Winged messengers: The precarious lives of birds

That we can see reverence for birds as old-fashioned or sentimental is merely another indicator of our own outmoded thinking with regard to human success, writes John Burnside.

Urban singers: roosting white wagtails are lit up by a street light. Photo: David Tipling

Birds and People
Mark Cocker and David Tipling
Jonathan Cape, 592pp, £40

If ever a book was timely, it is this gorgeously produced 600-page compendium of ornith - ological facts, images, myths and narratives. Mark Cocker, whose marvellous Crow Country reshaped our rather prejudiced views on corvids, and the leading bird photo grapher David Tipling explore the many ways in which “people’s lives are entwined with, and are very often shaped by, their encounters with birds . . . how birds live within us – and how they have been, in the words of . . . Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘good to think’ and to reflect upon”.

Yet, as much as this book is a celebration of birdlife, informed by that mixed sense of wonder and careful inquiry that Cocker has called “the poetry of fact”, it “inevitably contains many stories of our exploitation of birds, both in the past and in the present” – and sadly this is in large part what makes it topical. For although most of us no longer feast on parrots’ tongues or bathe in flamingo blood, as some Romans once did, millions of songbirds are still caught in mist nets, or on lime-sticks, all across the Mediterranean, while (to take just one example) over half the European population of northern lapwings has, in a single human generation, been lost to agricultural changes that not only degrade and pollute the land, but also produce inferior, polluted foodstuffs. As miraculous and varied as the lives of birds may seem (Cocker notes that “the entire class . . . has occupied more of the earth’s surface, on terra firma and at sea, than any other vertebrate life form”), their existence all too often becomes precarious when they are obliged to cohabit with people. It is hard not to despair when we read how, not so long ago, that consummate bird-lover W H Hudson claimed “to know English country estates where they killed nightingales because the celestial song kept the pheasants awake”.

Nothing illustrates this troubled relationship between birds and people as keenly as the recent controversy over the death-bywind- turbine of a white-throated needletail – a member of the swift family, not pictured here, but noted in passing as “one of the fastest animals on earth . . . recorded at 170kmph (106mph)”. Though badly sited horizontalaxis wind turbines are increasingly recognised as a significant threat to raptors and migratory birds in particular, this specific death was an environmental anomaly: the needletail, which normally breeds in China and Mongolia, was far from home and its death can only be accounted as an unhappy accident, irrelevant to the overall debate about the damage done to birds and bats by wind turbines. Nevertheless, it quickly became the focus of the unease many of us feel about our disregard for birdlife – and that unease deepened significantly after a comment piece in the Guardian by the RSPB’s “head of climate-change policy and campaigns” came across more as an apology for the wind industry than a reasoned defence of birds:

The fact is that the infrastructure that supports the kind of lives we have become accustomed to kills wildlife. Since 1980, we have lost 300 million birds from Europe’s farmland, victims of ever more intensive farming. Barn owls, suffering from a lack of suitable hunting grounds, can often be seen hunting alongside major roads; as a result, about 30 per cent of the species’ deaths are attributed to collisions with vehicles. Energy infrastructure in particular is a killer. One study compared the fatalities as a result of wind power with nuclear and fossil fuels. It looked at deaths across the full lifecycle, including extraction of raw materials and the impacts of any pollution it causes, and found that for every gigawatt-hour of electricity generated by wind power there are about 0.3 fatalities. For nuclear it was 0.4 and for fossil fuels it was 5.2 to 17 times greater than wind.

There is no attempt here to examine “the kind of lives we have become accustomed to”; it seems killing birds is what we do and there’s an end on’t.

For some of us, such reckoning of “acceptable” bird mortality sticks in the craw, no matter what the circumstances, but it is also worth pointing out that this rather blasé position on bird death rates sits uncomfortably with research done elsewhere (by the Spanish Ornithological Society, or by various groups in Scandinavia, the US and elsewhere). What that position does reflect, however, is the danger posed to birds not just by our appetites, or our supposed sporting instincts, but also by ideology. When recently I inquired at Friends of the Earth Scotland why they were so unconcerned about turbine-related bird (and bat) mortality rates in Scotland, I had this response:

That wind turbines pose a major threat to birds is a common misconception – in the US alone, it’s estimated that less than 40,000 birds [sic] (of all kinds) are killed by turbines each year, while up to one billion are killed by flying into windows . . . The same goes for bats, where numbers as [sic] negligible compared to bat deaths by other forms of human intervention. According to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), it’s not just pollution and habitat destruction. People accidentally waking bats from their daytime sleep kills [sic] far more bats than wind turbines ever could.

