Murmuration and Monet

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.

On Beowulf, William Safire, Old English and the Constitution.

“Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.”
— William Safire

William Safire, the late columnist for the New York Times, a delightful mind and fearsome writer, described himself as a “libertarian conservative.” I have professed conservative credentials from time to time myself and have also been accused of being libertarian and rightly so. Neither label has caused me shame, nor has the moniker, “liberal.” I have held and still clutch close important beliefs from all three of those approaches to life and how it should be communally experienced.

I have often agreed with things Safire said about the world, but one of the places we have veered off mutually inclusive paths is with the subject of language. I began this blog with a semi-tongue-in-cheek quote from Safire about how one should write, and I suppose, as a continuance of his notion, how one should speak. I think Safire was interested in keeping language, especially written language, consistent within itself and within its history. And I would expect him to feel that way, given his conservative bent.

But I have a bone to pick with that notion.

Above, Safire says “Don’t and don’t and never and unqualified, and improper and avoid.” Although he semi-toys with us, Safire held an underlying belief in strict rules for English. All through school we had rules, and in the world of editing we have rules. So with all the rules we have one would think that English today might look like it did one hundred years ago, five hundred years ago, a thousand years ago, since no right-minded writer or speaker would break the rules. But that is not the case. Below I have quoted the first four lines of the epic poem, “Beowulf,” composed in Anglo-Saxon, which, in the year 800 AD was English. Below it I have given a rendition of those same four lines from an early twentieth century translation by Francis Grummere. Both are written in the English of their times. Note the difference between our ability to understand the words in terms of the English that we spoke and read twelve hundred years ago and the English we speak and read now.

THEN: Ða wæs on burgum Beowulf Scyldinga,
leof leodcyning, longe þrage
folcum gefræge (fæder ellor hwearf,
aldor of earde), oþþæt him eft onwoc

NOW: Beowulf bode in the burg of the Scyldings,
leader beloved, and long he ruled
in fame with all folk, since his father had gone
away from the world, till awoke an heir,

Beowulf is a Danish-Viking story but it has come to us in Old English, which was the Anglo-Saxon lingo of the late first millennium. About the time that Beowulf was being written in Old English, Danes and Vikings were raiding, plundering and then settling the British Isles. With them, they brought some words that we have added to our language. Words like: Mink, flounder, cog, lug, spry, nudge, wicker.

If we had obeyed all the rules for keeping Old English pure, then those words would not have been added to our panoply of utterance. English would not have changed. Our language would be poorer, in my estimation.
In 1066, William the Bastard led an invasion of England that changed the history of our language some more. French became the official language of England, and of course the number of words that came into our language was quite large. An example of some follow: Archer, bacon, embezzle, gutter, salary, venison, vicar.

A couple hundred years after William’s Norman troops pacified the Anglo-Saxons, the diplomat and poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote his famous narrative poem titled, “The Canterbury Tales.” I have included a four-line segment so you can see how much our language changed in a five hundred year period. Although Chaucer’s lines are hard to read, you can see that there are quite a number of recognizable words. Right below Chaucer I have included a translation that illuminates the full gist of his words.

Whilom, as olde stories tellen us,
There was a duc that highte Theseus,
Of Athenes he was lord and governour,
And in his tyme swich a conquerour.

Once upon a time, as old tales tell to us,
There was a duke whose name was Theseus:
Of Athens he was lord and governor,
And in his time was such a conqueror,

You can guess where I am headed. If we listened to thinkers like William Safire, our language would still look like it did when that first monk in an English abbey wrote Beowulf in the native tongue of the land. About three hundred years after Chaucer wrote, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes composed the following words in his famous philosophical work, Leviathan.

Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governes the world) is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated, that it can make an Artificial Animal. For seeing life is but a motion of Limbs, the begining whereof is in some principall part within; why may we not say, that all Automata (Engines that move themselves by springs and wheeles as doth a watch) have an artificiall life? For what is the Heart, but a Spring; and the Nerves, but so many Strings; and the Joynts, but so many Wheeles, giving motion to the whole Body, such as was intended by the Artificer?

Again, you can see how our language changed over a three hundred year period and now, after another three-hundred-fifty years, our language has changed a lot more. Today, we have a large number of words that were not in the original Anglo-Saxon: Rodeo, raccoon, substitution, constitution. That word, “constitution,” comes from Latin, and also exists in French and very likely came to us with the Normans.

It is fascinating to me that although we have an old and famous language, one spoken world-wide, we still are subject to the necessities of time and change. What was said and written in the time of Beowulf is not how we write and speak today.

Before I quit, I want to go back to this word, “constitution.” Right now, our notion of that word as it regards our country’s “Constitution” is subject to a lot of argument regarding what it is and what it is not, what it means and does not mean, what was originally meant by its framers. I suppose I come down on this subject sort of like I do with language. Constitutions change. The meanings of words change. Times have changed. A lot of my good conservative friends believe that what the framers wrote, literally, is how the constitution should be interpreted today.

But I wonder about that. The Constitution, although it did not mention slavery, did say that Congress could not prohibit the importation of people held to service or labor. We had to fight a war to get rid of that “peculiar institution.” Yet, prior to our Civil War, no amount of argument, legislation, legal activity could get rid of slavery. So I wonder, is that the original Constitution my conservative friends want to go back to? (I think I just broke one of Safire’s grammar rules here.) Or the one that said you could not vote if you were a woman? Or the one that said you could not vote unless you were a property owner? Or the one that said that when counting population for purposes of districting congressional representation and distributing taxes that African-Americans only counted for three-fifths of a person? Are we to believe that the language we speak and write now is exactly the same language written by Franklin and Adams and Jefferson? Do the words and their intent mean the same thing now as they did then? And besides, the Constitution exists to regulate the behavior of men, and does not stand on its own above and beyond that purpose. No people…no need for a constitution. And people and their necessities change over time.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that the Constitution we had two-hundred-thirty years ago has changed, mostly for the better, and having said that, it seems evident that it is a changeable document that has modified over the years to meet the times and the trials of our country. So, to me, like language, the Constitution has evolved to match the age we live in, and is not some immovable object that cannot deal with the crises we face today, tomorrow and the next day.

1. “Beowulf, from the website
2. Francis Grummere, , from the website:
3. Geoffrey Chaucer, from the website:
4. ibid
5.Thomas Hobbes, from Leviathan,