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Chekhov and the Bittern

October 27, 2013

Well, dearest birders, I could regale you with tales about my latest twitching instinct, which took me as far as Fort Erie last weekend, in search of the Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster), which had been hanging around with cormorants and shuttling back and forth between the Ontario and Buffalo sides. This particular female booby made headlines everywhere, including the illustrious Fort Erie Times, since this was a first sighting for Ontario. The spectacle attracted birders from far and wide, because Boobies (is that really the correct plural?) usually spend their time in tropical waters, around the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, but the fair province of Ontario is about as far from their radar as it gets!

I’ll spare you the details of the day (though they did include a delicious breakfast at the Cafe by the Bridge in Fort Erie, which was a lucky find since all we had seen prior to said restaurant were boarded up Chinese-Canadian cuisine establishments, a club called The Max, and another called He’s Not Here, neither of which felt safe to enter at 11:30 am), but suffice it to say that the Brown Booby appeared on the scene 40 minutes after we left. So it goes… In lieu of our bird of the day, we did see enough female White-winged Scoters (Melanitta fusca) for me to finally be able to ID them. And Cormorants galore. I managed to correctly (and quickly) ID a long-tailed duck, which means that last fall and winter’s efforts weren’t for naught.

And then, in other news not at all relating to the almost-seen Brown Booby, I came across this passage in Chekhov’s devastating story “In the Ravine,” and felt like I had gained a whole new understanding of the Chekhovian landscape:

The sun went to sleep, covering itself with purple and gold brocade, and long clouds, crimson and lilac, watched over its rest, stretching across the sky. Somewhere far away, God knows where, a bittern gave a mournful, muted cry, like a crow locked in a barn. the cry of this mysterious bird was heard every spring, but no one knew what it looked like or where it lived. up by the hospital, in the bushes just by the pond, beyond the village, and in the surrounding fields, nightingales were pouring out their song. The cuckoo was counting out someone’s years and kept losing count and starting over again. in the pond angry, straining frogs called to each other, and one could even make out the words: “you’re such a one! You’re such a one!” How noisy it was! it seemed that all these creatures were calling and singing on purpose so that no one would sleep on that spring evening, so that all, even the angry frogs, might value and enjoy every minute: for life is given only once! (Trans: Pevear and Volokhonsky)

And maybe it’s because I’ve seen an American Bittern (though not Chekhov’s Eurasian Bittern, but still) — and because I know this bird’s undercover ways, the way it prefers to remain deeply ensconced in reeds — and because I’ve heard its spring-time booming call, maybe for that reason, I found myself reading Chekhov differently. This time, I could hear the noise, the vibrant avian cacophony of this natural landscape, and hearing it swell with life rendered the contrast with the protagonist’s numbness after the story’s unspeakable crime all the more devastating.

The Eurasian Bittern (Botaurus stellaris), as Chekhov would have likely seen him, when he wasn't hiding stealthily. Image from here.

The Eurasian Bittern (Botaurus stellaris), as Chekhov would have likely seen him, when he wasn’t hiding stealthily. Image from here.

Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev — all great bird-lovers (and hunters, but such were the ways in those days). Now that I’m a little more familiar with avian taxonomy, I’m starting to read my favorite authors anew. I’m noticing more. Hearing more. Seeing more. Images resonate differently; natural frequencies hum.

Booby or no Booby, it’s impossible to rewind three years and go back to that time in my life without birds.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. Arlene Hysen permalink
    October 28, 2013 8:59 am

    Thank you for a wonderful October blog with such fine literary imagery.
    Arlene, Somerset, N.J.

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