Back To Index Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson
Louis J. Halle
"For a few ticks of the clock I am here, uncomprehending, attempting to make some record or memorial of this eternal passage, like a traveler in a strange country through which he is being hurried on a schedule not of his making and for a purpose he does not understand."
- Louis J. Halle, Spring in Washington, 1963.
I, too, am a traveler and a spectator, just as Louis J. Halle proclaims himself to be.
I applaud the whirling galaxies, the stars of different colors and magnitudes (like gems in a jeweler's case). I relish with a child-like expectancy the viewing of a comet, the momentary thrill of gawking at a meteorite, basking in the comfortable warmth of the sun, enjoying the serene beauty of the moon.
I shout Encore! Encore! I leap to my feet in a standing ovation. I want to sate myself with this cornucopia of wonders. I gaze with admiration at the dazzling mathematical complexities of minerals. I stand in true awe at the convolutions of storm clouds, the sizzling bolt of lightning and the ominous roll of thunder. Even a sun dog turns me on. And all of these things are inanimate, completely devoid of life. Or are they? And I haven't spoken yet of my exaltation of wild birds.
And, of all the books I have ever read that speak mostly of birds, Spring in Washington, by Louis J. Halle, is undoubtedly one of my perennial favorites, somewhere up there in the top three or four. Mind you, I am not speaking of books on bird identification or books with an array of resplendent color plates.
I am talking about a bird book in which the author writes from the heart. And knowingly. He certainly knows his birds. Although the slender little book is mostly about birds, there are astute observations about other wild creatures, and more than a little musing and wondering about the nature of man himself. As I said, it is a small book, 201 pages to be exact, but one that has held me enthralled through countless readings.
My copy is a paperback, much handled, some of the pages loose; sentences, paragraphs, thoughts that I have marked or underlined at one time or another. It was published by Atheneum, copyrighted by the author in 1947 and again in 1957. I bought my copy years ago in a used book store and that is probably the only place where you'll ever come across one today, if you're lucky. 'Tis a pity.
Consider this insight into the dimensions of time: "In my view the flash of lightning creates a whole landscape and abolishes it instantaneously, while to some other creature it may dawn and fade like the day itself, and the length of the day exceed a lifetime."
I especially like the following observation because I have had similar thoughts many times, and I'm sure you probably have too. "I have looked through the Washington newspapers in season without finding any account of the arrival of ducks or the visitations of gulls, although they reported the visit of a French functionary and the return from her wintering grounds in the south of somebody's wife. It was all news of the hive, with not a word of events in the outside world. "
All of these years later, it is not at all unusual for me to find some additional bit of bird lore or generic wisdom when I reread favorite parts of the book.
"Obsessed with fear at our dependence on one another, we are even more fearful of being dependent once more on ourselves," Halle proclaims. Then reminds us, "It is the nature of slavery to render its victims so abject that at last, fearing to be free, they multiply their own chains. You can liberate a freeman, but you cannot liberate a slave."
He challenges: "Let your boots fill with water at the start; it makes you free to go where you please," a lesson a birder might well remember, along with this rejoinder, "No one can properly appreciate sunlight, I think, who does not go out before dawn."
He confesses: "I never heard a wood thrush until I was a grown man, though I must have been surrounded by them every spring. Each year I discover new sights and sounds to teach me how blind and deaf I must still be."
If the thought ever occurred to you that politicians are like a bunch of rowdy school children who should be closely monitored, you will not be surprised at Halle's remark: "If you want to know about Politics . . . just observe a flock of crows," . Born in New York City, he was educated at Harvard University, and from 1941 to 1954 served in the U. S. Department of State and was a member of the policy planning staff. He has taught at the University of Virginia and the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.
He wrote other books, including one with the rather unusual title, Birds Against Men, for which he was awarded the John Burroughs Medal.
I would like to have known Louis J. Halle. I think he would have been the consummate birding companion.
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