Of Birds and Things We Miss

By Cristina A. Montes

It’s migrant bird season here in the Philippines once again.  Birders have been looking out for, and posting about, their first sightings or soundings of their favorite migrant bird species for the year.

Bird migration is a feat.  I marvel at the ease with which these birds, some with tiny bodies, fly over vast oceans towards their destinations and back, whereas we humans suffer jet lag, delayed flights, lost luggage, airsickness, and turbulences when we attempt to do the same.

Do migrating birds miss their homes while they are abroad?

While this is a mystery that will perhaps never be solved, what is certain is that birds remind us humans of the things we miss.

In his poem “Home Thoughts from Abroad”, the poet Robert Browning described how much he yearned to see and hear familiar birds:

Oh, to be in England

Now that April’s there,

And whoever wakes in England

Sees, some morning, unaware,

That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf

Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,

While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough

In England—now!

And after April, when May follows,

And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!

Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge

Leans to the field and scatters on the clover

Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—

That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,

Lest you should think he never could recapture

The first fine careless rapture!

And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,

All will be gay when noontide wakes anew

The buttercups, the little children’s dower

—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!

In one of his haiku, Matsuo Basho poignantly expressed how the cuckoo’s song triggered an intense longing for past summers:

Even in Kyoto
Longing for Kyoto
Hearing the Cuckoo

(Note:  the traditional 5-7-5 syllable scheme was lost in the translation from Japanese to English.)

The Matsuo Basho Haiku blog provides the context:

“By Japanese reckoning [the summer of 1690] was the era called Genroku (元禄, meaning “original happiness” or perhaps “the beginning of happiness”). It was the third year of the reign of Emperor Higashiyama, 113th emperor of Japan.

That spring Matsuo Basho had completed his trip that would become in time his most famous travelogue, Oku no HosomichiJourney to the Far North. Not wanting to hurry back to Edo, where Basho had lived and written for the last 46 years, he decided to stay in Kyoto for four months in a modest hut called Genjuu-An 幻住庵, located on the grounds of the Chikatsuo Shrine.

Summer was approaching. In Kyoto’s trees, now full of green leaves, one could hear the plaintive cry of the cuckoo, “Kyoo-Kyoo.” Basho recalled his early days a student in Kyoto.”

Indeed, bird sightings and bird calls can trigger a flood of memories.  They can have strong associations with places and times and people we miss and long to revisit.

In this pandemic, most of us miss the activities we used to enjoy, the trips we used to take, the experiences we shared with friends and our loved ones that we can no longer recreate.  But we have poetry and birds to confirm to us that all those things were real and remain a part of us.  And who knows?  We might be able to enjoy those things again someday. 

Note:  The text of Robert Browning’s “Home Thoughts from Abroad” was taken from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43758/home-thoughts-from-abroad while the text of the translation of Matsuo Basho’s haiku “Even in Kyoto” and the background story was taken from https://matsuobashohaiku.home.blog/2020/07/11/even-in-kyoto/

Thumbnail photo by Manideep Karne from Pexels

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