Another Missing Witches Monday meditation, our new experimental sidelong anti-capitalist motivation type things. Inspired by the Redpolls that have arrived, by migrants everywhere, by the songbirds in our genes, and by Terry Tempest Williams. Listen to Amy’s beautiful original episode on Terry Tempest Williams (ep 84) for more. Check out links to works cited, and the full text for this meditation below. PS – If you like this, sharing it with a friend means so much.
Thomas Halliday – Otherlands – https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/612030/otherlands-by-thomas-halliday/
Terry Tempest Williams – When Women Were Birds – https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250024114/whenwomenwerebirds
You Are Acanthis Kin
Written by Risa Dickens.
Three new birds. Tiny, tiny birds, smaller even than the nuthatches appeared outside the windows this March.
We are grey with pandemic, bruised by Putin’s war, heavy with sorrow and then there they are, Redpolls, playing in the ice edge, rain edge of winter. Travelers, migrants. Red like dried blood on their hearts and foreheads. Long thin swallowtails, arced like hearts. A promise of something, but it might not be Spring.
And then more come, dozens, they are here from their breeding grounds in the tundra, they are an irruptive species which means sometimes they just burst out of their usual great northern swaths of wild home and come down as far as here and further deep into the southern states following the food, the wind, the year, collapsing ecosystems, the river of time itself. We don’t see them and then suddenly they are here.
They are here… and
Suddenly you are here. You are acanthis kin, unseen maybe for a while but you are irruptive, you surge forth and are many. You are those who travel, those who deserve welcome. You are a chorus singing to the neighbours suddenly, before they know what happened. Suddenly we are all out celebrating, offering seeds. You serge past borders.
You are suddenly surging, we are suddenly singing together, your song is an offering.
You are Acanthis kin and your ancestors are songbirds and you’ve always been singing.
You have always exceeded these illusions, these borders.
You have always been singing.
Humans and birds share 55 genes between brain regions important for vocal learning, genes which do the work of tracing connections between neurons. Our way of weaving meaning from the outside of the world on in, comes through our songbird kin.
You sang the world on in.
“The last common ancestor of birds and mammals lived about 310 – 330 million years ago”
You are literally songbird kin, your genes come here from deep time and they sing of strange ancestry. Your genes know some very old songs.
The Redpolls are GENUS Acanthis. Those who are wise in the ways of birds have given them the name of a mythological bird, a missing bird. Acanthis appear in ancient literature but we don’t know exactly what bird they referred to. Some birds escape the archives but we carry forth their names.
You are kin with those who exist beyond the archives.
You cannot be contained.
In your genes you carry ancient missing traits and names.
The story goes like this, according to Boeus’ Origin of Birds – https://topostext.org/work/216
“Autonous, had as sons Erodius, Anthus, Schoeneus and Acanthus, with a daughter Acanthis to whom the gods granted great beauty. Autonous acquired many herds of horses, and because he neglected husbandry, no crops were produced … only rushes and thistles. For this reason he named his children after such plants and his oldest son Erodius, because his lands had been eroded.
Erodius was extremely fond of these herds of horses which he pastured in the meadows.
But Anthus drove the mares out of the meadows, …. they were infuriated and set upon Anthus. They began to devour him as he cried to the gods to save him. Now his father, panic-stricken, faltered and failed to drive off the mares. The mother went on battling with the mares, but was unable to do anything to avert the slaughter.
While the family wept, Zeus and Apollo felt pity for them and turned them all into birds. Autonous was made a quail because he had quailed at driving off the horses. The mother was turned into a lark with a crested head because she had headed for the mares to fight for her son against them. They turned Anthus himself, as well as Erodius, Schoeneus, Acanthus and Acanthyllis into birds called by the same names as they had before they were metamorphosed.”
This family who loved the wild horses and wild meadows and wild plants were turned into wild birds.
Neglect the care of plants and animals, and even your most loyal animal companions will turn against you and all that will save you will be a turning back. To the wild.
In this myth, you are the origin of birds.
Terry Tempest Williams wrote,
“Once upon a time, when women were birds, there was a simple understanding that to sing at dawn, and to sing at dusk, was to heal the world through joy. The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.”
There is a missing memory and you fill it with a sketch, a flight, a song, a celebration that is in itself a metamorphosis. To a time when we are birds.
You are the origin of birds and you know the absence of birds, you are in the age of collapse, you are staying right here in the heart of the trouble, choosing to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk is to make the flying leap across that void.
There is accumulating evidence that the Redpolls are all one species, though they are still often divided into Common Redpolls and Cabaret Redpolls, and others all around the northern world. The difference between the common and the cabaret among us isn’t so fundamental. The plumage varies but genetically we are the same.
And there is evidence that Redpolls are “collaboratively polyamourous.” They care for each other outside of parenting, they feed each other’s babies, bring feathers to other nests, travel and care for children with one mate and then another.
We look at animals and delight when they are like us, a little bit. For a long time animal behaviorists seem to have only looked for ways of confirming how they are like us, but not quite. Not quite as alive, not as conscious or communicative or caring. Not quite across a threshold that would change everything.
You are at a threshold that changes everything.
You are a threshold that changes everything.
You change everything.
You must be a witch!
You, you are Acanthis kin. You love them not just as mirrors of yourself, but also when you see in their very strangeness the outline of something more than human, not less. An Other so dear they could teach us to fly.
A singing lesson about care that calls out to our kinship beyond nuclear families, makes maps in the air for how we could unburden ourselves a little of all this isolation and accumulation, and instead tend lovingly to each other’s nests. Be better at being flocks, families and community.
Acanthis kin are gathering. We shake our small heads, stretch our wings and anticipate our next joyful, irresistible irruption. All the love we have, all its soaring flight and sweet practicality, exceed the boundaries of this hungry, tired, lonely dehumanizing way of being human. You are being a new way of being. You exceed.
In 2014 a naturalist named Bernd Heinrich observed a flock of 100-150 redpolls playing in the snow in Western Maine. Over the course of 5 days as temperatures ranged from -26 to -14 they made 252 cavities and short tunnels. They weren’t looking for food, they were eating happily elsewhere. To Bernd it looked like they were just… playing. Or “playing at” – teaching each other techniques in the fluffy snow that they might need when they return to the tundra.
We watch the birds learn from each other here, too.
All the birds ignore one feeder for days until a pair of Woodpeckers find it. The little redpolls watch with their sideways glances, their upside-down peeking. And then when the woodpeckers leave, suddenly they all know how to do it. The feeder is a known entity, the other birds have shown them the trick to land and swing and eat.
Evolution isn’t marked by a signpost, it is a river of small lessons, tiny changes happening moment to moment, gouging out huge changes in deep time.
You are watching the birds and they are changing each other and they are changing you.
The birds are changing you. You are playing at a new kind of kinship, and the play’s the thing.
You care for them and hope to eek out a small space for them that is marked as safe. You weave love a little love and seed into their spaces.
You are collaboratively polyamorous in your own interspecies way too, aren’t you?
You are listening to your ancestors singing across the rushing trickling changes of deep time.
You are erupting into song, into community, into new shapes of love and care and family. You are playing at something new.
You are acanthis kin.