When I wrote back to suggest that, when it comes to the environmental damage done by wind turbines, taking the AWEA’s word for it (as both industry folks and faint-hearted greens have consistently done so far) was the equivalent of accepting the American Coal Council’s assertion that coal has “a strong environmental track record that continues to improve”, I received no response at all.

Yet, while this particular threat to birdlife continues to be shrouded in controversy (mainly, I suspect, because of disinformation spread by industry lobbyists and the kinds of lucrative “consultancy” deals that have been struck between some NGOs and energy companies), many others are common knowledge. The ill-regulated and excessive use of pesticides worldwide; the slaughter of eagles and other predators in rural areas (because, in the words of one mid-20th-century gamekeeper quoted here, “my job was to kill everything that His Lordship couldn’t eat”); and a range of other factors, such as deforestation and the recently documented mass destruction of grasslands to provide cheap biomass crops – these are all known.

Sadly, the overall numbers are huge: as Wallace P Erickson, Gregory D Johnson and David P Young noted in 2005: “We estimate that from 500 million to possibly over one billion birds are killed annually in the United States due to anthropogenic sources including collisions with human-made structures such as vehicles, buildings and windows, power lines, communication towers and wind turbines; electrocutions; oil spills and other contaminants; pesticides; cat predation; and commercial fishing by-catch.” Killing birds is, indeed, what we do.

In 1789, Gilbert White observed in The Natural History of Selborne that the parish in which he lived was “a very abrupt, uneven country, full of hills and woods, and therefore full of birds” – and there is ample evidence that such diverse and uneven terrain is as beneficent to the human spirit as it is to avian life. Today, we would be more likely to render “abrupt and uneven” as “diverse”, yet for all our apparent understanding of such concepts, our way of life, from the land we drive through on the morning commute to the food in our supermarket trolley, has been engineered to depend on the elimination of the abrupt and the uneven.

Still more in thrall to a Gradgrindian business ethic of efficiency and reductionism than we choose to admit, we may claim to be a bird-loving nation (the RSPB has around one million members). But when the abrupt and the uneven are under threat, too many of us forget the greater good that depends infinitely more on the birds and the bees than the supposed truths of hard economics or the paper prosperity of City traders. For that reason alone, reading The Natural History of Selborne in a post-Reaganomics world is a salutary reminder of this steady addition to our well-being.

It even comes across in White’s prose, as Richard Mabey points out in his biography of the parson-naturalist: “What is striking is the way Gilbert often arranges his sentence structure to echo the physical style of a bird’s flight. So ‘The white-throat uses odd jerks and gesticulations over the tops of hedges and bushes’; and ‘Woodpeckers fly volatu undosu, opening and closing their wings at every stroke, and so are always rising and falling in curves.’”

A similar spirit – that “poetry of fact” that renews and re-envisions the natural world – informs Birds and People, making it a worthy addition to the tradition of such writers as White and Hudson. Yet it also raises a question that haunts all eco-critical thinking today, the problem Tolstoy formulates as: “What then must we do?”

How do we even imagine a world where a book that avowedly “explores and celebrates” our relationship with birds need not refer so frequently to habitat loss, deforestation and various forms of direct persecution? For some time now, books and documentaries about the natural world have tended to flipflop between desperate warnings of present and impending losses on a catastrophic scale and informed celebration of what still remains of the wild; and the debate as to which of these approaches is the more successful will no doubt continue. However, it is clear that, to rediscover the abrupt and uneven in our parishes, we must begin by reawakening our imaginations from the slumber of reductionist economics – and on the evidence of Birds and People, it seems better that we err on the side of celebration. This comes out as much in Tipling’s extraordinary photographs as it does in Cocker’s prose. The haunting image (on page 496) of a “roost of white wagtails in a neon-lit city street” is a wonderfully persuasive instance of that celebration: the birds seem to subsist in light and the curious gaze the central pair turn back on the camera is strangely inclusive.

