Chicken Words and Chicken Music : BBC Radio 3’s “Hey, Little Hen” – featuring Christina Rosetti, Edward Lear, Gary Whitehead, Elizabeth Bishop, Henry Vaughan

I used to quite enjoy BBC Radio 3’s “Words and Music” programme on a Sunday evening. Driving through Northern Ireland allowed me to listen to it again after a bit of a hiatus (yes, I know the internet means that this is a bit absurd, but still..)

Today’s edition was on the initially unlikely-seeming theme of chickens . 

Initially unlikely, as it turns out there is a rich seam of chicken (and egg) related works, as a listen to the programme via the link above should reveal.

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I was expecting P G Wodehouse’s Love Among the Chickens,  but the other literary selections were pretty much new ones on me (though I kinda knew there would be some Ted Hughes. There was the deceptive simplicity of Christina Rossetti’s A White Hen Sitting:

A white hen sitting
On white eggs three:
Next, three speckled chickens
As plump as plump can be.
An owl, and a hawk,
And a bat come to see:
But chicks beneath their mother’s wing
Squat safe as safe can be.

There is the whimsy (with a bit of depth, for once) of Edward Lear’s O Brother Chicken! Sister Chick!:

O Brother Chicken! Sister Chick!
O gracious me! O my!
This broken Eggshell was my home!
I see it with my eye!

However did I get inside? Or how did I get out?
And must my life be evermore, an atmosphere of doubt?

Can no one tell? Can no one solve, this mystery of Eggs?
Or why we chirp and flap our wings,—or why we’ve all two legs?

And since we cannot understand,—
May it not seem to me,
That we were merely born by chance,
Egg-nostics for to be?

OK, that is an awful pun … which confirms my iffyness re Lear. Moving on to more contemporary work, here is Gary Whitehead’s A Glossary of Chickens (which opens the programme):

There should be a word for the way

they look with just one eye, neck bent,

for beetle or worm or strewn grain.

Gleaning,” maybe, between “gizzard”and “grit.”

And for the way they run

toward someone they trust, their skirts

hiked, their plump bodies wobbling:

“bobbling,” let’s call it, inserted

after “blowout” and before “bloom.”

There should be terms, too, for things

they do not do—like urinate or chew—

but perhaps there already are.

I’d want a word for the way

they drink,head thrown back,

throat wriggling,like an old woman swallowing

a pill; a word beginning with “S,”

coming after “sex feather” and before “shank.”

And one for the sweetness of hens

but not roosters. We think

that by naming we can understand,

as if the tongue were more than muscle.

Elizabeth Bishop’s “Roosters” is too long to fully quote here… so here is  selected excerpt (the show also excerpted it at more length than here):

At four o’clock
in the gun-metal blue dark
we hear the first crow of the first cock
just below
the gun-metal blue window
and immediately there is an echo
off in the distance,
then one from the backyard fence,
then one, with horrible insistence,
grates like a wet match
from the broccoli patch,
flares, and all over town begins to catch.
Cries galore
come from the water-closet door,
from the dropping-plastered henhouse floor,
where in the blue blur
their rustling wives admire,
the roosters brace their cruel feet and glare
with stupid eyes
while from their beaks there rise
the uncontrolled, traditional cries.
Deep from protruding chests
in green-gold medals dressed,
planned to command and terrorize the rest,
the many wives
who lead hens’ lives
of being courted and despised;
deep from raw throats
a senseless order floats
all over town. A rooster gloats
over our beds
from rusty iron sheds
and fences made from old bedsteads,
over our churches
where the tin rooster perches,
over our little wooden northern houses,
making sallies
from all the muddy alleys,
marking out maps like Rand McNally’s:
glass-headed pins,
oil-golds and copper greens,
anthracite blues, alizarins,
each one an active
displacement in perspective;
each screaming, “This is where I live!”
Finally, poetry-wise, Henry Vaughan’s Cock-Crowing.  There is an unexpected spiritual and near-erotic charge to this poem, which concludes:
Only this veil which Thou hast broke,
And must be broken yet in me,
This veil, I say, is all the cloak
And cloud which shadows Thee from me.
This veil Thy full-eyed love denies,
And only gleams and fractions spies.

O take it off! make no delay;
But brush me with Thy light that I
May shine unto a perfect day,
And warm me at Thy glorious eye!
O take it off, or till it flee,
Though with no lily, stay with me!

As for the music, I did expect Haydn’s Hen Symphony and There Ain’t No Body Here But Us Chickens… the rest however was a pleasant surprise.
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No green to be seen 2: “Dead From the Neck Down” in Wales

In September 2016 I posted “No green to be seen: a biodiversity desert on Slievenamon” about the void that was a conifer plantation on Slievenamon. David Elias, at his blog Dispatches from the Undergrowth,  has an evocative, sobering piece on a similar experience. I was particularly struck at how he, too, had experienced this at an affective level as disturbing, indeed unbearable.

“A culture is no better than its woods” indeed.

