The magpie is back, outside my window, walking with exaggerated strides and short hops. From the spotty lawn, she pulls seeds? worms? Her black head and shoulders look like an executioner’s hood and the flash of blue on her wings is captivating.
Back home, I am so-so with flora and fauna identification, an area I would like to improve. I felt most knowledgeable in the montane zone of Colorado where I worked for a few seasons, though the relative symplicity of the ecosystem there made it easier to learn than the crowded temperate forests of southern New England.
Here in northern Italy, I’m most often unknowing when it comes to the natural world. I have plenty of opportunities to see plants and animals that invite investigation, especially on my runs out along the Via dei Mulini, about which I have written before. Long elegant herons are justifiably skittish and leave off whenever I approach within 100 meters. Nutria, large riparian rats, are hunted systematically by farmers during the fall, after the corn and hay have all been take in; an invasive species, they are unwelcome and left dead on the sides of the road. During this season, I have also seen the men wandering the fields, usually with baskets and dogs, searching for mushrooms.
The European magpie I knew by name. It was not the bird baked into a pie, though that “Sing a Song of Sixpence” nursery rhyme, like many others, has an interesting back story – this one with pirates! Arrrr! The magpie, as I found in my research, is common throughout European folklore and is often associated with unhappiness and trouble. Occhio!
The list of plants and animals to look into grows. I will never be the Thoreau, Abbey, or Muir of Codogno, but perhaps I can take part in the ancient practice of naming the world around us.
A poem on names and the light inside the named.
34. ‘As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme’
by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 5
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 10
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.