The Gait of Water-Nymphs

by Eric Miller


What was it, again, that, by 1877, Thomas H. Huxley decided to call the voice box of a bird? Syrinx. He alludes to a tale from Ovid.

Rough Arcadia’s peremptory god, Pan, bears a name proclaiming an appetite that would have everything. Now he wants sex with Syrinx. The nymph refuses. She sprints as far as the marshy bank of the river Ladon, asks her sisters to rescue her, and (perhaps with their assistance) evasively adopts the shape of a hollow reed. Frustrated of his object—using beeswax as connective matter—Pan confects his typifying pipe from the stems of the calamus plant that Syrinx has become. Unlike Pan, a bird carries its pipe internally. Its wild music pleasingly resembles that of Pan’s instrument, but enfranchised or escaped to an original nymph-like liberty. In a bird, the air resounds independently of human artifice. It is worth listening while the song lasts.

Does the name syrinx conjure not just Ovid, but the reed, also, that shakes in an oboe’s mouthpiece, a chanter’s, a bassoon’s? Located, often, where the trachea branches, equipped with a tympanum on the right side and on the left, a bird’s cartilaginous syrinx can produce two separate voices—the note held by neither a harmonic of the other—as the singer breathes out. Jean Dorst explains that an avian ear responds ten times faster than ours and, further, that the Wood Thrush of North America, in whistling, may alter its pitch—its frequency of vibration—two hundred times per second. I used to hear these thrushes in Toronto. Formerly, they nested near the house where I was raised.

The Nature Theatre and the god of laughter

Karl Rossmann, teen hero of Franz Kafka’s The Man Who Vanished, arrives at a recruitment centre for the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma shortly before Kafka, the author, stops writing and abandons the story of Karl’s adventures. The vastness of the spectacle staged by this Nature Theatre means that it is always eager to hire actors. The placard advertising the sublime availability of such employment promises, Wir sind das Theater, das jedem brauchen kann, jeden in seinem Ort!, “That’s us—the theatre that can use anybody. Everyone gets a place!” The invitation concludes with a threat, Verflucht sei, wer uns nicht glaubt!, “A curse on him who doesn’t believe us!” The scale of the enterprise is ambitious. It might even rival the size of the state of Oklahoma itself (180,000 square kilometres, if you want to know). In a sense, what we call “nature” and what we call “society” make up, together, a theatre company even bigger than this fantastical troupe. For the shyest among us, like the boldest, must assume a part in one set piece or another, whether as snail, thrush or human being.

Kafka portrays the recruiters for the Nature Theatre, however, as drastic dichotomists when it comes to casting their promotional skits. There are angels, and there are devils. The angels play trumpets but, as Karl discovers, they play them poorly. The instruments are far better than the musicians. The trumpets possess the capability of expressing extraordinary nuance (fast jede Feinheit): but they are made merely to blare.

Devils and angels! Oversimplification does make me fetch a sigh. Because Kafka is also responsible for writing Der ProzeßThe Trial—this Nature Theatre puts me in mind of the plight of Lucius, in Apuleius’s Metamorphosis. A Roman lawyer, Apuleius wrote about Lucius and his many troubles in the second century. Apprehended after killing three robbers in self-defence, the poor protagonist of Apuleius’s fiction gets paraded around a town in Thessaly like a sacrificial animal; his advocate, rather than defending him, seems to want to aggravate his impending death sentence by torture; and the crowd laughs maniacally at every stage of the proceedings. Fortunately, it turns out that the audience convulses in order to honour the god Risus, or Laughter. Nothing personal, my friend! Lucius’s trial only offered an opportunity to indulge and to gratify the deity with the diverting sight of a stranger’s terror and confusion. Convicting someone really is somewhat more entertaining than exoneration, isn’t it? But, the town’s sacred obligation of collective mirth discharged, Lucius is acquitted of murder. His calamity softens and lightens into a joke. Yet—not long afterward—this same man, availing himself of metamorphic magic, hankering to embody the blisses that fall to a bird’s lot (his imagination must run to the literal), undergoes a mutation of form quite against the tendency of his hopes. He becomes not a bird, but an ass.

