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.


The Beach and the Soul: Anne Morrow Lindbergh on the Benedictions of the Sea

The Beach and the Soul: Anne Morrow Lindbergh on the Benedictions of the Sea

“Without a body there’s no soul and without the latter there’s no way to speak about the sea,” the poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan wrote in her superb meditation on the sea and the soul. “No one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry,” Rachel Carson insisted. Because the beach is where the body meets the sea, it is a place of encounter with the native poetry of the soul — a place to be “washed of all the excrescences of so-called civilization, which includes the incapacity to be happy under any circumstances,” as Anaïs Nin observed in contemplating the beach as training ground for presence. It was on the beach alone at night that Walt Whitman touched eternity.

One summer in the early 1950s, Anne Morrow Lindbergh (June 22, 1906–February 7, 2001) left her husband and five children home in the suburbs of New York City and headed for beach in search of communion with her own soul. In Gift from the Sea (public library), in lovely prose winged with the poetic, she channels what she found through the patient work of surrender and shimmering receptivity.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Lindbergh writes:

The beach is not the place to work; to read, write or think… Too warm, too damp, too soft for any real mental discipline or sharp flights of spirit… The books remain unread, the pencils break their points and the pads rest smooth and unblemished as the cloudless sky. No reading, no writing, no thoughts even—at least, not at first.

At first, the tired body takes over completely… One is forced against one’s mind, against all tidy resolutions, back into the primeval rhythms of the seashore. Rollers on the beach, wind in the pines, the slow flapping of herons across sand dunes, drown out the hectic rhythms of city and suburb, time tables and schedules. One falls under their spell, relaxes, stretches out prone. One becomes, in fact, like the element on which one lies, flattened by the sea; bare, open, empty as the beach, erased by today’s tides of all yesterday’s scribblings.

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

But this elemental surrender does not come easily, or quickly, to the captive of civilization and all its deadening compulsions of productivity — it takes time to surrender. For Lindbergh, in an era when airplanes were young and the Internet unborn, that time was two weeks. I wonder what the technology-induced inflation would be today.

She writes:

And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense — no — but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach. One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up, on the smooth white sand of the conscious mind; what perfectly rounded stone, what rare shell from the ocean floor. Perhaps a channelled whelk, a moon shell or even an argonaut.

Argonauta argo by Frederick Nodder, 1793. (Available as a print and as a bath mat, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

In a caveat central to every meditation practice and every true unbidden love, she adds:

But it must not be sought for or — heaven forbid! — dug for. No, no dredging of the sea bottom here. That would defeat one’s purpose. The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach — waiting for a gift from the sea.

Complement with Rachel Carson on the ocean and the meaning of life, then revisit Lindbergh on embracing change in relationships.


The Pleasure of Being Left Alone

The Pleasure of Being Left Alone

There is a form of being together that feels as easy and spacious as being alone, when your experience is not crowded out or eclipsed by the presence of the other but deepened and magnified. Such companionship is extremely rare and extremely precious. All other company, no matter how dear, inevitably reaches a saturation point and begins to suffocate. If one is an introvert, that point comes sooner and more violently. A return to solitude then becomes nothing less than a rapture.

Rose Macaulay (August 1, 1881–October 30, 1958) channels this ecstatic relief with great charm and poetic passion in a piece from Personal Pleasures: Essays on Enjoying Life (public library) — her 1935 collection of reflections kindred to, and a century ahead of, poet Ross Gay’s wonderful Book of Delights.

Rose Macaulay

Despite publishing twenty-two books in twenty years, alongside numerous essays, poems, and newspaper columns — prolificacy only possible through the deepest and most undistracted solitude, haunted by Susan Sontag’s lament that “one can never be alone enough to write” — Macaulay was no hermit. She gave talks, attended events, threw parties, and appeared frequently on public radio to offer incisive commentary on the state of the world. During WWI, she worked as a nurse and a civil servant. During WWII, like Marie Curie a war earlier, she became a volunteer ambulance driver at the age of sixty. She regularly wrote to the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary — her favorite book — with suggestions, corrections, and improvements. (“To amend so great a work gives me pleasure,” she writes in one of these essays on life’s littlest and deepest joys.) When her flat was demolished in the Blitz, all her books destroyed, it was the dictionary volumes she most mourned. When she rebuilt her home, she continued hosting friends for salons and soirees.

But despite her surface sociality, Macaulay embodied the true test of an introvert — not whether one engages in social activity, but whether one is charged or drained by it. In an essay titled “Departure of Visitors,” she exults in the pleasure of being at last left alone:

An exquisite peace obtains: a drowsy, golden peace, flowing honey-sweet over my dwelling, soaking it, dripping like music from the walls, strowing the floors like trodden herbs. A peace for gods; a divine emptiness.


