241: The Robin

Spring is on the horizon, good friends! And Spring we definitely need!. My good mother, who, in her own, quiet but reverential, way, harbored a powerful love of nature, always used to tell me we could all rest assured that Spring was on the way soon as we saw the first robin. So far, despite global warming and the passage of many years since I first heard that truism, she has been proven right. And, I hasten to add that, in just this morning, as I was breakfasting with a friend, a man in the booth next to us, overhearing my remarks about Spring and robins, called over to say that he already he had already seen them cavorting about his lawn. While I have yet to have the pleasure of such a sight myself, I expect to in the next few days.

Every now and hen, I get a little concerned that I have read all and shared most of Ruskin’s wonderful passages about Nature with you. But, then, I am always delighted to discover that I have been too quick off the mark in making such a sorrowful judgment. (If you would like to read some of these marvelous Ruskin passages in earlier posts, slide your cursor to the right hand side of this screen and scroll down to a box called “Previous Posts by Topic,’ click on the little arrow therein, and, when a drop-down menu appears, click on the option, “Nature”; then click “Enter.” The previous posts in that category will emerge and you may peruse them at your leisure.)

Ruskin loved birds all his life and, during that later time (the 1880s) when he knew his own powers of expression were lessening and he only had a limited number of days left to write what he really wanted to write, he decided to publish a little book (easily available on the web) he entitled, Love’s Meinie, a set of three essays extolling the perpetual wonderment of birds. Hence, it is unsurprising that he included a passage in that small volume describing our traditional Spring harbinger. As always, his purpose in writing is didactic; he wants to illustrate for his readers some wonderful things he thinks about these feathered flying creatures which they may have missed, things which, once they are aware of them, will inspire them to look at birds in a wholly new way as they make their own steps into their emerging futures. But the book has another purpose, an important one. As we know from previous posts, Ruskin was no fan of Darwinism, believing that one of the unhappy consequences of adopting too quickly and uncritically this new vision of the world as a great, impersonal, machine robbed us, however unintentionally, of our innate love of nature and our sense of ourselves as unique creatures capable of feeling, expressing, and extending that love. With these thoughts in mind, then, here are his paragraphs on the robin.

In none of the old natural history books can I find any account of the robin as a traveler. But there is, for once, sufficient reason for the reticence. He has a curious manner of traveling. Of all birds, you would think he would be likely to do it in the cheerfulest way; but he doesn’t; he does it in the saddest. Did you have a chance to read, in the life of Charles Dickens, how fond he was of taking long walks in the night and alone? The Robin, en voyage, is the Charles Dickens of birds. He always travels in the night, and alone; rests in the day, wherever day chances to find him; sings a little, and pretends he hasn’t been anywhere. He goes as far in the winter as the northwest of Africa; and, in Lombardy, he arrives early in March but does not stay long, going on into the Alps, where he prefers wooded and wild districts.

The day before yesterday, sleeping at Litchfield, and seeing, first thing when I woke in the morning (I never put down the blinds in my bedroom windows), the not uncommon sight of an English country town of an entire row of very neat, very flat, and very red bricks, with exactly squared square windows, and, and not feeling myself in any way gratified or improved by the spectacle, I was thinking how in this, as in all other good things, too much destroys all. The breath of a robin’s breast in red brick is delicious, but a whole house front of brick red as vivid is alarming. And yet one cannot generalize even that little moral with with any safety – for infinite breadth of green is always delightful, however green; and of sea or sky, however blue.

You must note, however, that the robin’s charm is greatly helped by the pretty space of grey plumage which separates the red from the brown back, and sets it off to its best advantage. There is no great brilliancy in it, even so relieved; only the finish of it–which is exquisite. If you separate out a single feather, you will find it more like a transparent hollow shell than a feather (so delicately rounded is the surface of it), gray at the root, with the down, tinged, and only tinged, with red, so that when three or four more feathers overlaps, with their joined red, they are just enough to give the color determined upon, each of them contributing a tinge.

This bird which lives near you in your own houses, and purifies for you, from its insect pestilence, the air you breathe is a marvel. This sweet domestic thing has done this for men at least these 4000 years. She is been our companion, not of the home merely, but of the hearth and the threshold; noticed and endeared to us only endeared by her departure and faithful return. Type, sometimes, of the stranger, As such she has softened us to hospitality; type, always, of the suppliant, she’s enchanted us to mercy; and, in her feeble presence, the cowardice, or the wrath, of sacrilege is changed into Fidelity’s sanctuary. Harald of our summer, she glances through our days of gladness, numberer of our years, she would teach us to apply our hearts to wisdom. And yet, so little have we regarded her, that this very day, scarcely able to gather from all I can find, there exists nothing to explain so much as the unfolding of her wings. I can tell you nothing of her life; nothing of her journey. I cannot learn how she builds, or how she chooses the place of her wanderings, or how she traces the path of her return. Remaining thus blind and careless to the true ministries of this humble creature God has really sent to serve us, we, in our pride, thinking ourselves surrounded by the pursuivants of heaven, can only invest invest her with majesty by allotting her the calm of the birds’ motion; still, after all, it is well for us if, even with God’s best mercies, and his temples marble-built, we think that:” with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we magnify his glorious name” (from a hymn included in The Book of Common Prayer); well for us, if, though our attempts be only an insult, our ears remain open to the inarticulate and unintended praise of “swallow, twittering from her straw-built shed.” (from a poem by Thomas Gray)

Until next time;

Do continue well out there!



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