The uniform

Whenever my father was pulled over he had a tactic. In my childhood I often witnessed it. While the man in uniform—more uniform than man—leaned into the open driver’s seat window, my father pulled farther backward into the car interior. A lawyer—he remained a generalist, and was as honest as a man can be while keeping his head above water—my father knew how the uniform loves to invade, to touch and change things that ought not to be touched or changed. A simple touch changes things. But a uniform dislikes the implication of an ironic relationship to its relish for the power of intrusive transformation. So my father compelled the uniform to violate his space beyond the point of civility, comfort and control: to the point of queasy awareness. All the same, he remained careful to distinguish the man from the menace of the get-up. Yet paternal example taught me he was no friend of the uniform, which breaches so many limits and which can transmogrify our impromptu privacy into the crass scene of frightening, estranging, and injurious dramas. I should not be the friend of the uniform, either. Note that this is not, by any means, to be its enemy.

In my life since, I have come to observe that many people avow deep, dear (though often dissimulated) friendship with the uniform. What the uniform says, people will do—even those to whom the uniform has in aforetime dealt strong harm. For one thing, a uniform absolves those who follow it, by declaring that they are without sin so long as they abide in its shelter and act under its guidance. No matter, my people, what you have done! I won’t look. Your history is not the issue. Easy to follow such leadership, for it falls sweetly in conformity with human wishing. A uniform transubstantiates the pleasure of inflicting a little pain from a cruelty we all know into the wholesome exaction of a lawful punishment. What a process of refinement! Everyone likes a bit of penal fun. Just deserts, and all that. True, our personal derelictions, briefly scattered, cluster back like mosquitoes once the uniform strides or rides away, but for a time we were on the side of the angels, weren’t we?

The uniform trades in categorical right and wrong—fine abstract seraphs, fine abstract fiends. My father, however, made its persuasion of rightness endure the canoe-like crisis of tipping over, metamorphosed into wrongness. And that peripeteia, that “turn right about,” that sudden change, managed with mild, recessive, decisive dexterity, ignited my father’s grin: signal to be polite, helpful and kind. He did not offend the uniform by any word; he did not obstruct the uniform; he merely showed the uniform what the uniform was, is and will be: no praise, no blame. And, like one who has climbed into the heights of a shivering tree, the man in the uniform was made, it may be, to feel his nakedness sub dio, sub specie aeternitatis. Risus should be a god who bestows his favours universally.

Pine tree

If anyone had suggested I should join the Boy Scouts, I would have run for the woods. I dislike groups and I dislike uniforms, it is not a matter of choice or something on which I have any grounds to preen myself. My father influenced me but I think I was born that way, too. What in him was perhaps strength (he had his nose broken three times) in me was, contrastingly, a sturdy sort of weakness. More than half of the revulsion I cannot help but feel, after all, arises from fear inflaming the pit of the belly and from peculiarly energetic physical paralysis that knows it has, on the spot, usually no advantage. Girls forget how strong they are; boys do not. Girls and boys alike vanquished me, I thought, in hydra-headed ways. Any victory of mine that lopped a sneer from its cackling stem tended to result in redoubled retaliation lifting a lip and yapping, some little foam blanching asphalt. Even tumultuous good, I am afraid, propagates abundant badness, another peripeteia. A crowd is terrible in itself, in my opinion. Chants and cachinnations. So much I could demonstrate, at any rate, in the schoolyard. I climbed up a white pine at recess and sat in it with a friend, out of the way of missiles material or verbal as the case happened to be. Virtue and vice are best practised inconspicuously; vice even attains to many dimensions of virtue and vice-versa, but we aren’t supposed to say that. So best—what a superlative!—best be quiet. Fine with me, I enjoy quiet. In a literal way, I am used to going out on a limb.

