Picking About the Gravel

…if a Sparrow come before my Window, I take part in its existenceand pick about the Gravel.1

I was laying on my bed when it hit: a thunk sound, not unlikea gloved hand knocking on glass. I rushed to the window to see asmall, brown shape rolling down the roof tiles. When it reached astop, it lay there flat on its back, stunned. Several other shapesfluttered down and surrounded it. Its mouth opened and closedrepeatedly, the others hopped and twitched. Eventually, it gaped itslast and settled. The head dropped as though released of a weight.The other shapes held for a moment, as if waiting for confirmation,then bolted back to the hedge they had come from.

What I had just witnessed, clearer with the dilation of time, was ajuvenile house sparrow flying into my window, breaking its neck inthe process, then dying. After the impact, it had dropped to the roofbelow – a shallow slope – and rolled until it reached a stop. Asmall flock of other sparrows, adults, had flown down and surroundedit almost immediately. They had moved around, seemingly assessing thesituation, then flown at the moment – or what I perceived to be themoment – that the younger bird had died.

This had been happening for a while now. Around the same time everyother morning and crack. I had tried opening the windows,tried lowering the blinds to split the reflection, but no. Invariablyit was a young bird – fresh, inexperienced – and typically theywere fine. Sometimes it would take a while for them to come around,but more often than not they would. This time had been differentthough, I had stood there and watched it die, helpless. There wasnothing I could do, it had been over the moment it hit. There was themoment nonetheless, when that bright, hyperaware consciousness –whatever that might be – ceased. Just like that.

What to do? I leant out of the window and reached for the body. Itwas still warm. The eyes were shut; the bill closed. The head rolledloosely over the edge of my index finger. Pale drool ran from themouth. Blood trickled into the nostrils, coagulating at the rim. Itook it outside, glancing up at the window to see what kind of worldit had been heading for. It looked much like that it had come from –azure, luminous – except everything was mirrored: the familiarshape of the apple tree was reversed, made uncanny; ivy waseverywhere as normal. The sky was the sky, only a shade darker. Itwas a convincing world; it sucked in its own reality.

~

The encounter, if you can callit that, had been simultaneously mundane andextraordinary:mundane due to its everydayness; extraordinary for itsincomprehensibility. That I took a photograph of the bird beforereturning it to the hedge it had flown from seemed irrelevant. Thewhole process had felt so clumsy: laying it on my desk, lumberingaround with the camera, peering through thatwindow. And thenthere were the images, themselves dull, sitting awkwardly with what Ihad witnessed.

When I played the experience back, it was marked by a peculiar,prolonged sense of time. The suddenness of the collision hadcontradicted the slowness of its dying, then there was theawkwardness of photographing it, and finally the picture itself. Thewhole thing seemed oddly dilated, like a bad metaphor for aphotograph. The elements were there – physically: the panes ofglass separating subject and object, and theoretically: the immediacycoupled with the ability to study it posthumously – though theirrelation was skewed, enlarged and distorted like a cartoon. Theimpact had even left its image on the window: a pale print of thebird – oil and dust – legible down to individual feathers. Thewings spread, a smudge where the head would have been.

More than anything, though, itunsettled any notion I had of what it was to picture other animals.The encounter was unusual when compared to most, sure, though it hadso physically blown apart the relation, or lack of relation, betweenthe experience and the photograph I took, hammering home a basictruth in the process: everything was as hazily of the world as eachother.

~

The image stayed on the window for weeks. The more I looked, the moreamazed I was at how clear a likeness of itself it had actually left.I traced the shape of the wings, noting the raised alula – a birds‘thumb’ – typically used to slow flight or when landing:perhaps it had seen what was coming the instant before it struck, toolate to do anything about it. As images go, this was about as closeto the experience as it got, though even this – its image –seemed so abstract, so much was missing. The head, as I noted, wasfor the most part a smudge: where the eyes would have been were gaps;its bill, though recognisable, was wider, resembling a duck. Itoccurred to me later that this was probably a result of what hadactually killed it – the sudden jerk that broke its neck.

Like others of animals, the image marked the point where ourexperiences had met. And although – like others – it provided anear immaculate index of the encounter, I struggled to shake thefeeling of simply banging into the glass from the other side. When Icame across the quote from John Keats that began this text, it feltlike an uncanny echo of the incident I just described. It was theexpression ‘take part’ particularly, as my experience had beendefined by the sheer unintelligibility of the bird that had slammedinto my window. I think Keats knew this, steeped as the phrase is inhis own concept of negative capability – the quality ‘...ofbeing in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritablereaching after fact and reason.’2 To this point, the image shared some of the qualitiesof what are – to my mind, anyway – the best depictions of othercreatures: each aware of its own particular brand of distance – itsown limitations, own process of translation – dipping intootherness while retaining a palpable sense of itsincomprehensibility.

  1. J. Keats, Selected Letters, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 37.
  2. Ibid., p.41.