Thursday, 29 November 2012

Birdwatching in Namibia

I love to watch birds and other wildlife but I'm pretty incompetent so it always feels likely that there's an osprey twenty yards away flagrantly sitting on a branch and I've missed it. I'm happy to listen to blackbirds and to watch flocks of sparrows but what I love above all is to be somewhere that contains astonishing birds which are easy to see, where you don't have to look hard, and then they constitute a marker of the exotic. When you're floating along the Nile, the Nile kingfisher is simply there, pied black and white and hovering over the water. So in Namibia, which I visited recently, there were three different kinds of eagle which could be regularly seen and I saw thirty white-backed vultures circling over a road, and, in one place, flocks of rosy-cheeked lovebirds flaunting their astonishing colours. Even more amazing there was a lit pool, visible from a restaurant, which was visited in daylight by baboons and warthogs, and which at night was visited by a giant kudu with a broken horn and had a speckled nightjar swooping around it, the bird which was audible through the night making an incongruous yapping sound. At the same pool one night an eagle owl sat nonchalantly, not caring he was visible to twenty diners, or that a genet was prowling around, and apparently that powerful bird is quite common now even in the suburbs.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Hawking on myth

Hawking seemed to be on more solid ground in the next episode in his mini-series when he suggested that science has replaced myth. The program invented a group of Vikings watching a solar eclipse and chanting to chase away the wolf god which they believed was eating the sun. Sometimes myth provides a good source of imagery and it obviously provides insight into the primitive mind. But surely quite often the best reaction is just to say that 'aetiological' myths like the wolf god one are quite stupid and boring, and that the scientific explanations are far richer and more beautiful, even if they often take more mental effort. The prestige of myth in the literary world has declined and you don't get, anything like as often, poems like those of Tennyson that centre on mythical characters. But the 'mythic' is still often accorded more respect than it deserves and this can produce things like the Seren series of novels based on stories from the Mabinogion. The ones I've seen in that series are very poor, and I do think that mythic content is very often a sign of lazy thinking, and often of a kind of unexamined mysticism, and that this kind of writing really isn't representing the contemporary world.