Yet it happens I owe a lot of delight to Ernest Seton Thompson, one of the founders of the Boy Scouts. No doubt he stands responsible for even worse things, among them the thoughtless elaboration of a finely wrought faux indigenousness, full of reverence for the knowledge of people whom it nevertheless airily dismisses and displaces. Too true. Luckily, we don’t have to know anything about an author; we just have to enjoy a book. It’s a falsification of real reading to drag in matters such as Boy Scouts when you are alone, out of uniform, out of sight, with a book, the author dead, your eyes stuck to the page with the slow wild adhesiveness of a snail or slug, the page dimpled by your sweat, no one else grabbing any purchase on your mind, snagging it or tearing at it as is so commonly the case among those we are pleased to call in solidarity our fellows. We are better than we know is a claim that deserves to be advanced just as conscientiously and strenuously as the counter-claim we are worse, oh so much worse. A person writes a book and leaves it behind as a bird leaves a nest. I love nests and I love books. They can’t take that away from me.

Mud Creek

A fair range of people dwelt in our Toronto neighbourhood: Hungarians, Russians, Netherlanders, New Zealanders, Japanese, Americans, Scots. Yet, displaced though they were, none was desperately poor. Quite a few were desperately unhappy, but that is different. You had to walk a mile to get to poverty, unless you consider the houseless people who dwelt in the ravine. They erected forts much like those we did, but they stayed in them. Among the rich, I have to say many were kind. I mean, of course, kind to me. The way in which they showed their kindness was to permit me onto their property, because they sensed I might enjoy it possibly even more than they did.

An old couple owned an entire hill-slope that had at its bottom a pond and a gazebo, and beyond the gazebo—on public land—simmered a bijou cattail marsh just large enough to support a strident, polygamous family of redwings. In the winter a shrike, that rare bird, haunted the hawthorns, murmuring beneath its breath an anodyne improvisation. Beside the pond, beside the gazebo it was not redwings, but grackles, that presided. I never went up to the top of the hill where the mansion was, I remained at the base, going between the pond and the gazebo and the tangy, belching brook below. The grackles had yellow eyes, and to these I could never accustom myself. It was another sort of seeing.

An abiding astonishment: how fast a thing assumes an immemorial aspect. This is not a question of colonization or of decolonization, as we call it. More a proof of how short our lives are. Often enough, I would come across a stone Venus pudica or an urn adorned in relief with a slim figure on its flank in a Grecian frock beneath arched, tristful trees much like the Crack Willows rooted in the redwings’ muck-patch, and Aphrodite (congesting my childish chest) raised her lean-to in the Don Valley as reasonably as any other numen might. I still worship high-waisted dresses, and I do associate grief with love as everyone else does. Grackles have a serious aura do they not? In common with many crow-like birds, they bring intensity wherever they walk. They pick at carrion, and they pick at wounds. Sometimes the wounded one may take pleasure in that ministry.

Does Venus belong to Toronto any more than Hades does? I read Ernest Seton Thompson’s 1898 Wild Animals I Have Known—an edition illustrated by his wife, Grace Gallatin—and, trusting the naturalist’s account, I learned that Ruffed Grouse inhabited our ravine less than a century before. It was no less than the very same location, for Seton Thompson alleges they bred alongside “the crystal brook that by some strange whim was called Mud Creek.” Strange no more. By our time, Mud Creek could not be swum, and flowed bundled its dark unpotable length in a funeral-shroud of fuscous rank slime.

