Saturday, April 27, 2013

`Unsullen, Unresentful, Full of the Grace of Cheerfulness'

My wife killed a squirrel last week with her car and a few days earlier I struck and presumably killed a white-winged dove that bounced off the undercarriage of the Olds. Both lingered too long in the street and we over-estimated their speed and reaction time. Neither of us is a speeder and both of us felt a little sickened and guilty, and kept driving. On the way to work Friday morning, a gray-brown bit of fluff that I think was a chipping sparrow hit my windshield from the left side, skidded across the glass and dropped into the street on the right. In my rear-view mirror I watched it flutter on the pavement before taking off again, flying toward a strip mall. Another sickly wave of guilt. 

Since 2004, Reaktion Books of London has published almost sixty volumes in its “Animal Series,” each devoted not to a species but a larger category of animal – oysters, flies or moose. A recent entry in the series, Sparrow by Kim Todd, begins like this: “The sparrow is a slight bird, small and dun-coloured, easily crushed.” Todd cites Matthew 10:29 and Hamlet – “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” – before adding: 

“In a world fascinated by the predatory and breathtakingly beautiful, the sparrow is the type of the common and humble. There’s something generic about it. Picture the basic bird, the stripped-down, super-efficiency model, and a sparrow probably comes to mind….The Hebrew word that gets translated to the English `sparrow’ means `bird’ in general, particularly a twittering one. The root of the Old English spearwa means `flutterer’. Its Latin name, passer, was adopted as the root of `passerine’, the name for the largest order of birds, all those that perch and sing.” 

That’s how I’ve always thought of sparrows as a class of bird. They are the template of all species. In a word-association game, “bird” would never elicit “emu” or “ptarmigan,” only sparrow. They are the dandelion among birds – tough, resourceful, common. Nige, too, is an admirer, as was the great Anthony Hecht in “House Sparrows” (The Venetian Vespers, 1979): 

“Yet here they are, these chipper stratoliners,
Unsullen, unresentful, full of the grace
Of cheerfulness, who seem to greet all comers
With the wild confidence of Forty-Niners,
And, to the lively honour of their race,
Rude canticles of `Summers,’, `Summers,’ `Summers.’”


Jonathan Chant said...

I know that sickening feeling too. Today, after reading this fine post, I've been seeing sparrows in a new light.

Unknown said...

Your post reminds me of Barry Lopez's exquisite essay on "Road Kills" which I first discovered in Harper's Magazine but which has since been reformatted in a picture book version called "Apologia". In Mexico, I have driven by shocking road kills running to the size of donkeys and horses.