The whacking at the corner of my home office sent me to my feet and the window. I opened the blinds and shadows of birds darted through the naked branches of the nine bark bushes growing against the northeast wall.
An ornamental pear stands close and the birds— a murmuration of starlings, speckled black birds that first arrived in North America over a hundred years ago–attacked the bare branches and devoured the marble sized fruit still attached to the tree.
The ornamental pears fall on the ground in late autumn and make a mess. So even though the notion of an exotic bird—or exotic species of any kind wreaking havoc on local environments—leads me to cringe, in theory, as the yellow-beaked creatures dove into the pear tree’s branches, landed, and ripped fruit from moorings, for a moment I felt…what was it, relief that one more chore was now rendered moot? Or was it something more…joyful? I wasn’t sure.
Back and forth the murmuration swarmed, banging branches against the house, the combined whoosh of their spread wings barging into the confines of my office.
Once Betty and I spent several nights in the French city of Rouen, in Normandy. We lodged in a small hotel with a balcony that allowed us to sit in comfortable chairs and see the old cathedral that the Impressionist artist Claude Monet painted many times. The cathedral—as either a church or something more grand– had been built, destroyed and rebuilt a number of times since the fifth century AD.
Its stately and angular Gothic architecture make a visual feast and I understood Monet’s fascination with it on an aesthetic level. Yet for me, the history it embodied, the Vikings who became the Normans of the region who went on to invade England and add their culture to the Norse, Anglo –Saxon, Roman, Celtic milieu that stewed in England prior to 1066 AD when the Norman Duke William the Bastard became King William the First of England invaded my senses and for a moment, ignited a buzz in my guts that I recognized as something strangely tied to the history of the human race.
In the cathedral, when Betty and I made our tour, we found a sarcophagus where William the First’s great-great-grandson, Richard the Lion Heart’s heart was entombed. Yes, his heart. Not the rest of him. His entrails are buried at Challus, where he died of gangrene from an arrow wound and the rest of him is buried near Chinon, in Anjou, close to his parents, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
In the evenings, after our trips to the cathedral and discovering a smidgeon of its history, or dining on crepes in a local café, or heading off to the Normandy beaches, we’d come back to our room just before sundown and listen to the starlings jammed in the foliage of the trees that surrounded the square between the cathedral and us. We found it enchanting, the singing, like it was happy talk between good friends. In the US starlings are considered by the ag industry as pests and according to a number of articles I read, they can destroy a vineyard or a cherry orchard or a blueberry field in less than a week.
The locals in Rouen who frequented the cathedral district seemed to hate the birds, too and from the looks of the ash gray tinted sidewalk and street gutters beneath the outer branches street side, I understood. Starling scat is probably hard on Peugeot paint jobs.
And now, as the starlings in my little murmuration zipped back and forth like short shafted arrows stripping my pear tree of fruit, I recognized that they were driven by some motivation that reminded me not only of hunger, but more; need, and maybe even the human desire called “greed.” I felt it standing at my window, the ferocious craving they had to eat and eat and eat as fast as possible, before all the fruit disappeared. And that led me to ponder King William the First and Richard, too, how history has portrayed them as men who needed more and more and more.
Yes, I felt it, like a jolt from the business end of a fletched crossbow bolt it hummed through me and for just a second, it felt primal, like knowledge in my DNA passed to me from humans alive way before I was born. I suspected it was kin to our need to survive, something that William the First and his great-great-grandson Richard surely understood as did Monet, I suspect, and if not consciously then down in the bones and the sinew and the soul.