“We are all responsible for everything and everyone in the face of everybody,” says Dostoevsky, “and I more than the others.” Taking that declaration as a starting point, Emmanuel Levinas created a philosophy in which each of us is confronted with what he calls “the face” of the other, which both implores and challenges us not to do it harm, but to respond to it from a position that goes beyond mere respect, or even compassion – a position that, because it understands the necessity of the other to our own continued being, approaches the deeply unfashionable condition of reverence. That we can see reverence for birds as old-fashioned or sentimental is merely another indicator of our own outmoded thinking with regard to human success, a solipsistic mode of thinking that takes such absurd indicators as GDP or the Dow Jones as measures of prosperity.

As Cocker points out, “To assume that we alone are all that matter and to contemplate with any kind of equanimity the loss of these other species, or a part of them, is to risk losing our very souls and silencing our own imaginations.” Reading Birds and People, it becomes possible to see that a more imaginative economics (grounded, perhaps, on such indicators as Avian Health and Diversity, say, or a Dawn Chorus Audibility Index) could be built around Gilbert White’s abrupt and uneven parish, “full of hills and woods, and therefore full of birds”. We would all be the richer for that.

John Burnside’s most recent book is “Something Like Happy” (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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When faith found its Article 50: exploring the theology of Martin Luther

New books by Lyndal Roper and Diarmaid MacCulloch reveal the scatalogy and theology of one of history's best known theologians.

Protestantism was the first great Eurosceptic thing, the setting up of local power bases against a shared wisdom. Almost five centuries have passed since Martin Luther nailed (or glued? – there seems to be some doubt about the matter) his Ninety-Five Theses to the castle door in Wittenberg in 1517. Luther himself never mentioned the event.

In the year before the anniversary of that momentous act by a firebrand Augustinian friar at the age of 33, two of our finest historians have given us food for thought. Diarmaid MacCulloch, whose Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (2003) has achieved classic status, gives us a powerful set of essays, chiefly concerned with the effects of the Reformation in England. He revisits some of the main figures of the period – Cranmer, Byrd, Hooker (an especially good profile) – and gives insightful readings of the changing historiography of the Reformation phenomenon. Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at Oxford, has retold the life of Luther. Hers is the bigger book. MacCulloch has wise things to say about the Book of Common Prayer, the King James Bible and the religion of the Tudor monarchs. But no one on the English scene can quite match the figure of that crazed Wittenberg friar. Indeed, there would not have been an English Reformation at all, had it not already begun in Germany.

Nor would Luther have been so famous, had not Johann Gutenberg (circa 1398-1468) invented printing, and had Luther’s inflammatory tracts – and even more so the anti-Catholic woodcuts to accompany them – not spread like wildfire, the Latin writings among the whole European intelligentsia, the illustrated ones in German among a semi-literate peasantry. At Wartburg Castle today, guides will show you the splodge on the wall where Luther supposedly threw an inkpot at the Devil. Lyndal Roper says this is a misinterpretation of Luther’s claim that he would fight Satan with ink (meaning “with printer’s ink”).

The single feeling I took away from these two inspirational books is that the Reformation was a series of political events, driven by secular concerns, in Germany by the power games of the nobility – above all of Friedrich III, “the Wise”, Elector of Saxony – and in England by the sordid politicking of Henry VIII. Until the Reformation happened, it had been perfectly possible to excoriate abuse in the Church (as when Chaucer mocked the Pardoner) without invoking Article 50.

This tolerance changed when the Holy Roman emperor Charles V convened the Diet of Worms. The assembly was intended to reassert twin bulwarks: the emperor’s personal power over huge tracts of Europe and, more specifically, the maintenance of the Catholic faith against the rumblings of the new teaching. Luther was summoned to appear before it in order either to reaffirm his views or to recant.

