In the late autumn, fallen beechmast and leaves line the edges of the road in thick coppery crunching drifts. Under the avenue of tall trees just beyond the village where I live, the winter flocks of chaffinches that gather to feed on the beechmast fly up at my approach.
Always, when I see a flock of chaffinches here, I look for their brighter, scarcer continental cousins, bramblings, which visit in the cold months, and often keep them company. I find chaffinches irritating – their little ‘pink pink’ call, captured in their Welsh name, ji-binc; their repetitive song in spring, and their ubiquity (despite having been badly affected by the disease trichomonosis, they are now purportedly the second most common bird in Britain).
In the low sun every bird is bathed in an orange glow that renders each of them a candidate to my hopeful heart, but not one will deliver. In focus, all the potential bramblings resolve into male chaffinches, and once I have identified a bird as a chaffinch, I stop looking at it.
I am not the sort of birdwatcher who accumulates species as a kind of competitive sport, or as a form of collecting; nor am I a twitcher who goes tearing across the country to see a rare visitor. I don’t keep records, or lists. I rarely go birdwatching, in fact – it’s more the case that if I set off for a walk, I take binoculars with me in case I see something, rather than in order to see something. There are other places, a short drive from where I live, where I could be guaranteed to find bramblings during the winter, but it’s not that I need, particularly, to see a brambling: it’s just that I know there could be a brambling here, and I haven’t yet identified it.
On the surface of it, the compulsion to identify birds seems an odd habit, but in many ways it’s only a refinement of the other forms of identification that we engage in all the time. There’s no huge leap to bird identification from the ordering of the world in Genesis, that great Jewish foundation myth, with its insistence on categories. Without this compulsion to identify, to create and discriminate between one category of being and another, we’d be in chaos; the world would be tohu vavohu, as Bereishit 1:2 has it: ‘without form, and void.’
Identifying something (a chaffinch versus a brambling, for example), provides me with a sense of comfortable order. The world conforms to what I already know, and therefore I know how to relate to it. I have the reassuring precision of language to articulate what I observe, to capture what seems, experientially at least, to be an objective truth. When I can’t identify something, when what I observe or experience won’t conform to known categories, or the tenuousness of known categories is exposed, I feel disorientated by a kind of existential uncertainty: the world threatens to devolve again into tohu vavohu, to being without form, and void.
Watching the winter flocks of chaffinches, I wonder about their Latin designation, Fringilla coelebs – the bachelor bird – named after the species’ purported segregation by sex during the cold months. Based on that behaviour, chaffinches could just as suitably have been named the spinster bird (or perhaps even the sisterhood bird), but it was Linnaeus who did the describing, and, true to the social structures and assumptions about biological sex of the eighteenth century, opted to name the bird after a male characteristic.
I can’t see any evidence of separation by sex here in mid Wales: this is a mixed flock under the beeches – a nondescript lot, particularly the females in their unremarkable, duller winter plumage. Even so, the knowledge of that purported behaviour sometimes makes me doubt what I’m seeing. Perhaps the phenomenon of chaffinch segregation was never true, I think; or perhaps it was only true in certain places, or maybe chaffinch behaviour has changed over time due to climate heating. But what about birds like hen harriers? Female hen harriers and young males form a category of their own – ‘ringtails’ – because there’s no way to distinguish between them simply by distant observation. I’m not aware of that being true of chaffinches, but how can I be sure? I feel the disturbing lurch of disorientation, that vertigo of uncertainty, as what I hold to be true threatens to get away from me. And I catch myself going through a whole emotional spectrum of reaction in the face of this minor loss of certainty – maybe not quite Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, but certainly denial or rejection, and anger, and something like resentment, as I lose the sense of solid ground.
Rejection, anger and resentment are probably a more common response to uncertainty on my part than I’d care to admit. I think of my unease a few years ago as use of the word ‘sad’ shifted from meaning ‘sorrowful’ to ‘pathetic’ – I wondered, both fearfully and also rather contemptuously, whether the capacity to experience sorrow might be lost too (overlooking the inconvenient reality that the word ‘pathetic’ had once meant something different). And when my twenty-nine-year-old came out as genderfluid and began to use they/them pronouns, I found myself floundering, disorientated, and often resentful of the uncertainties the change of language created. Initially I struggled most with the impersonal detachment of the plural pronoun ‘they’. It felt broad and general rather than personal and specific, as if I was diminishing their unique identity, and I found myself relying ever more heavily on their name, as though to compensate. Despite understanding and empathising with the reasons for the change, it felt as if I was being asked to commit an offence against them as an individual, but I also felt (publicly game, and privately resentful), that I was being asked to commit an offence against language.
The confusion of distinguishing between one person or more than one person, and using a plural verb for a single individual, all felt like a slide into inaccuracy, a loss of control. No matter that becoming inarticulate, uncertain how to navigate language, might be a very useful way to understand something of their experience, my feeling of being at sea in this way also triggered those other responses to loss: rejection, resentment, even sometimes a kind of gloomy hopelessness.
