Yesterday Donovan caught a wren in the snow beneath the suet cake and brought it to the dining room door. The wren is the only bird that sings all year round. Other birds call, cheep, chatter, and complain (like blue jays), but they reserve their songs of joy for the spring mating season. Today there is one less song to help us through a long, cold, and dark winter.
As I write this it is five days until St. Patrick’s Day and a little over a week until the Spring Equinox. The Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca ended a few weeks back and in another few weeks it will be Passover and Easter. Spring will come. And the world is holding its breath as the United States prepares to start a war in the Middle East.
Donovan does not read calendars. The old Celtic-British tradition of killing a wren takes place on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, not in March, but he doesn’t care. He’s not one of the traditional village boys who hunt and kill a wren, or several, and attach the bodies to a holly branch and carry it through the streets of the village, singing joyfully, and asking for money. Money to bury the wrens. Donovan does not care for money.
In European folklore Wren became King of the Birds when all the feathered-ones held a contest to see who could fly the highest. Eagle, of course, was expected to win, and being the bully that he is, thought he had a right to the title. (Remember how upset Ben Franklin was when our young nation took the eagle as its national symbol? The eagle, he complained, is a scavenger, steals from other birds’ nests, and, in Franklin’s mind, was a thoroughly immoral bird. His choice for national bird was the turkey that gave its life to feed the early settlers, and whom Native Americans call the “Give-Away Eagle.” But did they listen to Ben Franklin? No.)
Enough history, back to folklore. Wren hid beneath Eagle’s feathers, and when Eagle could fly no higher from exhaustion, Wren popped out and soared up and up, and received the title of king. Another tradition says the wren is the Druid’s bird and its little, secret, hide-away nest is the Druid’s house. And so a trickster, a Druid’s bird, a year-round singer of songs is the One-Who-Can-Fly-The-Highest-And-See-Farthest, and because of all this Wren is the wisest of birds.
Yes, I was upset that Donovan killed a wren. We did not let him bring it inside. Yes, he was upset that he couldn’t do so. After all, it was a gift for his masters, his give-away. After a half hour of crabbing, he gave up and took the wren somewhere.
It has been small things like wren-song that have brightened this dark winter. Small moments of joy when I temporarily forget my daily dilemma. Should I skip buying a newspaper and not turn on TV and so ignore, hopefully forget, the world’s troubles? When I do, I feel irresponsible. Or should I devour the latest news and stay depressed? According to an old Welsh text, Bards and Druids are supposed to study, learn, and teach others, make peace, and put an end to all injury. Bards and Druids are responsible people. I have been a responsible news and history junkie most of my life. So I usually buy a newspaper, hold my breath, and read.
The wren is the Holly King’s bird. Tradition tells us that the Oak King kills the Holly King at mid-winter and then rules until mid-summer, whereupon the Holly King slays the Oak King and rules until winter. The two trees represent and share the two halves of the year. But they have to kill each other to do it. Killing the wren is a magical act to ensure the end of its master’s reign, a sign of spring in the depths of winter. Of course the wren doesn’t die “magically.” It dies in earnest. I don’t think Donovan had any of this on his mind.
The robin is the Oak King’s bird, returning in spring to announce the return of its master. I have not seen a robin yet. I find myself hoping they will not return for a few weeks because most of the land here is still covered in snow. How strange not to want that comforting sign of spring to appear in the back yard! But I hold my breath that they do not return until there is food for them.
I usually see a robin around St. Patrick’s Day, cocking its head back and forth, listening for worms beneath the greening grass. St. Patrick’s Day is only five days away. More snow is predicted for today and tomorrow, or to be more accurate, according to the weather-casters, a “wintry mix.” But I have stopped believing what they say, even though I check the Weather Channel daily. Almost daily. Some days I don’t care what’s coming. Some days I do.
Some days it’s better to lie low, and listen for the wren. Then whatever happens, I will say, “A little bird told me.”