There’s Something about Birds….

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a religious guy and haven’t ever had any spiritual inclinations, in spite of having been raised in a very cloistered, conservative religious community. Not that I’m discounting other’s experience. We all live by narratives that help us make sense of our existence. Historically, those narratives have been religious in nature – the idea of a providential deity that created and sustains us. That’s not my narrative, although I’m not sure what is. I consider myself a rationalist but find scientific materialism to be lacking at its core. It can give us insight into how things are, but not why they are. That’s a question for another discipline. The closest I’ve come to a narrative that makes sense is the questioning of philosophy. It doesn’t give us answers, but gives us the appropriate questions to ask.

That being said, there’s something about birds that I’ve experienced time and time again, some uncanny confluence that happens in what some would consider spiritually charged times.


A small carving of a bird was recently discovered in a cave in Holhe Fels, Germany. Carbon dating indicates it to be one of the earliest works of art known to us, carved over 30,000 years ago. Something moved a stone-age human to shape a piece of ivory into a new form, that of a bird, and with that opened up the history of human creativity, the transformation of outer experience into the inner vision of one human. Why a bird? Maybe because birds represent a link between earth and heaven, human consciousness and the mysteries of the unconscious, a symbol of soul and matter, all those things that have mystified humans since the evolution of consciousness.

Even for us secular humans, birds retain something uncanny, something that hints at things we can only suspect. Birds have a funny way of appearing in my life, specifically at times of death. My uncle, dying of cancer, had a bird fly into his room and land on his shoulder. Remarkably calm, the bird stayed for a minute of two and then flew out the window and off. My uncle died that day. The morning my father died my mother called me with the news. Walking outside to smoke a cigarette and gather my thoughts, a large crow flew down at my feet – no more that three or four feet away – and just stared at me as if to get my attention. Once done, he flew off to a nearby tree and sat in it and watched me until I went back inside.

I had my last visit with my oncologist Tuesday. He had done some research into the potential for immunology treatment. Unfortunately, all tests indicate it won’t be of any use. His advice: go home and let nature take its course. 3 to 6 months should do it. What does one do with 3 to 6 months? Any ideas?

More than one person, on learning of my impended death, has asked that I send them a sign if I’m around. I’ve told all of them to watch for a bird that comes to visit. That will be “me.” I’m not sure I believe it myself, but what can it hurt?

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11 thoughts on “There’s Something about Birds….

  1. Rob Campbell

    The power and breadth of your photography is pretty damned astounding.

    Who ever imagined that there was more, much more to bird photography than the sharp eye of an eagle shot through a camouflaged 500mm lens from inside a hide?

    Your photographic emotions are so well expressed.

    On the matter of survival: one day at a time. You have to be pretty old to believe/understand that, but it shouldn’t devalue the basic truths that age reveal, one such being that none of us knows when the bell will call us in, as it surely has so to do. At least you did something with your life, and are continuing to do to the best that circumstances allow. That, too, is worth something.


  2. Dan Newell

    What does one do with 3 to 6 months? Any ideas?

    That’s a tough one. After watching humans deal with the issue for forty years it ranges from “I’m going to Lourdes” to “I’m going to ride every roller coaster in North America”. I think it just is an organic, personal idea that nobody else has a frame of reference to contemplate.

    Most people don’t have that confluence of events where, at least half of their concerns, just don’t matter any more. Nobody really prepares us for that time so we haven’t spent more than passing thought on it.

    We occasionally try the thought experiment of -what would happen with no rules? It gets pretty crazy thinking about it, seems pretty cool but I think what you run into is that it’s different enough from the usual thinking pattern that it becomes destabilizing…..even though it’s pretty attractive it takes time to wrap your emotions around such a concept.

    So there’s a pretty limited audience participation on that question. That might be a good thing……

    1. Rob Campbell

      Anaesthetic; the natural one.

      When I got my first heart attack, I remember very clearly, as I was being dealt with and my T-shirt and sweatshirt were being cut away from me, that I was quite concerned at the vandalism… once in Intensive Care, and I was conscious again after what may or may not have been induced sleep, the concern was pooping: into a stiff, paper hat? I don’t actually recall any fear of death. On release from hospital, armed with my first prescription, I thought heysoos, can I, long-term, afford to live? Fortunately, though the emergency had been handled under private insurance, the state was perfectly willing to take on the cost of pills, as it would have been of the original treatment, had we elected to use it.

      The second attack was pretty much the same thing, and my natural anaesthetic kept my mind immune to possible endings for me. If anything, I remember this sense of being greatly inconvenienced…

      I am no hero: there lurks no sense of bravery in the face of physical violence etc. but what I seem to have, in extremis, is a mixture of innocence, ignorance and absolute faith in fate having hold of the steering wheel. My professional life was based pretty much on the same philosophy, that what’s for you won’t go past you. But still you had to try!

  3. Dan Newell

    “absolute faith in fate having hold of the steering wheel.”
    So, basically you gave up trying to control what you couldn’t control.
    True Progress!

    “that what’s for you won’t go past you”
    That seems to be more along the lines of the American Indian concept of you being a vessel where life’s experience’s flow through you. What that thought would do for me would be more akin to the creative process of “flow”, being in the moment and letting the subconscious mind be more easily utilized.

