General 5-9-2004


This is one in an occasional series of essays by the features editor.


This morning my daughter found a fledgling bird in the yard, peeping away like a little machine. She came running in to tell me, and wanted to take it in the house in a box and raise it. A generation ago I’m sure that’s what we would have done, but now, being in our own estimation wiser, I called a woman who knows everything there is to know about birds and who’s raised many wild birds by hand.

We discussed the appearance of the bird–grey all over, kind of tatty-looking with mixed down and pinfeathers, the yellow lips on his beak that stimulated the feeding reflex in his parents. We agreed he was probably a grackle. Should we take him in? Well, yes and no. Fledglings are a tremendous amount of work–they should be fed every hour–and actually, the fledgling’s parents may still be caring for him, even though he wasn’t in the nest, but in some tall grass below the tree.

The bird woman said that fledglings were learning to hop, and that they often hopped right out of the nest. She said that if all the birds in the nest were at the same stage of development, then the parents would be hormonally disposed to listen for their cries from outside the nest, and would find them and feed them where they sat.

But if one bird was precocious–say, the first-laid egg had begun to develop before the others were laid and incubation properly began, because of, say, a warm spring–then the parents would still be wrapped up in their nestlings, and the one fledgling wouldn’t be noticed. He’d starve on the ground, because his development was not on his parents’ schedule and because birds can’t count.

The fall of fledglings is common, and their death is common. It can be surprising to realize what quantities of death are part of the business of having offspring for many animals. That not only is it not a tragedy, but that often enough it isn’t even noticed. That deaths fall like rain, that they’re part of the weather.

John Berger notes in his novel King that Giambattista Vico, the great independent scholar of the Enlightenment, had an idea about the source of the Italian word “humanitas,” meaning the disposition of human beings to care for one another. Vico speculated that it came from the verb “humare,” to bury. He thought that the disposition of people to care for other people comes from our burial customs–from our care for the dead bodies of other human beings.

This is something that separates us from other animals. There are stories of elephants making efforts to cover the bodies of their fallen comrades with branches–but these are occasional, not invariable, events. And weak elephant babies can often be abandoned if the troop moves on and the infant can’t keep up.

Contrast this perpetual rain of animal mortality, assumed and unremarked, with the discovery of Neanderthal children in shallow burials deep in caves, curled as if asleep, with pollen traces indicating that they had been sprinkled with flowers before they were buried, red ochre pigment saying that they had been painted with red, the color of life, before being covered with earth.

There’s a double movement of union and separation at work in how we think of other people, and both parts of this movement inspire our customs of “humare.”

First, we notice our fellow humans because of their difference from us, and we mourn when they die because they’re irreplaceable, different from all others, from any other. There will never be another like this one. The fledgling’s difference from his fellow nestlings is no advantage—in fact, it can be fatal for him–but for humans, difference is essential and unmistakable.

At the same time, we bury our fellow human beings ceremonially because they are like us, because we understand them through our own experience as human. We know how to feel for them, we feel for them as if they were our own selves.

So through our common humanness we receive difference, the prospect of privacies that stretch like undiscovered countries, countries we can glimpse; can, if we spend the time and cost of relationship, even enter; but countries that go far beyond our knowledge. And that’s the holy thing that we commemorate when we mourn, when we honor the irreplaceable bodies of our fellow human beings.

In relationship to each other, it’s those privacies, those differences, that make the relationship possible. If we knew everything about a person, what would be the point of spending time with him? We would have absorbed that being into our own, subsumed him. There is no possibility of being able to do this, but even the illusion of such a mutual absorption can make relationship impossible. We’re not birds, who are primed to do everything best when they do it together, with as few anomalies as possible.

I’m writing about this in an arts column because these funerary customs—these habits of “humare”—are among the earliest kinds of artmaking. What brought us to the state that we regard as human was a kind of making that was intended to be powerful, to counteract death, to figure life in a battle against the loss of irreplaceable human beings, different from us and so valuable, the same as us and so valuable. And still, in artmaking, we find this tension between the utterly unique individual and the need for a commonality of experience. On the one hand, you are a maker who can say things that no one else can, and on the other hand, you have an audience, the people who you want to understand, the tribe to whom you must address your work, to whom you must make yourself clear. As humans, we never escape our dual natures as individuals and members of the tribe. Artists figure this struggle in particularly essential ways.

There are grackles hanging around the patch of long grass. It looks like the fledgling’s exceptional boldness won’t be fatal. My daughter got some mealworms to feed him, just in case. She’s human, after all.

Photo by Ann Klefstad