Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Mr. Bingley's birds

A memory of my walk around Malta.

I was walking a cliff path on the back side of the island (away from Valletta), which for a short way ran by the side of a road. A man driving a 4x4 ahead of me screeched to a stop, jumped out with his gun, and blasted away at a flying bird I took to be a swallow. The bird fell into the sea where it was irretrievable. The man jumped back in his vehicle and sped away.

I sat down at the pathside and wept. Not for the bird. Or for myself. But for the human species. If a swallow can be killed with such conscienceless nonchalance, what other atrocities are we capable of?

Well, we know the answer to that.

No, Carmen, I have no proof that this fellow's satisfaction at shooting the bird out of the sky has a genetic component, and you are right to be agnostic. But is it an unreasonable supposition?

European songbirds are born with the instinct to fly over Malta on their annual migrations to and from Northern Africa, a rather remarkable navigational feat when you think about it, something they probably "learned" long before the Maltese acquired firearms (or the island acquired Maltese). And humans, who spent most of our species' history and protohistory hunting and gathering -- might not we carry some of that as a genetic residue?

Then there's the whole psychosexual thing, the gun as phallus. Now I'm really on speculative ground. Genetic? Cultural? Mr. Bingley? Perhaps Jane Austen, or you, could help us out here.

When I was in Malta, there was still talk of an incident that occurred earlier that year. Hunters in a speedboat -- all male of course -- in front of horrified onlookers, killed eight out of 10 mute swans that were swimming in the island's St. Thomas Bay.