“The life of a wild animal always has a tragic end,” warns Seton Thompson at the threshold of his book. But, thanks to him, I ascertained that a statuary goddess and a Ruffed Grouse might conceivably accommodate each other. Indeed Seton Thompson, hardly breaking a smile, compares a hen grouse to Eve in Paradise, as possessor of “strange attractive grace.” For her part, the author’s wife illustrates her spouse’s story with the full-frontal figure of a naked man, standing quite unembarrassed between a wolf and a grouse: foes, to each of whom he extends an open hand. Before I ever arrived, the grouse had disappeared. Yet other ancestral presences lingered. One such bird, I learned from another authority, Henry Scadding—he wrote in 1875—was the Wood Thrush.

In his Toronto of Old, he said you could hear them by the Necropolis and so could I along the riprap banks of Mud Creek, one valley over. There remained in the early 1970s at least two Wood Thrush holdings in our ravine, renewed seasonally by the device of responsive song. Some of the highest romance of my life was sitting with a tall girl in this ravine at the edge of her parents’ property, having delved out with her—how excellent our fingers smelt, spicy with dirt and herbage!—something neither quite a redoubt nor a yard, a forest precinct girt by an abattis, and listening to these Wood Thrushes. They made me think of how—in the empty Royal Ontario Museum, in those days a palazzo impeccably hushed, not pitched to kids and so all the better for them—amid the antiquities, whether clay lamps or extinct parakeets, I took the far whistling of a lonely climber in the stony stairwell (permanent residence of a steep, cracked totem pole) for the audible passage of time. Time never passed, but kept passing.

The gait of water-nymphs

Today the Wood Thrush is vanished like the Ruffed Grouse from nesting by Mud Creek, gone the brown-black thrilling dots on its breast, the shapely pottery of its nest, mute the vocal filigree. Cats, glass, acidification and parasitism are to blame, and the expansion of the city killing its cores of anciently returning creatures. Every year since my birth and yours, too, more people crowd fewer of most other living things. The Venus pudica statue I recall which, though no doubt a crude replica, struck me as the more potent because looped with Virginia creepers and stained by weather, probably has crumbled to pebbles and granules. Things rot, and as they rot they stray from their intention.

Still, much as Henry Scadding describes the situation in 1875, my friend and I heard in our time in our ravine “the flute notes of the solitary wood thrush.” But “solitary”? No, Henry, no. Antiphonal, a pair assured each other they were heard. What shall I turn to at this point but the absurd transcriptions offered by Arthur Cleveland Bent? Eeolay—ayolee—ahleelee—ayleahlolah—ilolilee. Meagre though Bent is, his succession of wan phonemes does revive in my inner ear that half-un-hearable, that desirable song. As for the girl, she had the most attractive human voice I had ever heard—often lightly laughing, abstracted, satirical yet sensual—and I have sought its likeness since, like a favourite taste, wherever I can overhear it. As his pine-bough wreath and his pipes distinguish Pan, so this young woman might be recognized for the affinity or familiarity she had with Wood Thrushes. The secret of her voice was to come out only partway, she was a resonant speaker but an inward speaker all the same, her voice made me listen or I missed it altogether, in fact you might guess she so shaped it no echo could catch it, ape it or deform it, or deprive it of its singularity. My praise is thus not its imitation.

We talked of nothing real, we talked only of made-up things. Fantasy supplied all our conversation. She was a brilliant girl and knew about water-nymphs, and she played the water-nymph, once flooding with a bucket a patch of the tile floor of her house where French doors opened on the ravine—all this in her parents’ absence—and she slid long, slow steps not raising her soles, passing over the slippery surface with naked feet herself naked, demonstrating thus to her satisfaction and mine the gait of water-nymphs. In effect she walked on water not like Christ, but like a gerrid or water-strider. She got in trouble for the water, but since its rationale remained unknown, the punishment was light. We were sundered by a hard adolescence (my mother fell ill, and my friend herself fell ill) and these crises divided us so entirely that, like creatures dispersed by storms to evolve on different islands, we underwent an irrevocable speciation and could never meet again as once we did. Our houses stood just a few addresses apart (she was uphill) but no mild ravine, a chasm might have cracked wide to shake and disjoin those habitations. I asked to see her and her father turned me aside in sadness. His excuse was always she was doing her homework, until I learned the truth.

