We’re going to ascend into the symbolism, metaphor and animism of the Bird Garden’s cloudy skies. And we’re in grave danger of being pecked by haters of anthropomorphism.
Although ‘animism – the instinctive experience of reciprocity or exchange between the perceiver and the perceived—lies at the heart of all human perception’ (David Abram, Magic and the Machine essay in Emergence Magazine) it doesn’t work as an alternative word to ‘anthropo’. It means something different.
I’m offering a new word: ‘empopomorphic’. or ‘empopomorphism’, drawing on the suffix from the word ‘empathy’.
I know I’m not a bird or animal or tree but, nevertheless, we share something. And the word empathy according to Merriam Webster reads: ‘the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.’ Its roots come from the Greek from emotion or feeling. It is this capacity to feel directly from subtle communications with non-humans as well as humans which I’m alluding to. Empopo is the antithesis of anthropo where we attribute human characteristics to humans. sense, albeit faintly, some characteristic of the non-human.
I’m with Robert Macfarlane when he says, ‘Like Kimmerer I believe that we need, now, ‘a grammar of animacy’.’ [Underland by Robert Macfarlane p. 112].
Esther Woolfson, one of our ‘murder of writers’ and author of the most unanthropo and truly empopo books on corvids I’ve ever read says, ‘Anthropomorphism, the ascribing of human characteristics to non-humans is, at its worst, reductive, a close and pernicious relative of sentimentality, or else it’s self-justifying, the desire to mould ideas and images of animals in ways which allow humans to control or understand only within the narrow framework of what we ourselves may be, stemming perhaps from a desire to idealise, or from the atavistic fear of the other, the wish to order the natural world in a way that will reinforce or reflect a morality we may ourselves have lost or forfeited.’ (She’s also a charming old-fashioned user of the long sentence!).
Esther goes on to say, ‘But trying to understand, for humans, is only possible through the sole means we have, the filter of ourselves and our fears, our prejudices and of and often irrational beliefs. The lines we draw between sentiment and rigour are fine indeed.’ She then quotes Rachel Carson from ‘Under the Sea Wind’ in 1941, ‘we must not depart too far from analogy with human conduct if a fish, shrimp, comb jelly or bird is to seem real to us – as real a living creature as he actually is.’ [Corvus: Life with Corvids, page 155 and 156].
‘Empopo’: I like it because it has a nice ring to it and reminds me of that liquid-sounding ‘The Limpopo River’ which I came across via Rudyard Kipling’s story of ‘The Elephant’s Child’.
Being empopo demands innocence, curiosity and the breadth of imagination to fly from one species to your own and back again in the space of a fledging’s heartbeat. And to keep us empopo I’m including a morsel of knowledge gleaned from scratching about as a novice ‘birder’ (I wouldn’t dream of calling myself an ornithologist) in each post.
As with everything in life, it is generalisation, pigeonholing and our failure to inhabit the ‘bird world’ fully which misleads us into judgement, anthropo and fictitious superstition.
When I do - as is inevitable within the confines of our language - ascribe human characteristics to my avian friends, I meet them as equals at least (and often bow to their superiority). I welcome the possibility that they may ascribe avian qualities to me but suspect my lumpish figure precludes it.
Yet, still, what may the robin and others be sharing with me as we sing together while I’m doing the washing up?
There is a far superior, if sadder, audio which has a more useful purpose than the intro/outro to some of The Bird Garden’s poetry. We are some way through the Sixth Mass Extinction. Birds do not escape this calamity. I had intended to open The Bird Garden to coincide with the RSPBs release of ‘Let Nature Sing on 26th April. Ants and adventures with the Biocentric Principle [Linked In Article here] got in the way. But I can still share the news in case you missed it. This track is of the birdsong of the endangered species of birds. It is absolutely WONDER-FULL. You can buy it here.
And, finally, if you haven’t heard my dawn chorus of ‘yes! yes! yes!’ Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris are in the process of co-creating ‘The Book of Birds’ which no doubt will be a visual and literary volume getting us acquainted with endangered birds… while we can
Did I say dawn chorus? Indeed. Which means it’s time for breakfast.
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