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August 10, 2007

A little Dunlin

dunlin.jpg [illustration source] I can't help it; I am still feeling shocked by the knowledge of the murders I tried to describe yesterday. I know that I have to turn away from the subject, or to pause, because I have no good sense of what exactly the revelation that my great-great-grandfather murdered my great-great-grandmother, my great-great aunt and two of their servants and then killed himself means to me. To have learned unexpectedly and simultaneously about the existence of all these people and about their horrific deaths has overwhelmed me.

In Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot Prince Myshkin gives a famous, speculative account of the terrified focus on insignificant details which bears up a man who is about to be guillotined: "the brain, tremendously alive and active, must, I suppose, be working hard, hard, hard, like an engine going at full speed. I imagine all sorts of thoughts all unfinished and absurd, too, perhaps, quite irrelevant thoughts — must constantly be throbbing through his brain: 'That man is looking at me — he has a wart on his forehead — one of the buttons on the executioner's coat is rusty….'" My own contact with these deaths — utterly distant and yet eerily intimate and familial — makes me want to annotate something tiny, something soothing, something "irrelevant". I will write about the dunlin, a bird which is a species of sandpiper I think.

We see lots of dunlins at the Baylands on the southwestern edge of San Francisco Bay. They nest on the arctic tundra and then winter here or in Europe. Dunlins are quite small creatures &mdash: many of them about 8 inches or less in length. I love most shorebirds (except that no-one who loves most shorebirds can really love that bully of many varieties, the gull...). With dunlins, there are three things which I especially enjoy. I like the Celtic tinge to their name, which comes from "dunling", meaning a brownish little bird. "Donn" means "brown" in Gaelic (think also of "dun" in modern English). Overtime, the vestigial "g" has dropped off. So, just as there is "huntin', shootin' and fishin'", there is also now the dunlin.

I also like very much the extraordinary, dense flocks dunlins make as they fly together, almost wing-tip to wing-tip, whirling, jetting, swooping, and banking, as if all these singular birds had fused together and beome a single giant, animate cloud. Standing dunlin seem to prefer their own company, sticking together in clumps and groups on the ground. Indeed, they are are socially exclusive birds, and usually try to fly only with their own kind. Perhaps their amazing, acrobatic tight-knittedness in the air would be destroyed by having other, more sluggish, heavier or less agile kinds of bird interspersed amongst them as they rotate or skim through the sky en masse.

Finally, I like the way they peck judiciously and intermittently at the mudflats and marsh earth for food. Dunlin eat insects, small worms, and tiny invertebrates (molluscs or crustaceans) which they find on the water surface or shallowly buried in, or burrowed into, the mud. A dunlin will tenderly but determinedly push its beak a little way into the soft mud, as if it were easing a surgical instrument into a recent wound. Then this scholarly, reflective bird gently withdraws its beak, and looks up as if it had lost interest in eating. But, suddenly, it pushes its needle-like beak back into the mud and draws a minuscule creature up its beak and into its mouth. The name for that probe-withdraw-probe reflex is "stitching", as if the beak were a needle winding a thread into and out of and into a piece of fabric.

Perhaps, in our own ways, we all psychically "stitch" a bit like the drumlin. All I know is, I have never before felt so much love for this shy, sporadically predatory bird as I do today of all days.

Posted by njenkins at August 10, 2007 07:11 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins