The Advisory Boar

By Abhijit Menon-Sen <>

Bird watchers and purple prose

Speaking of bird-watching and poetry, I've noticed that bird-watchers, at least on the few Indian bird-watching lists I subscribe to, adore purple prose. They applaud it when they see it in other people's trip reports, and do their best to put it in their own.

It is always entertaining to see things like this written with no apparent sense of irony (in this case, about a photograph of a pair of Himalayan Bulbuls):

Reminded me, in fact, of a pair of elegant aristocrats, somewhat puffy-chested with ‘stale airs’, a touch stern in demeanour, necks and crests craning back with a stiff pride.......

As if, As if.... somehow the couple is steeling to bear the gathering autumn of an erstwhile many-splendoured life, now stripped of privy privileges, purses and titles!

Very picturesque, but when I think of an aristocrat stripped of privy privileges, I can't help but imagine an old butler, neck stiff with spondylosis, saying I'm sorry, Sir Neville, but they took away the outhouse.

But any literary allusion, no matter how trite or overused, is cause for celebration. Comparisons to poetry are frequent followups; and sometimes a phrase catches someone else's imagination, and reappears in their own reports. Someone once responded to a post, which was relatively subdued in comparison to the above, with a comment that Ruskin Bond was quaking in his boots, presumably from fear of competition (though the post didn't rule out, say, uncontrollable laughter).

It's not surprising that the responses are all positive, of course. These lists are meant for discussions about birds, after all, and not literary criticism; and a bit of overeager prose never killed anyone. I imagine anyone who cares enough to distinguish between good writing and a string of adjectives would be best served by silence. Besides, as I've learned from bitter experience, a few authors have pretensions to great writing, and react to anything other than fawning praise with suspicion and—more likely than not—another pompous screed.

It's a pity, though, that people read such reports and see that they are well-received, and are made to feel that their own reports should aspire to the same outmoded standard. Victorian England, with all its class distinctions, lives on in the kind of English taught to the Indian upper crust. (An aside: Wikipedia says that the phrase "purple prose" comes from the Ars poetica by the Roman poet Horace, who used it to caution against literary excess more than two thousand years ago.)

Although examples of flowery prose are legion, one mailing list post in particular stands out as an indelible indigo scab on my consciousness, cratered with swooping metaphors and pock-marked with… ahem. Here are a few passages, excerpted with some difficulty from the dense surrounding context. The account begins thus:

Eastern UP is Old India. The towns spill onto the roads or what is left of them after the tractors and other mechanized farming vehicles have ploughed their way through, deepening the already deepened furrows. The roads appear hand-crafted. Over-laden lorries of village wealth packed sky-high with hay or sugar cane traverse these hand-made roads. Level crossings criss-cross them. On the rail tracks of the smaller crossings, red cotton sheets are stretched across two bamboo poles that seem to arrogantly shout at the train to halt. In between the passage of trains chugging past, cycles, rickshaws and bullock carts put their lives on the line and make a dash for the other side.

We drove from Shahjehanpur to Dudhwa National Park for nearly 4 hours, over a grey-brown road against a grey, smog-darkened sky. The smog tried in vain to push back the dawn of the lightening sky. Several smoke stacks came and went leaving their dirty trail of soot robbing the morning of its innocence. Smelting factories, brick kilns and soot-blackened fields inevitably contributed to the sluggish miasma of fog. Little did we know that this landscape would characterize much of the once-rich Terai and its adjoining Bhabbar fields whose gravelly alluvial detritus supported a decent dry deciduous forest.

A decent dry deciduous forest? Is that all? After that setup, I expected no less than a magnificent dry deciduous forest spread across a great swath of the ancient alluvial detritus! But the body of the report lives up to its early promise—at great length—and features a number of adjectival masterpieces of which, for want of space, I shall reproduce only the following one.

Having spent two days at the hutments at Dudhwa, we visited Sathiana one morning and were charmed with what we saw. Its sights and sounds and scents and flavour intoxicated us with a healthy intoxication. So we succumbed to Sathiana's beauty and drove in the darkening night for a change of address. On a dusty track crimson-pink bulbs rose up and danced. Some, but not all nocturnal birds, have a tapetum lucidum — a reflecting layer behind the retina, which turns photons back in their tracks to give the retinal pigments a second chance to intercept them, which, lucky for us, makes for easy spotting.

If some sick fascination holds you to this unrestrained outpouring of literary yearning for another two hundred and fifty odd lines, you are rewarded with the climactic and spiritual ending.

Now we walked into the fire of sunrise, exploiting our senses, forcing ourselves to consider relationships, to embrace the pattern that connects. Walks do this. When we merge our soul with Nature, it makes the intellect fruitful and that gives birth to imagination. We hope to return to explore other areas of this National Park - perhaps in the winter months. The sun was already beating down on us, using us as its own private anvil. In the months to follow the sky would assume a most ruthless blue without compassion of even a cloud; and then the deluge would begin.

Walks do this, do they? I'd better make note of that.

I've always had a sneaking suspicion that the author of this report was just trolling to see how much abuse the audience could possibly take. But if that wasn't really the case, I wanted to do it. So I began to pre-compose my next trip report (this was more than two years ago).

It was dark when we set out, but the brief summer night was little comfort to a planetary crust forever tormented by the liquid fire within, and with scant protection from the relentless onslaught of the fiery celestial orb. Even enclosed, as we were, within a sleek bubble of modern automotive technology, we could not help but be keenly aware of the sullen warmth beneath our wheels as the first luminous rays of dawn roused the parched soil from its restless slumber.

The journey seems but a blur now, a discordant cacophony of wheels and air horns. We could imagine, but dared not lower our windows to listen for, the mellow strains that must attend suburban Gurgaon's awakening, and its increasing enthusiasm to sieze a day which, by now, had gained a firm purchase on our consciousness. I have but fleeting impressions, of swerving to overtake carts pulled by surly oxen, of slowing down to negotiate welts and blisters on the dusty grey road that unwound in front of us, our only tangible physical connection to what seemed an alien planet (but which was, we struggled to remember, only Haryana).

Our destination: Sultanpur lake (or jheel, in the harshly aspirated but essentially good-natured vernacular), an artificially managed wetland in the midst of a dust bowl with its scattered fields, where stunted crops maintain a tenuous grasp on an existence based on nutrients leached at great cost from the uncooperative earth.

At that point, however, I made the mistake of stopping to review what I had written; and I was overcome by a wave of nausea so intense that I was unable to continue. Even the thought of the universal acclaim that would surely attend its unveiling was not enough to renew my flagging spirits, and my magnum opus remains sadly incomplete.

Something to look forward to, perhaps.

Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher

I came across a quotation from Nissim Ezekiel's poem, "Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher" in a book, and the title was so interesting that I just had to look it up. I found it in the minstrels archive, and it's such an intriguing poem that I'm quoting all twenty lines here.

Poet, Lover, Birdwatcher

To force the pace and never to be still
Is not the way of those who study birds
Or women. The best poets wait for words.
The hunt is not an exercise of will
But patient love relaxing on a hill
To note the movement of a timid wing;
Until the one who knows that she is loved
No longer waits but risks surrendering—
In this the poet finds his moral proved
Who never spoke before his spirit moved.

The slow movement seems, somehow, to say much more.
To watch the rarer birds, you have to go
Along deserted lanes and where the rivers flow
In silence near the source, or by a shore
Remote and thorny like the heart's dark floor.
And there the women slowly turn around,
Not only flesh and bone but myths of light
With darkness at the core, and sense is found
But poets lost in crooked, restless flight,
The deaf can hear, the blind recover sight.

— Nissim Ezekiel

I have read some other poems by Nissim Ezekiel (one was a part of my high school English curriculum), but I can't remember another one that made me sit up and pay attention. I love the idea of tying poetry, love, and bird-watching together through the patience and caring that each requires; and I love the unhurried, graceful way the poem segues between each activity and the feelings it evokes. I think the ending is a bit forced (did anyone mop the heart's dark floor or were they too busy eyeing up the slowly turning women?), and detracts from the light tone established by the first stanza. I notice, too, that poetry, love, and bird-watching are presented as implicitly male pursuits.

Myths of light with darkness at the core? Not so much. But patient love relaxing on a hill is a different feeling, one that I can recognise and will remember.

The Hour of the Furnaces

What does this mean?, asked Hassath, pointing to «La Hora de los Hornos» in an article about documentary films.

The hour of the… something.


And just like that, a flood of memories swept me twenty years back in time to the Argentinian pampas, which I had experienced time and again through Gerald Durrell's marvellous writings. I remembered the story of a tough gaucho moved to tears as he recounted how he—in a moment of uncharacteristic sentimentality—rescued a small bird whose leg was stuck in the wet clay with which it was building its nest. The bird, once freed, perched a few feet away and poured its heart out in song, as if to thank the enraptured cowboy.

The bird's name, Hornero, was what triggered a memory so vivid that, just for an instant, I could almost smell the clay and feel a dry, dusty wind stinging my cheek. Horneros, named for the resemblance of their round clay nest to a horno, an old wood-fired oven. Ovenbirds.

Furnaces. That's it. The Hour of the Furnaces.

The Hour of the Furnaces is a 1968 documentary by Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino about the struggle against neo-colonialism in Argentina. The title quotes Che Guevara who, in turn, was quoting the nineteenth-century Cuban revolutionary leader and poet José Marti: "Now is the time of the furnaces, and only light should be seen." The film is in three parts, and is 260 minutes long. Hassath, who has seen it, recommends it highly.

My treasured collection of Gerald Durrell's books is long gone, given away over the years; and now, I have a film to watch that will teach me very different things about Argentina. But it will also always remind me of a small brown bird celebrating its freedom with a song.

Greek and Latin Scientific names

My recent comment on names which mean the same thing in different languages reminded me of something slightly different: generic and specific names that mean the same thing; one in Greek, the other in Latin.

The Common Raven Corvus corax, revered in ancient cultures around the world, bears its own name in both languages, Corvus being the Latin name for the Raven, and corax likewise the name in Greek (even the name "Raven" comes from an ancient Proto-Germanic name applied to the bird). The related Carrion Crow Corvus corone and Hooded Crow Corvus cornix both take their specific names from Greek words for "crow". All three names were assigned by Linnaeus in 1758.

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Overloaded generic names

The Slender-Billed Scimitar Babbler Xiphirhynchus superciliaris has always felt somewhat mystical while flipping through the Babblers in any field guide. I've never seen one, but the photographs posted to the delhibirdpix list by Sujan Chatterjee in May 2008 and Ramki Sreenivasan a year later, both taken in Arunachal Pradesh, have stayed in my memory.

Unfortunately, I can find only one of these photographs on Google Groups now, and I can't figure out any sane way to link to that post here. But Google Images finds many photos of the species, including Sujan's photo.

Anyway, Xiphirhynchus superciliaris was somewhere at the back of my mind when I recently encountered a casual reference to the unrelated South American genus of Woodcreepers: Xiphorhynchus. These are essentially the same word, derived from the Greek xiph- (for "sword") and -rhynchus ("snout" or "nose", meaning beak)!

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Dual-use scientific names

A long time ago, I was delighted to notice—by accident—that the Yellow-Footed Green Pigeon Treron phoenicopterus has, as its specific name, the same name given to the genus of Flamingos. And what a name it is! Phoenicopterus, meaning "crimson-wing", from the Greek φοίνικ- (phoenic-, for "blood red", the root of Phoenix and Phoenician; itself derived from φόνος, fonos, for "slaughter") and pteron (for wing).

This weekend, armed with a not-terribly-recent checklist of birds and a little spare time, I wrote a small Perl script to look for other names given to both a genus and a different species (that is to say, I ignored the relatively better-known examples of one bird having the same generic and specific name, such as Coccothraustes coccothraustes and Pica pica). Here are some of the most interesting results.

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