But perhaps the biggest ongoing uncertainty, where I feel not anger or resentment, but something more clearly like grief, is the loss of the category ‘daughter’, with all that it has meant to me for twenty-nine years. Does this change of identifiers change the past? Can I say of them that at the age of thirteen she was tall and skinny and into wrestling? It would be true to my experience of them, but a wound to who they are now, whatever their internal experience or external identity was at the time. At the heart of this uncertainty lies a greater fear: if I have to change how I articulate old experiences and memories of this person whom I love, it might put those experiences themselves at risk, and make our shared memories incoherent – and therefore possibly no longer shared, nor true.
I know, hypothetically, that gender-neutral pronouns express old experience in new ways – that language follows clumsily in the wake of necessity, and then adjusts, as I will adjust. But perhaps it’s no surprise that I should feel those things. Any change of language entails a threat, a loss, even if it is also a gain.
It’s suggestive that at precisely this time of disorientation I fled into the gripping fictional certainties of Patrick O’Brian’s nineteenth-century nautical novels. From Master and Commander onwards, I lost myself in his evocation of a world being discovered, named and controlled, and in the precision and physical specificity of sailing terms. The narratives of dangerous navigation, and of threats inevitably overcome, were a reassuring escape. How I loved the old meaning of nondescripts in the early 1800s of his books: species that had not yet been named by Western science, but would be. And how suggestive it seemed to me, this change of language – from meaning ‘undescribed’, when there was still a belief that much of the world was unknown and could be described, to its current meaning of being not really worthy of attention.
Stephen Maturin, the ship’s surgeon, is responsible for the formal taxonomic description of several such ‘nondescripts’: he’s an expert and renowned naturalist. Nevertheless, in the fifth novel, Desolation Island, when he exclaims in delight at seeing a fork-tailed petrel, he’s subjected to birdsplaining by his insufferable shipmate James Grant, who tells him, incorrectly, that he’s wrong. ‘That is Procellaria pelagica, one of what we call the turbinares,’ Grant says, and he goes on ‘to tell Stephen a number of facts about birds in general, in a didactic voice that was but too familiar to the wardroom’.
Grant is all too familiar as a type, but it’s his lack of curiosity, once he has identified the bird, that particularly struck me: the fork-tailed petrel conforms to what he already knows as the Leach’s petrel; he expects it to be a Leach’s petrel, and so he stops looking. Unlike the delighted, curious Maturin, he therefore fails to see the identifying feature for which the other petrel is named. I wonder, thinking about the absence of Grant’s curiosity, about my own habits of identification, particularly as it pertains to chaffinches: I too stop looking. In Grant’s case, he was certain before he ever looked, but is that so different from me? I am engaged only as long as I am uncertain. With certainty, my curiosity also comes to an end.
Two hundred years on, neither of those petrels identified in Desolation Island have Procellaria in their Latin names: both storm petrels have been reclassified in a separate genus. In a similar way, perhaps in time the old name for chaffinches, Fringilla coelebs, will also be changed, whether reflecting new understandings of genetic relationships, or contemporary values of sexual equality, or entirely changed understandings of biological sex.
But how I now see them has changed. When December’s unusual freeze began, I couldn’t walk under the avenue of beeches for several days. Snow fell and thawed a little and refroze as thick compacted ice, and the steep road became unnavigable. At home, where I get little direct sunlight in winter, crunchy snow lasted in the minus-ten degrees for more than a week, so I put out food to help the smaller birds survive, and hungry chaffinches were the first to arrive. A small hope that any of them might be a brambling quickly deflated, as I glanced at each nondescript bird in turn, identified it, and moved on: male chaffinch, male chaffinch, female chaffinch, female… I looked back at this last one: a female chaffinch, but different. She kept falling over in the snow. I thought she probably had trichomonosis, but she was swallowing what she ate, unlike birds with that disease, and her plumage was neither ragged nor damp; she seemed quite energetic and able to look after herself. When I looked closely, I saw that she had an injured leg, which had perhaps broken and healed badly. It stuck out behind her, and it made her tip sideways.
I thought she could not survive the cold, but she came back every day. As I watched her, noting how she tried to balance on one leg, her determined competition for food, her subtle colours (not nondescript at all but particular: olive and umber, delicately patterned), she became an individual, separate from the ubiquitous, noisy collective – a chaffinch, yes, not a more unusual, brighter brambling, but, once I was paying attention again, intensely interesting in her own right.
Maybe it’s over-optimistic to think that when the chaos of uncertainty seems to threaten, I could cultivate curiosity rather than take refuge in stasis. At least in making the attempt I might find out something not yet identified and tidily tucked into pre-existing categories, and might discover some of the possibilities of change.
Jasmine Donahaye’s latest book is Birdsplaining: A Natural History. Her previous books include Losing Israel (2015), The Greatest Need(2015), Whose People? Wales, Israel, Palestine (2012) and two collections of poetry: Misappropriations (2006) and Self-Portrait as Ruth (2009). She teaches part-time at Swansea University, and is a fellow of the Learned Society of Wales. She won the New Welsh Writing Awards in 2021 with an extract from Birdsplaining: A Natural History.
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