and also that I might not get to say goodbye to a few people. Do you think your experience changed anything about the way you think or how you do things now? In my own case, I don't think it made a great difference as I've pretty much lived in the moment regardless of what's been going on in my life. However, I might just try to fit a little more into each day now. (-:

Anonymous said...

One of the best bits of advice that I got during Janice's illness, was for me to let her know that should she die, that I would be alright. Like many others she was more worried for the people she was leaving than for herself. Letting her know that I wanted her to live on, but if she didn't I would end up alright was important, and did much to aleviate her anxiety.

KSG said...

Pete, thank you for that retelling! The kotare sounds like a real survivor...what a bird! Seeing things such as this (e.g. an old one legged dog who rules our neighbourhood and owns the hearts of us all; my old terrier dog who lived to 17 years of age, two of those completely blind, and it took us all a few months to realise she was...!) reminds me of the tenaciousness of life as much as the vulnerability of individual life forms. Like you and Bev, I had the experience of being convinced I was going to die (in a serious car crash 3 years ago) and all I remember thinking was "ooops, we won't come out of this one"! I didn't have time to feel fear for myself but did feel utter terror for my young daughter, who was with me at the time. We both survived - albeit with a some injuries - but when we looked back at the wreck from the back of our ambulance we realised how damn lucky we were....! I don't fear death any more or less as a result - from as far back as I can remember, I have wondered as much about where I was BEFORE birth as I have about where I will be afterwards and have often wondered why so many of us fear one end of our existence more than the other...?

Anonymous said...

Bev, I don't think it made a noticeable difference to how I think and act; however, it's hard for me to know, because my life and my attitude towards it were both changing substantially — not so much altering direction as growing rapidly; evolving. Like your experience, I think mine confirmed I was heading in the right direction (I don't mean, "downwards", either!)

Clare, that seems like great advice. What I'd find difficult (probably agonisingly so) would be to find the right balance between the two aspects. I just hope that if I'm faced with that situation, I cope with it as well as you seem to have done.

Kiwisoupgirl — did you really mean "one-legged"? To rule a neighbourhood with three legs missing seems like an amazing accomplishment! Maybe he/she's related to Rocky?

It's tempting to offer the obvious response to your question about why we fear just one end of our existence (in some strange sense, we "survived" it), but I think I understand what you're saying. Perhaps it resembles those impossible questions: "how is that I'm here; how is it that I exist at all; why am I me and not someone else? I think logicians would say they're "ill-formed" questions, but to me, that reflects the inadequacy of logic rather than the uselessness of the questions. These seem like questions for meditation, not analysis.

Anonymous said...

[I'm posting this on behalf of Rob — with his permission, of course. Pete]

The last comment from ‘kiwisoupgirl’ on your latest, thought provoking, post raises an interesting concept which had also occurred to me, i.e. that the ‘before life’ is relevant to the question of the ‘after life’. For example, 100 years ago I, (presumably), didn’t exist in bodily form. Of course there’s the argument that my potential for existence was present within my ancestors and survived their deaths via their offspring; but we accept this only because we are aware of that process.

When someone dies they move beyond our awareness, (apart from memory), so we assume they cease to exist. But is something’s existence dependent upon our awareness? Consider the discovery of a ‘new’ species of plant, animal or even a galaxy which presumably existed for thousands or billions of years beyond our awareness yet until its discovery it didn’t exist from our perspective..

I don’t understand the nature of post-death, but that it may exist as a state other than ‘oblivion’ is surely as possible as the discovery of any other ‘new’ life form, perhaps more so as I have yet to hear an adequate definition for ‘oblivion’. What the hell is oblivion anyway? Can you have a box full of oblivion? A perfect vacuum isn’t oblivion, (otherwise known as nothing) because it still possesses space, time and light, (or lack of). Trying to grasp the concept is like grabbing a handful of air. People who dismiss concepts of an after-life usually do so on the grounds that they lack evidence and are therefore unjustifiable. But does their alternative – oblivion - fare any better when challenged for proof? In fact oblivion is to my thinking a vague concept used to counterbalance the concept of the reality, (reality being the observable; things we are aware of), and yet ironically detractors often criticise belief in an after-life as ‘unrealistic’. The oft’ heard statement, “there’s nothing after death”, is as unacceptable to me as someone stating “We’ve discovered oblivion”.

Next time someone says ‘there’s nothing after death’ ask them to define ‘nothing’ – then ask them if they’re comfortable believing in that concept – then ask them if they may like to reconsider.

Cheers Pete

[I love that idea of a box full of oblivion... Nice one Rob; great thoughts. Pete]

Anonymous said...

Three coats in the wind, the bad bird and the poor fish!

At a sea three old Zen monks lived,
in their mirror-image-ritual development had so far progressed,
that in their environment wondrous things happened.

If they had terminated their Meditation in the morning and to bathing into the sea went,
they hung their meditations-mantle
simply into the wind.
And the coats remained floating in the wind, until the monks returned,
in order to tighten it again.

A daily, when the three straight bathed, they observed,
as suddenly a large sea-eagle down-pushed on the water,
and as it itself again into air vogue,
a thrashing around fish in the bill held.

The monk said: “Bad bird!”
There its coat fell on the sand.
The second monk said: “Poor fish!”
There also its coat fell to soil.

The third monk checked the bird, that with the thrashing around fish in the bill
on the horizon slowly ever smaller and smaller became
and finally disappeared completely.

He was silent - and its coat remained hanging in the wind.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Anon — the style reminds me of Rumi with a bit of Beat. Nice; and I'm in the process of writing something about silence. Hmmm...

KSG said...

:-) yep, ya got me Pete...for some obscure reason I was thinking of that (particularly NZ?) saying "useless as a one legged man at an a** kicking party" as I was typing that... Hence the one legged dog appeared! Superdog? Batdog? *grin*

3 legs it has - and aged 18 years old. Name of Buddy. Perfect name!

I loved your bro's post - "grabbing a handful of air" - that felt right, that sense of determined hopelessness. How can we deny our present existence, at at the same time deny the energy that we came with/come from? I can't imagine not existing, before OR after my current life....it just does not compute. And I find, increasingly, that I feel increasingly alienated from so many people I have known a long long time as a result of that "sense". A sense of grief attaches, and a sense of wonder, all at once. I need/want to meditate on the things this post has been bringing forward for me...

Another thank you - to you and your bro. :-)

Anonymous said...

Yes KSG, it's been a good post for encouraging excellent comments. And that expression of yours, about the one-legged man... I just cracked up. It reminded me of a phrase I heard on one of the U.S. cartoon shows — King of the Hill perhaps, or maybe Beavis & Butthead (truly, the only time I ever saw a snippet of it): someone saying, "I'm as frustrated as a one-legged cat trying to bury turds on an icefield." I nearly snorted an antler out my nose (Gary Larsson, that one...)

Now I need to try to get this new post written...

KSG said...

*guffaw*! I may have to use that one someday... I have to say, though, only Gary Larsson could come up with the antler out the nose thing....! He is so out there and bizarre he is brilliant.
*still smiling*

Looking forward to reading your new post. :-)