  4. Rob Campbell

    Flow, as I think you are describing it, seems to be present in the experience of working with a model, where neither party, she nor I, is really calling the shots, but if the chemistry between us is there, something invariably comes out of the pipe that’s good.

    Unfortunately, that simple relationship is far from being common between all people who find themselves faced with producing good pictures together. Without chemistry of the positive kind, the best either can do is to fall back on experience and professionalism and let technique produce something that works, even if not truly inspired. There’s a reason, apart from the possibilities of sex, why some photographers tend to work with a relatively small group of models, especially so the very well known ones: it allows a form of communicational shorthand to be present in the shoot, saving a lot of time otherwise spent journeying down blind alleys. That was, similarly, a huge factor in choosing 35mm over 120: continuity without distractions in the build-up to something good. Digital should make that path even more easy to travel uninterrupted if you use big cards. 😉

    But then, can one accurately conflate an active working relationship that gets results courtesy mutual empathy, with the workings of the subconscious mind? It’s certainly an emotional payoff that’s being enjoyed within such a relationship, but is that conscious or otherwise?

    It’s a question that probably remains just as valid to the lone shooter: does he press the button based on experience or the experienced emotion of the moment, perhaps not even absolutely clear to him at the time, inspired by the scene before him? I know that I have often shot things that feel promising rather than certain. That said, part of the pleasure of the amateur status us that it doesn’t matter: you can happily spend time trying to see whether you can pull that “ promise” out of the file, or not. Maybe such shots are examples of the subconscious making itself felt as instinct? If it is, does it then cease to have been subconscious at all?

  5. Dan Newell

    I understand fashion photography to be inherently complex. I really do not have any experiential history of all the subtleties and nuances that have to be present.

    Having said that, and addressing it as a complex art form, complexity demands more data or in this case experience. So you take thousands of shots, gradually solving various problems or questions. If you do it long enough it assumes a fluidity. No longer concerned with the mechanical side of the equation you end up focusing on more subtle aspects.

    So from your story, at this juncture, there are two prime considerations, a smaller pool of subjects and the need to have the effort happen within a certain time frame (120 versus 35mm). The shortened time frame is very important as I’ve seen. There is a rhythm, within a shortened time frame, where there is more chance to encounter what is often called ‘inspirational’ or ‘intuitive’ moments. But…I’ve noticed this happens within a fairly strict rhythm, it’s pretty fragile. Sometimes it’s hard to know but one of the tell-tales is that sometimes you really cannot remember anything about how you arrived at a certain point.

    Maybe it’s just a simple statement, “Man, I was in the groove today”. I think that’s why I try to explain it….I’d like to be in the groove on demand.

  6. Rob Campbell

    There is the thing about available time, as you wrote, and also the factor of pressure, too. It’s a well-known phenomenon that a job, simple or complex, always requires all the time available to it.

    I can remember driving around the countryside with my muse – only ever had a single truly great one; than God that was very early in my career – looking for a spot where we could park, and get some shots of whatever it was we had to photograph. Nowhere seemed to offer much, and the girl was getting a bit tense. I think she thought that I was playing games and just wasting time; truth was, I simply didn’t see anything promising. When I eventually found a convenient place to dump the car and do some work, she told me that I was always the same: had to wait until the last moment, run out of light and have my back up against the wall in order to get anything done. I guess she knew me better than I did myself.

    Actually, I have discovered that to be my problem in retirement: I keep putting things off, and finding excuses to stay at home. I don’t want to take pictures in sunshine these days, and find rain a lot more interesting. That has saved me from going snap hunting all summer, and now that we have had a few rainy days, on and off, something or the other still prevents me doing anything. Maybe I have seen too many videos of waterproofed Q2 Monos, and suddenly fear for the relic Nikon. 😉

    I think I still love photography, but right now, the theoretical seems stronger than the practical side of that concept.

    1. Dan Newell

      I am all too familiar with the wife/girlfriend in the car pressure. But, you don’t want them standing next to you necessarily unless you feel you are deficient in advice.
      Usually it’s the wife in the car but dog in hand. The dog is totally reasonable, exhibiting a high level of understanding of the difficulties of f-stop, speed and depth of field.
      However, if longer than about 15 minutes I am usually greeted by various statements usually in the negative. The retort of “Well then, why don’t you take the dog’s lead?”, while clever, Rumpole would get away with it, I won’t.
      Said comment will allow you to be a contestant on that ever popular game show- Guess Who Doesn’t Get Laid Tonight!

  7. Rob Campbell

    On getting laid.

    Before my heart adventures, we lived normal Expatland lives, with a G&T at around eleven, along with fried goat’s cheese à la grec, or perhaps with some crackers bearing smoked salmon or Serrano ham. That would be followed a few hours later by lunch down at a beach restaurant we loved, or Ann would make something delicious all by herself, though I do confess to running the parallel sink department, washing things as she didn’t need them.

    Lunch would kill a bottle of Spanish Champagne (Freixenet) or, more likely, Viña Sol, and if I imagined an alignment of the stars that govern these things, I’d proceed to open a second bottle before doing a Flintstone and pulling my version of Wilma off for a siesta. Unfortunately, depending on the progress of that second bottle, the outcome usually meant I was sound asleep almost as soon as I lay down.

    On the positive side, when I awoke, the rest of the dishes were usually done, my far better half engrossed in some historical novel. The best laid plans… 😉

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