The easy chair spreads wide arms of welcome; the sofa stretches, guest-free; the books gleam, brown and golden, buff and blue and maroon, from their shelves; they may strew the floor, the chairs, the couch, once more, lying ready to the hand… The echo of the foolish words lingers on the air, is brushed away, dies forgotten, the air closes behind it. A heavy volume is heaved from its shelf on to the sofa. Silence drops like falling blossoms over the recovered kingdom from which pretenders have taken their leave.

What to do with all this luscious peace? It is a gift, a miracle, a golden jewel, a fragment of some gracious heavenly order, dropped to earth like some incredible strayed star. One’s life to oneself again. Dear visitors, what largesse have you given, not only in departing, but in coming, that we might learn to prize your absence, wallow the more exquisitely in the leisure of your not-being.

Art by Dasha Tolstikova from A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader

Paradoxically, even Macaulay’s muse was a visitor from whom she eventually needed a break. In another essay, she offers a strikingly similar inner response to finishing a book — that moment when, upon setting down the last word on the last page, the mind becomes uncrowded again. She writes:

Leisure spreads before my dazzled eyes, a halcyon sea, too soon to be cumbered with the flotsam and jetsam of purposes long neglected, which will, I know it, drift quickly into view again once I am embarked upon that treacherous, enticing ocean. Leisure now is but a brief business, and past return are the days when it seemed to stretch, blue and unencumbered, between one occupation and the next. There are always arrears, always things undone, doubtless never to be done, putting up teasing, reproachful heads, so that, although I slug, I slug among the wretched souls whom care doth seek to kill. But now, just emerged as I am from the tangled and laborious thicket which has so long embosked me, I will contemplate a sweet and unencumbered slugging, a leisure and a liberty as of lotus eaters or gods.

Couple with May Sarton’s stunning ode to the art of being alone from the era of Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures, then revisit Olivia Laing on the modern art of being alone amid the crowd and Stephen Batchelor’s field guide to glad solitude.


A Glow in the Consciousness: The Continuous Creative Act of Seeing Clearly

A Glow in the Consciousness: The Continuous Creative Act of Seeing Clearly

There is no pure perception — of a flower, of a mountain, of a person. In everything we look at, we see partly a reflection of ourselves — a projection of an internal model seeking to approximate the actuality. If we are conscious enough and unafraid enough of being surprised, we will keep testing the model against reality, incrementally ceding the imagined to the actual. One measure of love — perhaps the deepest measure — is the willingness to remove the projection in order to perceive what is truly there. There is both sorrow and consolation in knowing that although we can only ever glimpse parts of the totality beyond us, we can keep trying to see more clearly in order to love more deeply.

I am reminded of a passage from The Living Mountain (public library) — that uncommon masterpiece of attention and affection by the Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd (February 11, 1893–February 23, 1981) — illustrating this paradox of perception.

Up in the Scottish Highlands, Shepherd discovers how the illusions of perception depend on one’s position, physical as much as psychic. She writes:

A scatter of white flowers in grass, looked at through half-closed eyes, blaze out with a sharp clarity as though they had actually risen up out of their background. Such illusions, depending on how the eye is placed and used, drive home the truth that our habitual vision of things is not necessarily right: it is only one of an infinite number, and to glimpse an unfamiliar one, even for a moment, unmakes us, but steadies us again.

This overwhelming infinity of possible perceptions is what attention evolved to protect us from — that “intentional, unapologetic discriminator,” selecting a handful of parts out of the totality in order to construct the projected image.

Without a conscious clearing of the lens, the eye sees what the mind has already imagined.

René Magritte. The False Mirror. 1929. (Museum of Modern Art.)

As her vision encounters the myriad tessellated realities of the mountain, Shepherd considers what it takes to “look creatively” in order to see more clearly:

How can I number the worlds to which the eye gives me entry? — the world of light, of colour, of shape, of shadow: of mathematical precision in the snowflake, the ice formation, the quartz crystal, the patterns of stamen and petal: of rhythm in the fluid curve and plunging line of the mountain faces. Why some blocks of stone, hacked into violent and tortured shapes, should so profoundly tranquillise the mind I do not know. Perhaps the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle — as beauty… A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see. And forms of a certain distinction: mere dollops won’t do it. It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind: but the resultant issue is a living spirit, a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead. It is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.

Meanwhile on another landmass, Frida Kahlo was confronting the challenge of fully knowing another, writing to the complicated love of her life that “only one mountain can know the core of another mountain” — a poetic reminder that getting to know one another’s depths may be the supreme “continuous creative act,” the great triumph of perception over projection.

Complement with Oliver Sacks on the necessity of our illusions and Iain McGilchrist on how we render reality with attention as an instrument of love, then revisit the young Charles Darwin’s encounter with God in the mountains and the surrealist French poet and philosopher René Daumal on the mountain and the meaning of life.


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