Saturday, February 28, 2009

Avian reflections

It is 6:25 am and getting light outside. There is a tapping on the window which opens my eyes. It is my friend the red cardinal - this time the RED cardinal, the boybird. Sometimes his more demure brown mate comes instead. There is a tall bush brushing up against the window on the outside. The cardinals do not nest there, but it offers a safe place to hang out, and they can often be found skittering among the leaves. The tapping stops, and I go back to sleep. As if playing snooze-button, the tapping begins again at 7am precisely, at another point on the window.

After my father died, my sister was sleeping in an upstairs room in the Lothersdale house. She was woken up by a black bird pecking at the window, 'trying to get in'. It's hard not to think of Hitchcock's adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's story 'The Birds', or of the folkloric associations of death and the raven. What was the bird really doing?

When my kids were small, I told them bedtime stories. At one point they shared bunk beds in a room in a Victorian house that had a blocked-off fireplace. With a small turn of the imagination, it looked like a tiny door, perhaps out of a Narnia story. I would tell M&C about the magical world that it opened onto; they were sceptical and yet entranced.

Lacan writes of a certain structural alienation that we each undergo as humans, the stage of psychological development he dubs the 'mirror stage'. As young children (6-18 months) we experience ourselves as an image in the mirror, and for the first time grasp ourselves as a whole. But the price for this integration is a certain alienation - we identify ourselves with an image.

It has been said that no other creature can do this. But this is increasingly disputed. "Animals that have passed the mirror test are all of the great apes (bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, and humans), bottlenose dolphins, orcas, elephants, and European magpies. Initially, it was thought that gorillas do not pass the test, but there are now several well-documented reports (such as one gorilla, Koko) of gorillas passing the test. In 1981, Epstein, Lanza and Skinner published a paper in the journal Science in which they argued that the pigeon also passes the mirror test. Pigeons though could only detect the spots on their own body after they had been trained to and untrained pigeons have never been able to pass the mirror test. Dogs, cats, and young human children all fail the mirror test." [Wikipedia]

What are my red cardinals up to? Perhaps at the back of their bush they have found a doorway onto another world. They have found a place at which, at a certain point in the day, perhaps quite a narrow time 'window', they encounter something quite uncanny - something we would call their reflection in the glass, but which must at first seem like a competitor. One can only imagine the conversations between boy and girl cardinal, and the confused jealousies: "There's another guy hanging around!". "Oh yeah - she looked like a pretty cool chick to me."

Parallel plate-glass windows on two sides of a house are known to be fatal for birds, not because they are frozen, petrified, by an encounter with their own image, but because they can see right through the glass and fly headlong into a broken neck, and a crumpled twitter. But at my window, there is perhaps not tragedy - more the stirrings of an avian uncanny. Heidegger writes about the way in which a great thinker can glimpse something but not truly recognize what they have glimpsed. Could a cardinal hop away from the window puzzled, having failed to see off the intruder?

We humans think we are safely perched in that higher category of beings that can see themselves in a mirror, opening up the possibility of reflection. And yet when the effects of what we are doing to the planet are reflected back to us in the shape of antarctic glaciers slipping into the sea, we seem unable to recognize our own hand at work. Might it not be that what we construct as the site of the red cardinal's puzzlement mirrors our own predicament? To 'see' what is in front of our nose, requires a Copernican shift of frame. As for the cardinals: the danger out there is not an alien intruder, it is us.