There was a crowd of over 2,000 people waiting to see him when he arrived in Worms, in the Rhineland, on 16 April 1521, paraded in an open wagon. The choice of vehicle was deliberate; Luther, and his followers, wanted him to be seen. This austere, still tonsured friar, with his huge, bony face divided by a long, asymmetrical nose, with dark, electrifying eyes and curling, ­satirical lips, was a figure who had become a celebrity, almost in the modern sense.

In the Germany of the 1520s, so superbly evoked in Roper’s book, people knew something “seismic” was happening. Worms is the place where Luther did, or did not, say: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” MacCulloch tells us that these are words that Luther probably never spoke, “but he ought to have said them, because they sum up a little of what it is like being a Protestant”.

Roper’s account of the diet and of ­Luther’s appearance before it is one of the most remarkable passages in her magnificent book. On the late afternoon of 17 April, he found himself standing before John Eck, the imperial orator. The papal nuncio Jerome Alexander had warned against giving Luther such publicity. Even as the titles of his many books were read out, they demonstrated, in Roper’s words, “the depth and range of Luther’s attack on the papacy and the established Church”. In reply to Eck’s questions, Luther spoke quietly, saying he was more used to the cells of monks than to courts. It was his fanbase that reported, or invented, the celebrated words.

Luther, standing alone before that assembly, is a type of what makes Protestantism so alluring. We do not need intermediaries, whether popes or priests or emperors, on our journey towards Truth; our inward conscience is king. Luther can be seen as the archetypical dissident, the instigator of what eventually became Democracy and Romanticism. But Roper’s Luther is deeply rooted in the 16th century, and in his own appalling ego. (When he was a monk, he would spend six hours making his confession.)

A large part of her story is the sheer coarseness of his language, the deranged coprology that fed his many hatreds, in particular of the Jews and of the popes. The “Devil has . . . emptied his stomach again and again, that is a true relic, which the Jews and those who want to be a Jew, kiss, eat and drink and worship . . .” he wrote. “He stuffs and squirts them so full that it overflows and swims out of every place, pure Devil’s filth, yes it tastes so good to their hearts, and they guzzle it like sows.”

The pope, likewise, was castigated by Luther as a sodomite and a transvestite – “the holy virgin, Madame Pope, St Paula III”. In his virulent text “Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil” (1545), Luther had him say, “Come here, Satan! And if you had more worlds than this, I would accept them all, and not only worship you, but also lick your behind.” He ended his diatribe: “All of this is sealed with the Devil’s own
dirt, and written with the ass-pope’s farts.”

When you think of a world without proper plumbing, the wonder is that all of our forebears were not faecally obsessed. Luther, however, was a special case. His cloacal and theological preoccupations were inextricably linked. One of the many enemies he made in life – and most of his academic colleagues and religious allies at Wittenberg finally fell into this category – was Simon Lemnius, a pupil of Luther’s sometime ally Philippus Melanchthon. Luther said he would no longer preach in Wittenberg until Lemnius was executed, and in time he was. But not before Lemnius had written a poem that went:

 

You suffer yourself from dysentery and you scream when you shit, and that which you wished on others you now suffer yourself. You called others shitters, now you have become a shitter and are richly blessed with shit. Earlier anger opened your crooked mouth, now your arse opens the load of your stomach. Your anger didn’t just come out of your mouth – now it flows from your backside.

 

It was indelicate but true. After he escaped from Worms in disguise, Luther sometimes went for up to six days without passing a motion. The “Lord strikes me in my posterior with serious pain”, he wrote. “Now I sit in pain like a woman in childbirth, ripped up, bloody and I will have little rest tonight.” And with the constipation came visitations from the Devil. “I have many evil and astute demons with me,” he wrote at this time, surely accurately.

The man’s very name has lavatorial connotations. As he told his table companions in 1532, his “Reformation moment”, his central theological idea – that the just shall live by faith alone – came upon him “like a thunderbolt”, in the privy tower of the monastery at Wittenberg. Thereafter, Luder, which was his father’s surname, became known as “the Freed One” (in Greek “Eleutherios”, in modern German “Luther”). Conversion was a laxative.

