Common snipe, courtesy of The Nature Web:
Common snipe, courtesy of The Nature Web:
It has been some time since my last posting. Summer angling led to fall angling, and a long backpack trip for mule deer into the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area, but now winter approaches bringing these little birds, and to them my own thoughts now turn.
Poet Laureate Ted Hughes moved to Dartmoor in 1961, in a town on the edge of the National Park. His experiences were captured in two volumes of poetry, Moortown (1979) and River (1983) from which his poem “Snipe” is taken:
You are soaked with the cold rain –
Like a pelt in tanning liquor.
The moor’s swollen waterbelly
Swags and quivers, ready to burst at a step.
Some scrap of dried fabric rips
From the marsh-quake, scattering. A soft
Explosion of twilight
In the eyes, with spinning fragment
Somewhere. Nearly lost, wing flash
Stab-trying escape routes, wincing
From each, ducking under
And flinging up over –
Bowed head, jockey shoulders
As if hurled downwards –
A mote in the watery eye of the moor –
Hits cloud and
Skis down the far rain wall
Slashes a wet rent
in the rain-duck
Twisting out sideways –
rushes his alarm
Back to the ice age.
The downpour helmet
Tightens on your skull, riddling the pools,
Washing the standing stones and fallen shales
With empty nightfall.
Ted Hughes – The Snipe 1981.
I would like to reference, and thank, the website Legendary Dartmoor for sharing this poem along with some history of Hughes’ time there. The site author there describes so beautifully snipe shooting in winter:
“For anybody who has trudged laboriously through the sodden tussocks on a wet day this poem will strike a chord of recognition. The rain is pelting down at an angle of 22.5° you are hunched up, head bent in your raincoat and the drips rhythmically cascading off your forehead. Usually you are deep in melancholy thought when all of a sudden a hidden form explodes out from under your foot with a loud, indignant ‘skeep’. Your heart jumps and when you look up you see a flash of dark brown and white frantically zig-zagging low over the moor – “Jack Snipe.””
I believe that those who are addicted to the pursuit of snipe become at some point amateur ornithologists. Knowledge of snipe habits and habitat combined with history and literature are central to the sport, and as with other outdoor pursuits, are part of the core of being sportsmen.
With this in mind, “A History of English Birds, Vol. VI” by the Rev. Francis Orpen Morris presents itself as a cornerstone historical reference. This wonderful volume is the final in a series of six, which were published in London by George Bell & Sons during the years 1851-1857. The 7 year span to complete the first edition were a combined effort by Morris (writer), Fawcett (artist) and Lydon (principle engraver). The book contains prints of snipe and woodcock, as well as other species. Here is the common snipe from the book:
Meant as a complete survey of English fowl, Morris opens Vol. VI with a chapter on the woodcock, then follows immediately with chapters on each of the great, common, jack, Sabine’s and brown snipes. Morris was clearly enamored with the bird, and hints at his Victorian sportsman’s sensibilities that so wonderfully combined science and method with art and reflection:
“The Snipe, like the trout, is connected with my earliest
recollections. There is no bird which gives you more the
idea of a wild-fowl. You may look at a hundred, one after
another, and each will be regarded with fresh interest, and
as if in a new point of view. There is a ‘Je ne scai quoi’
in its whole appearance, which seems to associate you with
itself in a love for running brooks and quiet scenes.”
This small sample will hopefully both inspire those few who venture to my blog site to read Morris’ masterwork, and also help provide sustenance for the snipe shooter waiting out the “bleak” summer months before the next season arrives.
The book may be obtained in reprint form from Amazon.com, and original versions from Abebooks.com search. The full text is available on the Internet Archive, in multiple reading formats.
I would like to acknowledge the website of Rebecca Nason, who’s site I stumbled across during my ethereal wanderings. This encouraged me to seek out an original copy of the subject volume. Yet another excellent reference for us “armchair ornithologists”, her site is located at: http://birdingblogs.com/2010/rebeccanason/addicted-to-bird-art
Once an important game bird for sport and table, today the snipe is for many Americans a bird invented for children’s pranks (I believe this is not so in most other parts of the world). So when I encounter references where the bird appears with no background explanation in popular period fiction, it still fascinates me that the snipe could have morphed in a mere couple of generations into mythological creature.
