"Maaag! Maaag! Merk?" For background on this communique, I would ask
you to read the chapter "Magpie Days," and to ask yourself this: how
would I tell others about an animal that deeply affected me?
I asked myself that about the black-billed magpie. It was important to
me to convey our stories--those of myself and my big brother Tom--about
these birds in our young lives, but also reliably to convey their
natural history, and the dark tale of their persecution. But these elements spring from both left and right brains--the personal/subjective (associative, heartful, emotional) and the factual/objective (scientific, reportorial, analytical). On the face of it, that would seem to present the writer with a conundrum. But must it? Not at all. As Vladimir Nabokov suspected (and lived), there IS a "high ridge where the mountainside of scientific knowledge joins the opposite slope of artistic imagination." So by striding or soaring along that ridge, dipping into one side, then the other, one ought to be able to do both
in the same essay--and it ought to be all the richer for it, if one's context is clear enough to signal the reader when poet and reporter change places.
At least, that was my experiment with this essay. So as you read it, note how I have interlarded deeply personal experiences, some funny and some anything but, with historical and biological sequences to try to give a rounded portrait of the bird and its lifeways, as well as the lifeways of two kids on adventure in the world: story holding hands with science. See if that collaboration across the mental membrane works for
you. Writing or telling story this way, we invoke what we know or can discover, from Audubon reporting on Clark and Lewis (maybe the last time they were referred to that way) to modern ornithology texts, from bounty figures of benighted days of yore to the color of a '55 Chevy: the magpie contains multitudes. For my part, I felt I came to know magpies, and myself, much better for having essayed such a convergence.
But this missive also has to do with the black-billed magpie itself, in a more than metaphorical way. _Pica pica hudsonia_ is an elegantly adapted organism, perhaps even one that proliferated beyond its former
estate, since and on account of European contact. Especially after bounty days were over, it became a veritable neighborhood bird in Denver and many another western town, frequenting cemeteries and parks as well as farms and fallowlands. Yet, it is not infinitely versatile: it occurs in both Great Britain and the Wild West, but omits the eastern U.S. in between. Clark and Lewis, Audubon wrote, didn't encounter magpies until they reached the Great Bend of the Missouri in April, 1804. And though it is a crafty urban habitue, a town & country sophisticate, you won't be able to sneak up on it and snatch one of those iridescent tailfeathers, for it remains much more shy than its fellow corvid, the common crow. As Audubon described it, "When one pursues it openly, it flits along the walls and hedges, shifts from tree to tree, and at length flies off to a distance."
So here is an animal that has proven extraordinarily adaptable, yet definitely has its limiting factors, both ecologically and socially. Described as everything from an "unscrupulous roysterer" to "a handsome, knowing, resourceful fellow," it has taken some of the most vicious persecution any American animal has faced, and come back to tell about it: "Maaag! Maaag! Merk?" The black-and-white birds called "magpies" in Australia are successful, piebald birds of similar traits, though far removed from _Pica pica_ genetically and evolutionarily. Yet just as ours do, they repay close observation and contemplation as
creatures--like the kids one used to find at large in the countryside and the vacant lots--that thrived in the post-industrial wasteland, the agricultural aftermath, the second-hand lands, the hand-me-down habitats
left over after we've had our way with the land. Such organisms show that the urban wild is not only a story of what's been lost; it might tell a story of evolutionary opportunity: of what's coming back someday.
For such an image taken to its logical extent, read Richard Jeffries' _After London_. There would be magpies there, in sickle-swoop from one cottonwood to another, scrawling their names across the sky in
opalescent ink. And there would be children at liberty in such a land, wandering at will to see what they could find today.
Some questions to consider:
--What kind of animal made a deep impression on you as a young creature abroad on the landscape? How? And how to tell about it?
--Does the evolutionary gift and necessity of adaptation offer us (who are not magpies) anything worth looking forward to?
--In your experience, can heart and science--or as one friend of mine put it, headbone and hormone--cooperate to make a good story?
--What are some books, who are some writers, who make such an intellectual/emotional mingling work for you as a reader?