Wednesday, February 25, 2009

All Birds All the Time-The Mesoamerican Birding Festival

No, I didn’t sail here. In fact at the moment I’m landlocked, watching a fine rain fall on the hibiscus and citrus gardens of the Finca Las Glorias Hotel, on Lake Yojoa. This week, while Kim sailed off into the Sea of Cortez, with friends Angus and Graeme, I flew into Honduras (where I used to guide an eco-tour every February). I haven’t been back for a couple of years and so I jumped at the chance to re-visit some of my favourite places.
I’m here, as a writer, for the first Mesoamerican Birding Festival, so I thought I’d “fly” (sorry) some of my first impressions past you, dear readers.
First, let’s be clear. I am not in the same league with the birders here. I am far too sloppy with my birding details to be a real birder. For example, this morning, in a reserve up in the mountains, I watched Violet Sabrewing hummingbirds. Someone asked me if I had ever seen this species. If a Violet Sabrewing flew into your kitchen right now you’d remember it forever (and not only because that would be a very unusual event) but because it is a wondrous thing. It is the size of a swallow, wrapped from head to tail in iridescent purple lamé. (If birds are the earth’s jewels then tropical birds are its bling). You might even have what one of my co-birders here called a “birdgasm”.
female Violet Sabrewing

But I couldn’t remember if I’d seen a Violet Sabrewing. I can’t account for this lapse in my bird memory. I could put a good spin on it by saying that I get gob-smacked, side-swiped by beauty and slip into an altered state, in the way you forget the details of a conversation when you are falling in love.

Great Kiskadee

But even though I am not the most diligent lister, I am passionate about birds. 
Once I went to a teapot show at a museum. There were rooms and rooms of teapots of every shape and material used in the past, and more rooms of artists’ conceptions of teapots; teapots shaped like human hearts, where tea poured from the aorta, nautilus teapots, where tea spiralled from inner channels; bejeweled, enameled, scaled, tiled, hammered, hand-painted and hand-blown teapots. It seemed that an explosion of possibilities was contained in the vessel of the teapot.
I think this is part of the delight of birds. But making the delight more perverse, more interesting for the mind and heart to reconcile is that this sheer extravagance, this endless ingenuity has been fashioned by the slow, indifferent hand of evolution.
I looked up the meaning of beauty in the Oxford Dictionary: a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight. But also, a combination of qualities that pleases the intellect or moral sense.
It’s difficult, this meaningless beauty. And it always leads me to something I can only describe as the inherent morality of nature. A morality which is not utilitarian, but complete in itself. Beautiful.
By the way, I checked my notes. Turns out I have seen the Violet Sabrewing, not here in Honduras, but ten years ago in Costa Rica.
Cecropia leaf on umbrella

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Post Script-Flaneur Dog

I returned to La Paz yesterday to find that my little black friend has been adopted, by a gentle older man.  He has named her Lady's (he's a she) and her eyes already look brighter, her coat brushed and gleaming. I was almost sorry, as a friend of mine had already written to say she'd love her. But a happy ending nevertheless...


Dried Triggerfish on the beach

One of the pleasures of walking on the beaches in the Sea of Cortez is picking through the tide line. Mounds of coral tinkle like china, bleached porcupine and triggerfish with calcareous grins lie among shells as big as dinner plates, the femurs and skulls of pelicans—like leftovers from a great feast.

Frigatebird Skull

Perhaps because the salt and sun desiccate everything as soon as it dies, these leavings aren't gross. Even in the city, people here don’t seem to mind dead things hanging around longer than they should. A road-killed cat between the marina and town grew drier with each passing day, until it became flat and papery, a blueprint of a cat.
On first glance you might think the Mexicans have a laissez-faire attitude towards death. As I mentioned in my last post, they don’t seem to find it as serious a topic as we do. On the two days around the Christian All Souls day, they celebrate the Day of the Dead. They have parties to remember friends and relatives, visit their graves, sometimes sleeping there, and leaving special food and drink for them to enjoy.
I like the playful “Catrinas”, skeleton dolls sold for these days and as reminders all year that underneath our finery, even in our prime, we are bone; the only part that will last—for a while.

There’s something impersonal about bone; its mineral indifference makes you feel that you are built on some bureaucratic biological specs rather than lovingly designed; that you are a form letter rather than a handwritten note.
Still, maybe it’s us with the laissez-faire attitude towards death, ignoring it, or poking at it with science. For instance, here’s “Kim’s skull” (you may remember it from my first blog post). Kim acquired it many years ago, from a hospital shelf where it had been languishing un-loved. In Canada it is almost impossible to examine a human skull (as it is illegal to sell them). Whenever I see this skull I wonder who he was, where he grew up, why he died so young (as his perfect teeth suggest). What would he have thought of the idea that one day he would be passed from hand to hand, opened up with neat hinges?
One thing is for sure, his skull will never become part of the joyful decay we see on the Baja beaches, or depicted in this Day of the Dead Skull I found in a shop in La Paz.