Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Warnings From Above

The gold of the dwarf Andvari, it is said, was cursed by its master before he died. Knowing that many would desire the treasure after he was gone, Andvari foretold with his last breath that anyone who dared to possess it would be twisted by it, and finally meet their doom because of it.

This indeed befell the dwarf Fafnir, who had killed his own father for the sake of Andvari's gold and then hoarded it in a deep cave. As the years passed and Fafnir brooded over the treasure, he changed into a terrible dragon, foul and hideous, breathing poison whenever he ventured forth to drink from the stream outside his lair.

Now Fafnir had a brother named Regin, who wanted revenge for the murder of their father. Regin was neither strong nor brave, but he was clever. He made a special sword for his foster-son Sigurd and told him of the famous treasure. Sigurd was a human, strong and very brave, but not as clever as he might have been. He took the sword and, on Regin's advice, dug himself a pit beneath the entrance to Fafnir's lair and crouched there, waiting.

When Fafnir emerged to drink from the stream, Sigurd surged upward as the dragon passed overhead and pierced him to the hilts of his sword, letting the hot blood gush into the pit. As Fafnir died he looked on his killer and laughed, repeating to the young man Andvari's curse: that all who took the treasure would themselves die of it.

But Regin rejoiced when he saw what was done, and told Sigurd to cut out Fafnir's heart and roast it over a slow fire. As the flames burned down into embers Sigurd touched the smoking heart with the tip of his finger to see if it was cooked.  He burned himself, of course, and stuck his finger into his mouth to cool it. As soon as he did so he heard a small voice coming from somewhere above his head.

"Poor Sigurd," said the voice. "What he doesn't know will kill him sooner than what he does know." Sigurd looked up, and saw that the voice belonged to a small bird perched on the branch above him. "Poor Sigurd," came the voice of a second bird, perched higher on the branch. "He has Regin's sword but not Regin's reward. Look, already the dwarf is plotting to kill him and take the treasure for himself." Sigurd looked at Regin. Regin was looking into the cave and fingering his knife.

Sigurd was strong and brave and getting cleverer by the minute. Now that he had tasted dragon's blood he could understand the language of the birds, and he could see that they spoke the truth. He took the sword Regin had made him, cut off his foster-father's head, and claimed Andvari's gold for himself. And thus was Sigurd saved by overhearing the conversation of the birds- for the moment, at least.

That blood-soaked bit of mischief is from the old Norse sagas, and I like to think that my Germanic ancestors would have wrung from it every bit of gory glee that they could while telling it over the remains of a great feast, or while sitting around a fire as the northern stars blazed bright and cold and fierce above them. I came across it first in a collection of stories and legends for children (yes, they did use to expose kids to such things, and yes, we turned out alright). What stayed with me years afterward, aside from the dragon, of course, was the sudden insight Sigurd receives the second he tastes the dragon's blood and becomes aware of what the birds are saying right beside him- almost like a light going on above his head.

As I learned later on in my studies of ancient European societies, birds have very often been associated with enlightenment- think of the owl perched on the shoulder of wise Athena, or the ravens bringing news to one-eyed Odin. But it's only in my more recent studies, with mentors steeped in earth lore of a more timeless and also more immediate nature, that I've started to understand why.

When you step into a wooded area, as I have countless times in my striding, brow-furrowed, unenlightened way, a number of events precede you, perhaps without your noticing at all. First, ears have heard you coming, ears far more sensitive and alive to the world than yours or mine, and the owners of those ears have already calculated your mood and intent- relaxed, agitated, stealthy, or maybe just thinking really hard about something other than what's under your nose. Second, eyes are watching you, eyes that can track a beetle fifty feet away and see beyond the spectrum of light and colour that we can, and the owners of those eyes are appraising you as only those intimate with life and death can.

Third- and this is most important- messages about you have already spread through the forest like ripples on a pond, and everyone who thinks it's in their best interest to do so has had ample time to fade into the foliage, out of sight and out of mind. (I haven't even taken scent into account, which, depending on the wind and local topography, can also give you away). By the time you come striding along, whether still absorbed in your thought or by now hoping to spot some woodland wildlife, everybody in the neighbourhood has received advance warning of your approach. Who has accomplished all this before you've taken two steps into their domain? The birds, of course.

Because birds are engaged with each other at all times through what we perceive as song, but what they perceive as highly nuanced communication, other animals listen carefully and continuously to what the birds are saying- or, as the case may be when I come shuffling through the leaf-litter, whether the birds have fallen silent. We can learn to be one of those listening animals if we're willing to put in the time and the necessary silence, and that's what has me so excited this spring to see birds returning and taking up residence in trees, shrubs, and buildings around my neighbourhood.

And that's one of the greatest secrets to this secret- although I used a forest for the purpose of illustration, bird language happens everywhere there are birds, and there are enough and plenty inside the city. The mentors I mentioned earlier, whom I've connected with through The PINE Project in Toronto, have a lot of fun taking this stuff pretty seriously. PINE is a non-profit dedicated to teaching and promoting nature connection in urban landscapes. I admire their approach so much that I've chosen to train with them through their Wild Deer program, six intensive weekends in Toronto and the surrounding area, running from this past January to this coming June. A lot of what I'll be writing about concerning birds and life outdoors in general is either inspired or directly taught by folks at PINE and Sticks and Stones Wilderness School, so I want to acknowledge them as well as send a wave of gratitude their way.

Before wrapping up this post I want to sketch out the basics of bird language practice for those feeling a call to join me as apprentices in this art. Whether your habitat is forest, field, or urban backyard, you've probably got a number of bird neighbours, and if so they definitely have things to say for those with ears to hear. Find a comfortable sit spot (mine is a vacant lot behind my apartment building) and visit it as often as you can, with the intent to hold still and silent until the shock of your arrival has worn off and your neighbours have gone back to singing, or whatever it is they do. What you're listening for at this stage (and what I'll freely admit I haven't yet grasped in my own sit spot) is the baseline, the basic, normal pattern of conversation in your neck of the woods, whose interruption indicates a new arrival on the scene. We'll talk about birdsong baseline and the various bird vocalizations that could come up, along with their meanings, next week.

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