Whatever else was true, we had the time for pain, both of us. Youth turns huge energies against itself—strength beyond any other strength it may possess—and only over decades, it may be, swivels those forces round to make a way forward to where, tasting the carious amaritude of our coming death, we can speak of our long-ago infatuation with that same power, now available to elegy which helps life. Neither death nor life ever went away, but the ability to talk did—locally extinct, like the grouse, like the songbirds. As things stand, a Venus pudica and a Wood Thrush unite in me. I might have been raised elsewhere, seen and heard other things, and met other people. Above where that tall girl and I nested together in the valley, leaf-coloured flycatchers drawled like the wind, which kept trying on with a satisfied hiss the different-styled dresses of the tall ashes and the beeches. Cicadas achieved the admirable acoustical semblance of a despairing breaking off—a shrill, balbutient confession of diffidence that was, in spite of itself, the mellowest of consummations. What kills Ruffed Grouse, what kills Wood Thrushes, what would discredit my memory? At the moment—these days—the same will and the same dream, I think, that designs and tailors and desires the uniform. Ask me again, and I may answer otherwise.

Vergil of the beasts

My favourite story in Ernest Seton Thompson’s Wild Animals I Have Known celebrates, I should clarify, a dynasty of grouse. These birds live in Toronto in the nineteenth century. The protagonist of the tale, a cock grouse, frequents a log lying next to Mud Creek in my own familiar ravine, where my friend and I confabulated tirelessly (though indolently) some seventy years later. Reader, do you know the habits of the Ruffed Grouse? As likely as not! Earl Godfrey’s Birds of Canada explains how the male, having leapt onto a fallen tree, “by quick forward and upward strokes” of the wings creates a series of “slow dull thuds” which “increase in tempo until they die away in a muffled roll”—in a gallinaceous key, surely a brother sound to the cicada’s electric sizzle. Listeners have called this performance the “drumming” of the grouse, though it involves no tympanum. The bird’s syrinx has no role, either. The grouse troubles our inner ear with something so intimate as to seem personal: an inalienable commotion planted deep in the heads of those who pass through the woods. But the tall girl and I never heard such drumming from a cock grouse beside Mud Creek where the Wood Thrushes sang, those two survivors. The grouse, I say, were gone by the 1970s.

Seton Thompson (honest Vergil of the beasts!) has, in order to tell his tale truly, to depict the demise of his grouse. Need I to recall his claim, “The life of a wild animal always has a tragic end”? “In Mud Creek Ravine,” he says, mourning a mere gamebird’s death, “the old pine drum-log, unused, has rotted in silence away.” The author could not have imagined the gratitude with which I, at any rate, found out his sad narrative, his gold-tooled book, his crazy wager against the accusation of bathos, some of his pages uncut and so I could bring a whittling knife to them: the best sort of monument to raise to brave the weather of history, be it human or natural. Mud Creek ran poisonous by the time my friend and I sat and submitted as much of ourselves as we could to Wood Thrushes—one bird entering at the porch of each ear, east and west. Seton Thompson’s partridges, those nineteenth-century spectres, could slake their thirst with “the purest living water, though silly men called it Mud Creek.” Life gushed in my friend and in me and all around us: wind flowed like water, and water flowed like wind: the waves of the sun appeared visibilized in leaves: the songs of the thrushes affirmed us from either side, from orient and from occident, in spite of what—religiously or otherwise—we might call pollution. The drink, which is also a voice, rises from the source, however often I have disregarded it. If you lap it at the origin, there flows no potion more bracing. Try as hard as you can—reader, it is more difficult every day!—to exclude that contaminant: a perjured witness, or a profane one.


The illustration of a water-strider is from MuskokaLife Magazine.