It is 8.30 on a peerless sunny morning in late April, the sort of morning I had waiting for all through a long cold winter here in North Wales. I am sitting in a conifer plantation that looks like a Bridget Riley painting in brown (an unlikely thought). The trees are forty foot […]

via Dead from the Neck Down — dispatches from the undergrowth

Researchers warn that bird feeders could aid the spread of disease

Researchers warn that bird feeders could aid the spread of disease

James Common

Diseases among bird populations are on the increase and, as a growing number of households take to feeding their garden birds, researchers have claimed that bird feeders are contributing to the spread of dangerous pathogens, viruses and bacteria in certain species.

Scientists from both the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) have learnt that poor cleanliness, the accumulation of droppings around feeders and the build-up of stale food are aiding the transmission of diseases between garden birds. A problem made worse by the tendency of feeding stations to attract large numbers of birds – including species who would not usually encounter each other at such close quarters in the wild.

Trichomonosis is a notable example of a disease whose spread is facilitated by bird feeders: a condition transmitted largely, it is thought, through contaminated food sources and caused by the parasite Trichomonas gallinae. This disease…

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Poetry is Beauty’s Voice

I had a copy of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever You Go, There You Are” for a long time… before mindfulness was as trendy as it is now. Recently I opened it again and was struck the meditation highlighted here. Watts and Hillman are not familiar to me. This post resonated with me with its discussion of the non-correspondence of language with absolute reality, and the poetry of living:

“I think we’ve spent so much of history arguing over the critique of good written poetic form, high art that carries us on the lofty tailwinds of meaning, that we’ve lost our ability to see poetry in its seed form and the many ways we live it daily. We’ve in some ways deeroticized it, made it too narrow, made people think it doesn’t apply to them. If we could recover this sense of poetries of living, it might help more people appreciate the high poetic craft again, as but one expression of the seed poem’s transfigurative power”

Signs of Life

“Words and measures do not give life; they merely symbolize it” (Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity 48).

For any kind of beauty there is, there is a form of poetry to give it voice.  We think of poetry often as involving meter, verse, stanza, rhyme, prosody–pricking the senses through artfully arranged language. However, I’ve experienced, and I know others have too, poetry that transcends or seems to happen prior to language, and, while the purist poets may object, that’s the topic of this blog.

Jon Kabat-Zinn gives a great example in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are of such language-less poetry when he writes of geese flying overhead:

“As I pull into the parking lot of the hospital, several hundred geese pass overhead…. Hundreds are in V’s, but many are in more complex arrangements. Everything is in motion.  Their lines dip and ascend with grace and harmony…

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Bird feeding and tracking notes, March 2018

Bird feeding and tracking notes, March 2018

Been a while since I <a href="https://seamhow much a local cat frequents our gardenussweeney.wordpress.com/2017/07/16/bird-feeding-notes-mid-july/”>I published bird-feeding notes. I was perhaps chastened by my unintended killing of greenfinches and felt there was a hubristic tone to the notes…

I have returned to bird feeding in recent months, taking care to rotate the location of feeders and to wash them out – properly – regularly. I have also paced myself in terms of feeding. A little and often is better than a lot irregularly. I have had chaffinches, goldfinches, greenfinches (not as many as last year, I think), collared doves, blackbirds, a mistle thrush, starlings, robins, great tits, jackdaws and rooks. No sign of magpies, although further afield I have noticed a couple more locally.

Every year I intend to take part in the Garden Bird Survey and every year something comes up around the start of December which leads to missing the beginning, and then feeling it is too late to catch up.

The recent snowy weather led me to put out a little more food and a steady stream of visitors ensued. One of the other features of the snowy garden is the ability to track birds – and other creatures – by their footprints. It confirmed to me how much the garden is frequented by a local cat.

Review of “Life Ascending”, Nick Lane, Eurotimes July 2009

Review of “Life Ascending”, Nick Lane, Eurotimes July 2009

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This fine book on evolution was well reviewed at the time and won the 2010 Royal Society prize for science books. Here is my review from Eurotimes . Or rather this is a draft, and readers will note one paragraph just trails off… I cannot find the final version online or in my email so I am not sure what followed! This review is focused on the ophthalmological aspects of the book, though not to the exclusion of the wider issues :

Life ascending.
Nick Lane

There are ten great inventions of evolution discussed in Nick Lane’s lucid, stimulating book – life’s origin,
DNA, photosynthesis, the complex cell, sex, movement, sight, hot blood, consciousness, and death. Lane
makes it clear from the outset that invention does not mean a conscious agency purposefully steered the
process, rather he is referring to the ten great innovations that have transformed life that were created
through natural selection. Readers of this journal will have particular interest in the chapter on sight, which
I will therefore focus on in this review, but the whole book is superbly written and extremely enjoyable.

The eye has long been a favourite topic of anti-evolutionists. In 1802, the English utilitarian philosopher William Paley
argued in his Natural Theology that the eye is an organ of such complexity that it is absurd to suppose
that the purposeless blunderings of evolution (evolutionary ideas pre-dated Darwin, of course) could have
produced it. He used the analogy of a blind watchmaker producing a timepiece, which later gave Richard
Dawkins the title of one of his books. Darwin himself is frequently misquoted by creationists and affiliated
persons in this context – he seemed the admit that “To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable
contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for
the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems
… absurd in the highest possible degree.” Darwin went on the write, however, that “if numerous
gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each being useful to its
possessor, can be shown to exist” the problem is solved.

