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Friday, August 28, 2009


‘Thomas Browne too was often distracted from his investigations into the isomorphic line of the quincunx by singular phenomena that fired his curiosity, and by work on a comprehensive pathology. He is said to have long kept a bittern in his study in order to find out how this peculiar bird could produce from the depths of its throat such a strange bassoon-like sound, unique in the whole of Nature.’ (Sebald, The Rings of Saturn)

‘One morning while I was at the Cincinnati Museum in the State of Ohio a woman came in holding in her apron one of this delicate species alive, which she said had fallen down the chimney of her house under night and which, when she awoke at daybreak, was the first object she saw, it having perched on one of the bedposts. It was a young bird. I placed it on the table before me and drew from it the figure on the left of my plate. It stood perfectly still for two hours, but on my touching it with a pencil after my drawing was done, it flew off and alighted on the cornice of a window. Replacing it on the table I took two books and laid them so as to leave before it a passage of an inch and a half, through which it walked with ease, Bringing the books nearer each other, so as to reduce the passage to one inch, I tried the Bittern again and again it made its way between them without moving either. When dead its body measured – ’ (Audubon, The American Woodsman; he killed it, in other words)

1 comment:

sean lysaght said...

I remember reading somewhere about a bittern hunt in 19th century Ireland in winter. The piece suggested that this was a regular event. Only later, when it was too late to check the source, did it strike me as very unusual. Are there any other references out there to this; it feels as mythical now as ice skating on Lough Carra.