Friday, May 30, 2008

Through a glass darkly

For a bird that has no song -- only a call that we'll get to in a minute -- this little fellow has been making a heck of a racket. For the last week I have been having my morning coffee in the deserted College Commons, in a comfy chair near a big wall of glass windows that look out into the trees. And every morning this mad male nuthatch has been rattling his beak relentlessly against the glass. Is it his reflection he is attracted to? I have thought about opening a window and letting him in, but then it would be impossible in this big space to get him out again. So I sit here and type on my silent keyboard and imagine his clack-clack-clack is the sound of a typewriter.

But it's impossible to put him out of mind. His persistence, hour after hour, day after day, suggests a kind of insanity. Will he never learn that the bird in the glass that follows him from sill to sill is only a reflection of himself? His bird brain has not grasped the concept of mirror.

Why should I feel superior? I wrote here yesterday about projection. Knowing nothing quite so well as we think we know ourselves, we project our hopes and desires onto those we love, and onto the universe itself. We peck-peck-peck at the cosmic glass we see through darkly, mistaking our reflections for divinity.

Back to the nuthatch. No sound is quite so delightful in a snowy winter woods as the nuthatch in its element, using its hatchet beak to open nuts it has so diligently squirreled away. The inimitable F. Schuyler Mathews, who a century ago set out to score the music of wild birds, didn't know quite what to do with the nuthatch. Yank-yank-yank is the best he comes up with for the nuthatch's call, the first A or B above middle-C on the piano keyboard, he says, "in a clear falsetto, best imitated by pinching the nose and singing the note staccato." He goes even further and likens the call to the nasal twang of a down-East Yankee farmer's wife who lifts her voice to call "Dan," the boy who goes for the "caows." Talk about projecting ourselves onto the universe!