In fact, we now have models of the evolution of the eye that exceed those of other organs in explanatory
power. The Swedish researchers Dans Eric Nilsson and Susanne Pelger have modelled this succession
of steps, which is each generation is taken as one year, requires somewhat less than half a million years.

The eye does seem, at first glance, to pose a problem to evolutionary explanations of its origin. What’s
more the human eye, with its rods and cones located behind an array of nerves and with its blind spot
where the optic nerve leaves the orbit, does not at first, cynical glance to be especially well designed.
Furthermore, the cant charge of anti-evolutionists has been “what use is half an eye?”, and answering the
question of how a retina could have evolved, separate from the rest of the optic apparatus, is at first
glance difficult. “Evolution is cleverer than you are” is a famous dictum of the evolutionary biologist Leslie
Orgel, and Lane goes on to show not only that the eye is well adapted to its purpose, but that (I am not sure what I said subsequently)

His approach begins, entertainingly for readers of this publication, with the observation that “anyone who
has been to a conference of ophthalmologists will appreciate that they fall into two great tribes: those who
work at the front of the eye … and those who work at the back … the two tribes interact reluctantly, and at
times barely seem to speak the same language.” For this divide, ironically, reflects the half-an-eye
distinction and allows us to consider the evolution of both halves of the eye.

For the retinal part of the answer, Lane travels (literarily speaking – it was the marine biologist Cindy Lee
Van Dover who did the actual exploring) to the most hostile and extreme habitat on earth – black-smoker
vents on the deep ocean floor that support an ecosystem of hardy survivors. Among these is the
ironically named eyeless reef shrimp (Rimicaris exoculata), which as a larva has fully formed eyes.
These are not of use to the adult shrimp, so they are reabsorbed and replaced with a literal half an eye
– a naked retina.

Most doctors will remember rhodopsin, perhaps rather dimly. It is the light-sensitive protein at the heart of
the visual process, being involved in photoreceptor synthesis as well as the initial perception of light.
Rhodopsin evolved from an algal ancestor where it is used to calibrate light levels in photosynthesis.
Rhodopsin is used by some bacteria for a form of photosynthesis.
Lane synthesises the evolution of all the aspects of the eye, although one of the ophthalmological tribes
may feel their area of interest is dealt with in slightly less detail than their retinal brethren. The naked
retina was the first step on the journey. As different organisms’ sheets of light-sensitive were arrayed in
different ways, with some recessing into pits which allowed shadows to be cast and therefore an idea of
where light comes from to be assessed, the trade-off between resolving light and light sensitivity began to
tip the balance in favour of lens formation.

Writers in this field must be tired of having to handle the creationist/intelligent design issue. Lane’s book is
not aimed at this debate, although in the footnotes he refers the reader to “The Flagellum Unspun” by
Catholic biochemist Kenneth Miller which attacks the creationist idea of irreducible complexity, as
exemplified by the development of a flagellum. Lane quotes Miller on intelligent design advocates as
double failures, “rejected by science because they do not fit the facts, and having failed religion because
they think too little of God,” and discusses Pope John Paul II’s views of evolution and the mind (made in
the course of his 1996 pronouncement recognising that evolution was more than a hypothesis) with
respect and sensitivity. Lane is clearly that wonderful thing, an enthusiast able to explain and inform
effectively.

Snipe and Woodcock at 33⅓ RPM: Listen The Birds 8 / Hoor De Vogels 8 

Snipe and Woodcock at 33⅓ RPM: Listen The Birds 8 / Hoor De Vogels 8 

I came across this birdsong album in my family home lately. As will become clear, I can’t find out much about it online, but I felt that the aesthetic of the album was worth capturing. And it is somewhat sobering to be able to listen to birdsong from over half a century ago.

I can’t find that much online about John Kirby, who recorded this as one of a series of birdsong albums released as “Listen the birds / Hoor de vogels” in, I think, the early 1960s.

There is this oral history interview with him
, which is “accessible for UK Higher Education and Further Education institutions only.” although the terseness of this summary of the interview has its own kind of poetry:

Making his own tape recorder from a kit. Recording first bird song in May 1951. Building own portable battery recorder. In 1953 BBC accepted his recording of Whooper Swan and subsequent recordings. Contributing to the Sound programme. Buying electric tape recorder in 1959. Pioneering use of filters. Meeting Ludwig Koch. Publication of commercial discs. Difficulties of mass production.

Neither can I find out much online about the Europese Fono Club AKA European Phono Club the Dutch label this record came out on.

So here is Listen The Birds 8 / Hoor de Vogels 8 <a href="http://https://www.discogs.com/No-Artist-Listen-The-Birds-8-Hoor-De-Vogels-8/release/3149525“>This has the same tracklisting but a different cover :