Bird migration is the heartbeat of the planet. Along ancient routes, nothing to do with human frontiers, millions of birds are weaving the world together all the time. They are migration’s blue-print, reminding us that earth and the life it sustains are constantly changing form and changing place. Their migrations, especially, have made them for us an image of hope.
'Hopes are shy birds,' wrote John James Audubon in his journal in 1820, 'flying at a great distance.' Audubon had been focussed on birds since he was young He had just said goodbye to his beloved wife and children; he was taking a boat down the Ohio River on the first leg of his journey to Britain where he hoped to find someone to print and publish his bird paintings. There, giving a talk in Edinburgh on birds of North America, he would inspire a sixteen-year old medical student whom his family called 'Bobby'; who hated the course he was doing just as Audubon had once hated being a naval cadet.
Audubon and that medical student had a couple of things in common. Both had to cope with great loss when they were small and did it by turning to nature—to long solitary walks and bird-watching. Audubon chose birds (or they chose him) as a way to make sense of the world. His mother died when he was little; Charles Darwin’s died when he was eight. ‘Why does every gentleman not become an ornithologist?’ Darwin wondered when he was ten. At Edinburgh, instead of attending operations and medical lectures, Darwin took bird-stuffing tutorials from a local taxidermist. Birds are an image of escape from where and what you are right now. 'Hope is the thing with feathers,' says Emily Dickinson, 'That perches in the soul.'
Audubon was born in 1785, twenty-four before Darwin, on Haiti which was then a French colony called Saint-Domingue whose sugar and indigo plantations, worked by African slaves, supplied two-thirds of France’s overseas trade. He was the illegitimate child of a Creole chambermaid from Louisiana and a French naval officer who owned a plantation and sold it before the slave rebellions began in 1791. When his mother died, his father took him to France, formally adopted him and brought him up in Nantes through the turmoil of the French Revolution. He grew up roaming the woods, bringing home birds' eggs and nests to draw.
His father encouraged him, pointing out birds’ movements and sense of danger, their seasonal comings and goings, But he wanted his son to be a sailor like himself and sent him, aged twelve, to military school. Audubon hated it, failed his officer's qualifications and went back to exploring the woods. In 1803 his father procured him a false passport and to prevent him being conscripted into Napoleon’s army sent him to America, to a farm on Perkiomen Creek Philadelphia, bought with the plantation money, where Audubon continued to study birds.
One of his experiments was to tie strings to the legs of Eastern Phoebes and prove that they returned to the same nesting sites each year. This was the first known bird-banding experiment in America. It is no accident, perhaps, that the young man who proved that birds came back to their first homes was a double immigrant. He had already lost two homes of his own. Birds leave but come back, like the dove to Noah. Birds can be images of escape but also return.
It was escape which drove Daedalus, the mythical sculptor and inventor imprisoned on the island of Crete, to imitate birds and make wings for himself and his son Icarus—who, on their migration, flew too near the sun and fell into the sea. And it was escape that gave a name, the Wild Geese, to thousands of Catholic Irishmen who left Ireland to serve King James in France when English Protestants had beaten his army.
Caged or free, birds say it all. 'Oh that I had wings like a dove,' says Psalm 55. 'I would fly away and be at rest.' 'A robin redbreast in a cage,' William Blake said at a time when people did cage robins in Britain, 'puts all of Heaven in a rage.' In Dickens’ Bleak House, the poignantly named Miss Flyte is unhinged by the infinite delays of her lawsuit. She keeps wild birds in cages which she will open when her case is heard. The list of their names, charting what she and others have lost because of these delays, begins with Hope, goes on with Joy and Youth and ends with the injustices she cannot fly away from: Waste, Want, Ruin, Despair, Madness.
We compare ourselves with nature and see ourselves reflected in it. Migration seems to lie at the heart of the birds’ mystery; we feel they are free, as we long to be free, to get away. And, if they want, come back.
"The Boy from Haiti"
He’s eighteen, escaping conscription,
abandoning France. On the open sea
here’s Earth’s rim like he’s never seen it,
a blurred brush-line of purple on aquamarine.
