Wednesday, December 23, 2009

of gulls and things ~

Some of the last conversations I had with my dad before he died were about gulls. After many years of birdwatching, seagulls and seabirds had become his latest interest. He spoke to me of bill shapes amongst gulls and how they related to their different character. He liked the description that he had read somewhere of "dipped-in-ink" wingtips. We never got too far into these conversations because at that point his mind was unpredictable due to the illness that he had, but still he had a few tips he wanted to pass along to me.

One poignant memory I have is on one of the "wheelchair" walks along the Dee estuary in England when my dad heard a birdsong (I believe it was some kind of thrush). This particular song was one that cuckoos are known to mimic. My dad was convinced that it was a cuckoo that he was hearing mimicking the thrush and not the thrush itself. Even after looking through the binoculars he was adamant. After looking at the bird myself I was convinced that it was a thrush. Doubt about his judgement crept in. I had pretty much trusted his judgement my whole life until then, especially as it pertained to birds. He was always careful when naming things.

This is when I first felt I was really losing him.

When we returned home he went straight to his reference books. After hurriedly flipping through them he said with a sudden realization that it wasn't the cuckoo after all that he had seen. How could he have been so far off? I remember the look of puzzlement on his face. There was fear there too, for isn't it the mind that tells us what is real?

I have always wanted to know the names of things. It started when I was very young and has continued. My dad always made sure that he knew the names of things in nature for those times when I would inevitably ask. This created the known world for me. A place where everything had a name and things were always safe.

I am now living by the sea. Gulls are everywhere. I pick up my dad's interest. I start where he left off. The identification of gulls.

I soon discover that I am in very slippery territory. The lines between things begin to dissolve. One word for it is hybridization. This is what David Sibley has to say about it in his book, The Sibley Guide To Birds:

Identification of hybrid gulls is difficult and often conjectural. Most hybrids are intermediate between parent species, but individual variation and back crosses produce a continuum of variation.

He goes on to say of gulls in general:

Gull identification represents one of the most challenging and subjective puzzles in birding and should be approached only with patient and methodical study. A casual or impatient approach will not be rewarded.

Even when I think I have something to hold onto regarding identification, Sibley says this:

The shade of gray of the mantle of any large gull is an important identification clue, but assessing mantle colour is very difficult under sunny conditions, when the orientation of the bird relative to the observer changes the apparent shade of gray. Some individuals become darker when wet. Photographs can be particularly misleading.

Can gulls even be named? Is there anything to hold onto? When we try and grasp something like death we look into our hands and find that they are empty. My dad himself became more and more like a frequency and less and less solid. We could no longer connect. Near the end he could no longer speak.

As a child and into adulthood I followed my dad down many trails in the mountains. He led me through valleys, over glaciers, across streams and rivers. It seemed he always knew where he was going. It is only right then that he would show me how to die. I went down that pathway with him as far as I could go. And then he went off into the nameless.

Gone now, I still struggle without him. I can no longer ask him the names of things. I can't say to him - is that a glaucous gull tending towards a herring gull? He would have had an idea. He had a good eye and such a love for birds. We would have had fun discussing it anyway. Left to my own devices, I have yet to crack the spine of his heavy book entitled simply, Gulls.

I will though. My own judgement and discrimination will have to take up more space. I stand now in the balance between the known and the unknown. I know there is really nothing for me to hold onto. There is no ground beneath my feet. Reality is subjective and conjectural. The mantle of the gull shifts and changes depending upon the light and the position of the observer. And the cuckoo still mimics the thrush.

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