The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Befriending a Blackbird

Befriending a Blackbird

Friendship is a lifeline twined of truth and tenderness. That we extend it to each other is benediction enough. To extend it across the barrier of biology and sentience, to another creature endowed with a wholly other consciousness, partakes of the miraculous.

Born in England in the final year of the nineteenth century, Hockley Clarke grew up loving nature. When he was sent to France with the British infantry during WWI, still a teenager, he looked for birds whenever he was out of the trenches or had a day’s rest, listening for them through the blaze of the machine guns, once hearing the song of the nightingale clear and bright over a heap of dead bodies. “Although I am not a religious man,” he would later write, “I have always regarded birds and all wild life as the manifestations of God.”

Having narrowly survived, he founded a bird magazine he went on to edit single-handedly for forty years, writing numerous books about birds along the way. He continued birding into his nineties.

Art by Thomas Jackson from Our Feathered Companions, 1870. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting the Audubon Society.)

In Blackie & Co. (public library), Clarke tells the story a blackbird family who took up residence in his wildly overgrown garden and his own family’s tender friendship with the birds. Emanating from it is a moving meditation on our capacity for connection with other creatures, kindred to the story of Beatrice Harrison and the nightingales.

In the savage winter of 1962 — the coldest weather to strike Europe in eighty years (which didn’t stop Dervla Murphy from mounting her bicycle in Ireland headed for India) — a blackbird began roosting in Clarke’s elderberry. He named him Blackie and began bringing him food first thing every morning and again in the evening as the snow and ice lasted for weeks and weeks.

Soon, Blackie was flying out of the tree at meal time, greeting Clarke with “a few glad chuckles.” Something began growing between man and bird, some unbroken thread of trust and tenderness. Clarke writes:

Blackie and I had an understanding on those cold mornings. I spoke to him; he knew my voice and I am sure that he answered in his own language, of which I thought I had some understanding. There was perfect trust between us, a source of joy to me, and it must have been a comfort to him. Perhaps birds understand more than we think.

Male and female blackbird by Elizabeth Gould from Birds of Great Britain by John Gould, 1837. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting the Audubon Society.)

Throughout the book, Clarke details the building blocks of that understanding over the course of the decade Blackie stayed in his garden — the small gestures of sympathy and sensitivity to another’s reality, affirming the Zen tenet that “understanding is the essence of love.” In the final chapter, titled “Valediction,” Clarke reflects on the challenge of comprehending another consciousness by applying to it the frames of reference shaped by our own — including our understanding of what an emotion is, so inseparable from our creaturely biology. He writes:

The relationship between ourselves and these birds threw up a finer feeling, something that cannot be described, and they responded to it without, possibly, being conscious of it at all. It would be rash to think birds are emotional. It would never do for them to be so, seeing the suffering and fatalities that take place, but they are capable of developing a finer feeling if they are allowed and encouraged to do so. This is made up of qualities such as confidence in the person with whom they come into close contact regularly, which motivates a feeling of trust in them and they respond. To put all their actions down to “cupboard love,” or self-interest, would be to rob the relationship of a glow and purpose.

Couple with J.A. Baker’s decade-long communion with a peregrine, then revisit naturalist Sy Montgomery on what befriending thirteen animals taught her about being more fully human.

Published June 16, 2024




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