‘Sorrow. Deep melancholy. My affections
still with those I left behind. The world
seemed a great wilderness.’ Haiti at three,
the forest at Nantes, and now this.
He can’t remember leaving Saint Domingue.
Wherever he’s been he’s watched birds.
‘I felt an intimacy with them, bordering
on frenzy.’ He reads La Fontaine
and scatters ship’s biscuit on deck.
A flock of brown pipits falls
from the heavens like a shaft of winter sun.
‘They came on board wearied. So hungry.’
The crew see a forest now. A shore…
he knew it. Birds unlock
everything. An inlet, wide, deep and certain.
Cries of gulls above East River docks.
Four billion years ago some genes discovered they could spread by tricking other genes into replicating them. Parasites replicate their DNA with the help of, and at the expense of, someone else’s. They existed long before land animals appeared; new ones evolved at every new stage of life’s complexity. Flatworms made their way into crustaceans then diversified into flukes and tapeworms.
Parasites drove evolution. Their hosts evolved ways of protecting themselves so parasites adapted to evade the policing and the host had to adapt further to protect itself. The parasites which survived were those that spread into more and better places to live. Today parasites make up most life on earth and outnumber other living species by four to one.
Diseases migrated with their hosts. From a parasite’s point of view, many symptoms of disease, like coughing, are the clever ways it has found to change our body’s behaviour so that it, itself, may multiply and spread.
They do this in thousands of different ways, like the open sores of syphilis, which seems a comparatively new disease. Syphilis has always been seen as the unwelcome immigrant, coming from somebody and somewhere else. France called it the Italian Disease, the Dutch the Spanish Disease, Russians called it the Polish Disease, Turks the Christian or Frank Disease, Tahiti the British Disease. It was spread mainly by sailors but no one knows where it began. Was it a New World disease brought to Europe by Columbus or were Hippocratic doctors already describing it in the fourth century BC? The first well-recorded European outbreak was in 1494 among French troops who may have caught it via Spanish mercenaries while besieging Naples. Then it rampaged across Europe. Before 1530 the Italians, Poles and Germans were already calling it the French Disease.
Malaria, though, is much older. As the Romans brought damsons to Britain, so humans brought malaria out of Africa. China and ancient Egypt knew it 5,000 years ago, India 3,000 years ago, the Mediterranean 2,500 years ago. Human migration spread it to southern Europe, the Arabian peninsula, Asia, northern Europe. In the 15th century, trade and colonization spread it to the New World and South-East Asia through Europe but also via African slaves brought by Spanish colonisers.
Plasmodium, the parasite that causes malaria, is passed on by the female anopheline mosquito, which needs blood to develop her eggs. (Only females bite; males stick to glucose.) The parasite develops in her tiny gut, enters our blood through her saliva and is carried into the liver where it invades cells and multiplies. Then it returns to the blood, penetrates red cells and multiplies further breaking the red cells down.
Today a million and a half people die from it every year. Plasmodium, like hackers, always tries to be ahead of the game: it is developing immunity to chemicals we find to counter it. Every forty-five seconds, says an ad in my newspaper today, another child dies of malaria. Nature’s forms do not demonstrate benevolence, said Darwin, divine or otherwise.
In Christianity, the Fall is the story of how something harmful got into the system from the start. (One name for Satan is alienus, the stranger, the outsider.) Parasites tell the same story: cells have smaller cells within them which flourish at their expense and accompany them everywhere. We, mosquitoes and plasmodium evolved and spread together.
"Cell Begins her Travels"
Cytoskeleton, little net
of peel and fibrous scaffolding
within the cytoplasm, protects
Cell shape so Cell can move, repair
the wound, attack a virus, create
an embryo. Cell waves longhaired
flagella like the spray of spores on mould.
In a blitz of lamellipodia, Cell
sprouts motile fronds. She, the queen bee,
will fibrillate each organelle
in turn. Her ruffling front slides on,
retracts, moves on again.
So Cell migrates
like a old soul bent on heaven.
Reprinted from The Mara Crossing, by Ruth Padel. Copyright © 2012 by Ruth Padel. Reproduced by permission of Chatto & Windus.