Roper argues that “we probably know more about his inner life than about any other 16th-century individual”. As a husband (which he became when he abandoned his Augustinian vows and married Katharina von Bora, a Cistercian nun 15 years his junior), he could be genial and loving. His household was clearly a place of hospitality. And yet, even by the standards of the age, he was harsh. When his nephew Florian took a knife from one of Luther’s sons, he wrote to the boys’ schoolmaster asking him to beat Florian every day for three days until the blood ran: “If the [arse-]licker were still here, I’d teach him to lie and steal!”

On the larger, national scale his political activity makes for painful reading. Without the patronage of Friedrich III he would never have got anywhere. The agricultural workers who heeded his rallying cries did so because of the absenteeism of the Saxon bishops and priests. Yet when the Peasants’ War broke out, inspired mainly by Luther, he accused them of doing the Devil’s work. After thousands had been put to the sword, his comment was that “one must kill a mad dog”. The Magdeburg preachers rightly called him a “flatterer of princes”.

And yet, as Roper leads us through the unfolding of the Reformation by way of the psychological experiences of this monster/master thinker, there is something thrilling going on here. No one has ever equalled Luther in the extent to which he teased out the radicalism of Christianity: Paul’s theology filtered through Augustine, but honed to its existential extreme in the German preacher. “I do not wish to be given free will!” he exclaimed. He anticipated the determinisms of Darwin, Marx and Freud.

His starting point was the sheer irrelevance of either human will or human reason in the grand scheme of things. Other Reformation figures took as their starting point the ineluctable sinfulness of all human action, the impossibility of our earning salvation or working for grace. None expressed himself with quite Luther’s vigour and, yes, poetic force.

Roper reminds us that his translation of the New Testament from the Greek, which was accomplished at top speed, was “a work of genius. Luther’s New Testament reshaped the German language itself . . .” And it is no surprise, she notes, that the Faust legend began to locate the scholar-egomaniac’s journey in Wittenberg. No surprise, either, that Hamlet studied there. This is the place, for good or ill, where the individual consciousness stood up against the group. No sooner had it done so than private judgement, paradoxically, began to debunk the freedom of the will. Luther’s
response to a hundred years of humanist wisdom and the revival of Greek learning was to distrust the “damned whore, Reason”. In this, and in his pathological anti-Semitism, he was sowing teeth that would spring up in later centuries as dragons.

Many would regard the end of monastic life as the greatest tragedy of the Reformation. Civilisations need men and women who retreat from the conventional burdens of property and carnality to find something else, whether they are Pythagoreans eschewing beans or Buddhist monks wandering the Indian countryside with begging bowls. The ruined British monasteries remind us of what was lost from our philistine land (not least, women’s education). Diarmaid MacCulloch, in a fine essay on Henry VIII, says that “at no time” during the eight years when most of the religious houses in Britain were destroyed “did the government officially condemn the practice of the monastic life”. Surely that makes it more, not less, painful. They were eliminated merely for money. At least Luther, in his angry way, did object to the monastic life on principle. He came to oppose the thing that most of us would think religious houses were for, namely their quietness. One of the most fascinating things in Roper’s biography is the discussion of the concept of Gelassenheit, or calm, letting go.

MacCulloch finds this beautiful quality in the Church of England, and concludes an essay on “The Making of the English Prayer Book” with a sense of the “gentle . . . understated hospitality” of Anglican worship, and its feeling, conveyed in George Herbert’s “Love bade me welcome” of . . . well, of Gelassenheit.

No modern pope would dispute Luther’s view that it was wrong to sell indulgences. Most of the abuses of the Catholic Church to which he objected were swept away by the Church itself. Both of these books will divide us. Some readers will finish them with a sense that the Reformation was a spiritual laxative by which constipated Luder became the liberated Eleutherios, thereby loosening and releasing the Inner Farage of northern Europe. Other readers will be ­sorry that the Catholic humanists such as Erasmus and More did not win the day. For such readers as this, Luther and pals must seem like brutal wreckers of a cultural cohesion that we still miss.

A N Wilson is most recently the author of “The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible” (Atlantic Books)

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lyndal Roper is published by The Bodley Head (577pp, £30)

All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation by Diarmaid MacCulloch is published by Allen Lane (450pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue