The Petchary is a bird. It is a visitor to the island of Jamaica, but one from the south, unlike the bright little creatures from the north that populate our garden in the winter months. And it arrives in the summer. For the rest of the year, its close relative, the Loggerhead Kingbird, dances noisily in the trees and sits on low branches, looking round imperiously and catching the occasional wayward insect.
The Petchary wrote recently about the strange prehistoric birds with wings like clubs, whose bones were found in the Kingston suburb of Red Hills. This was a fighting bird, a defender and possibly an attacker too… long gone. Many other birds that are already under threat may also be as dead as the dodo before too long, and are already becoming more endangered, because of climate change. Those in tropical climes seem particularly vulnerable.
The Sacred Ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) was revered by the ancient Egyptians. Their god of wisdom and learning, Thoth, was often depicted with an ibis head and literally thousands of mummified ibises have been found in the rich, dark and dusty tombs of pharaohs. In Sydney Botanical Gardens, the Petchary and her husband had a surprising encounter with these huge birds (actually called the Australian White Ibis, very closely related to their sacred cousins) walking around the park, stepping cautiously like old ladies. Their heads are always bent as they search methodically for anything that might possibly be edible. They are completely absorbed in their pursuit, like men searching for metal with a detector, shoulders hunched. They ignore each other, rampaging children, strolling lovers or any other humans that may pass their way. At the small seaside town of Manly, these birds were even more determined, unashamedly poking their long, elegantly curved beaks into the worst garbage bin they could find, climbing all over the bins at the waterside.
Birds are a part of the human race’s mythology through the centuries. There is one image that has always disturbed the Petchary, from medieval Italy. In Siena, there is a crucifix at the head of which is a painting of a pelican on her nest, the tip of her beak sunk into her own breast, with drops of startlingly red blood falling on her young below. This is a medieval allegory of Christ on the cross, sacrificing himself for the sake of his children, the people; it’s often found in Masonic and Rosicrucian imagery, too. In fact though, this is a pagan myth, first described by the Roman Pliny the Elder.
The Petchary suggests this allegory: The pelican is Jamaica, and the young ones its citizens. We are living on blood. In about twenty-four hours this week, eleven Jamaicans – armed young men, middle-aged domino players, a young deejay, passengers on a bus – were shot dead. An infant, maybe others, were injured.
The pelican keeps on pecking, because we are hungry for more, and the drops of blood fall on us. Jamaica is sacrificing itself for us. But its breast feathers are flying, mixed with the blood, it is weakening, it cannot go on bleeding for us.
But we are already pecking, turning on each other.
Birds can be cruel. But not as cruel as humans.
- Clubbing and Crunching (petchary.wordpress.com)
- Birds Of A Feather (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com)