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July 2013, vol 9, no 2

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Claire Everett

Nom de Plume

A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.

~ Chinese Proverb

Lottie, Bumbarrel, Feather Poke, Hedge Jug, Pudding Bag. No matter what you call it, it is still a darling bird. A plethora of names for one whose tail is so much longer than the tsurp tsurp of its silken song. A flock of epithets took to the wing inspired by a dainty nest, woven from lichen and gossamer – once the prized exhibit of many a Victorian drawing room.

if the sun could find
the speck of dust
in every snowflake . . .
a family of lotties
sprinkling the rowan with song

I often wonder how different my life might have been had I been christened Charlotte, or Judith (the former my father's favourite; the latter, my mother's). I imagine myself as a lace-collared school-m'am, or a hatchet-faced harridan haranguing her oafish husband. The mere mention of a certain name and I catch myself sitting like an open-mouthed child, marveling at the absurdity of my own preconceptions. Who might I have been otherwise? "You would still be you ", says a voice in my head and I have a vision of the Bard, strolling through a fragrant English bower, stopping to pluck a rose for his beloved Anne.

When a well-meaning friend learned that my newborn daughter's middle name was Grace, she quipped, "You might come to regret that, if she grows up to have two left feet!" Now, when I watch my daughter dance, I like to think a spell was cast when first I held her in my arms and softly spoke her name. My younger daughter shares my love of birds. She told me there'd be no mistaking the fieldfare chack-chacking in the hawthorns, but when we climbed the stile into the frost-tipped field and came upon a score, or more, busy in the berries, it was the fallow-farer beloved by John Clare that flitted, almost silently, to and fro across my mind. Weeks later, when we saw them in the context of their other country name, I heard them in their true colours.

beneath the day moon's fine ware
stopped in our tracks
by the clattering
of a flock of snowbirds

And if I were more of a twitcher than a birder, that would have been a 'lifer'; another name to cross off my list. "It's not what you know, it's who you know", I remember my father telling me when I was very young. He spoke of pecking orders, the old boys' network, name-dropping; people who were always crowing, or cock-a-hoop.

a leaking roof
pots and pans to catch the rain . . .
Jack! Jack!
over and again, the daw
repeats his given name

Pet names, nicknames, diminutives. I am one person to my husband, another to my sister. When my mother calls me by my "Sunday name", I know I'm in trouble. I'm not well-versed in Latin, but a scientific name can cast a bird in a different light.

the cave-dweller greets the sun . . .
on the ivy bough
a wren so close I can see
the whiteness of its brow

the child
whose only sky was my womb . . .
apus apus
helpless in cupped hands
a grounded swift

Oftentimes I'll simply tilt my head and listen: not as honeyed as the robin, nor as intense as the wren . . .

just another
little brown bird
call me dunnock
or hedge-chanter . . .
this is my song

Author's note:

(i) lotties, a name favoured by many birders, for long-tailed tits

(ii) Jackdaws were originally just daws. 'Jack' is often used to signify 'small', but in this case, it is also thought to mimic the bird's "chyak" call.

(iii) The Latin name for the Eurasian wren is Troglodytes troglodytes, meaning "cave-dweller".

(iv) Apus apus: the Latin name for the common swift, literally means "without feet" and refers to the bird's short, weak legs which are only used for clinging to vertical surfaces.