Reading “The Mysterious Island” by Jules Verne this spring, I found myself actually surprised when I read the word “snipe”. This work is quite amazing in the detail which Verne describes the geology, flora and fauna of the island where five men find themselves castaway. Making a complete scan of the books reveals eight distinct references to snipe as game bird bound for their table, of which I include a few for consideration here.
“Above the aquatic plants, on the surface of the stagnant water, fluttered numbers of birds. Wild duck, teal, snipe lived there in flocks, and those fearless birds allowed themselves to be easily approached.” (page 284)
“On the 3rd of August an excursion which had been talked of for several days was made into the southeastern part of the island, towards Tadorn Marsh. The hunters were tempted by the aquatic game which took up their winter quarters there. Wild duck, snipe, teal and grebe abounded there, and it was agreed that a day should be devoted to an expedition against these birds.” (page 464)
“As it was easy to land, the usual hunters of the colony, that is to say, Herbert and Gideon Spilett, went for a ramble of two hours or so, and returned with several strings of wild duck and snipe. Top [their dog] had done wonders, and not a bird had been lost, thanks to his zeal and cleverness.” (page 596)
While obviously not the focus of the book, Jules Verne’s inclusion of snipe in his detailed description of the Mysterious Island’s fauna is a bonus for the snipe enthusiast, and is certainly well-qualified adventure reading to pass the time until our own next adventures.
I recently stumbled across this rather curious volume, which appears to have been assembled into its 3rd edition in 1915, with antecedents in a series of articles published approximately 40 years earlier in “The Times of India”. This volume includes a wonderful but brief editors’ preface by Salim Ali, in which he states
“Editor I hardly like to call myself. Any attempt to ‘edit’ a masterpiece like The Common Birds Of Bombay (now republished as The Common Birds of India) would be tantamount to vandalism.”
Serious praise there.
The book is really is a study in Indian ornithology, centered primarily around Bombay. But the scholarly writing of the time is captivating, as seen in this selection from the chapter “The Snipes and Snippets”:
“The monsoon has scarcely ended when the saltpans and still flooded rice fields on the other side of the harbor are alive with long-legged waders and web-footed swimmers of many sizes shapes. Snipe and Curlew, Stint and Sand Piper, Heron and Cormorant, Duck and Teal, seem to have arrived by one train, and having no home to go to, are wandering about in search of refreshments. Strange birds are in that crowd sometimes. Not far from Hog Island I have seen a Flamingo in the same field, I think in which I shot a Merganser another year. Are all these to be reckoned as birds of Bombay? Five or ten miles are nothing to them, and there is not one of which it can safely be said that it will not be found on our island. But to describe half of them would defeat the very purpose of these papers, which is not to perplex, but to help the sedentary Bombayite, who is not a naturalist nor a sportsman, nor a murderer under any name, so that he may recognize the birds that he sees as he takes his morning walk, drives to office, sits in his garden, or enjoys a sail in the harbor.”
Picture inset “Painted Snipe, Game Birds Of India, Burma & Ceylon, Pl.v”
The sparse language of haiku evokes so well the feeling of the snipe marsh. Here is a mid century translation of “kokoro naki…,” a poem in classical Japanese by Saigyō. This translation was by Keene (1955):
Even to someone
Free of passions this sadness
Would be apparent:
Evening in autumn over
A marsh where a snipe rises.
For those interested, I reference you to the following site on the translation of classical Japanese poetry, focusing specifically on the above poem by Saigyō:
In my literary wanderings, seeking poems and prose that include reflections on the snipe, I have found there is a veritable cornucopia of haiku on the diminutive game bird. There must be something universal in the solitary nature of the snipe and its habits and habitation.
Here I reference the Japanese poet Issa, and his modern translator David G. Lanoue, for this haunting poem:
From David’s translation notes “This is an enigmatic haiku. Since the snipe is an autumn bird, perhaps Issa sees it as a sign of his own growing old.”
“Shrill cries the snipe beneath the friendly moon,
Wand’ring to find the springs, constrain’d to quit
The long frequented marsh, who’s rushy pools,
Lock’d up in ice, repel his searching bill.”
— Excerpt from John Vincent’s “Fowling, a Poem (In Five Books)”, published 1808
This passage describes beautifully how closely snipe shooting is associated with winter in northern climes. Even with the summer-like spring we are having here in Oregon now, the mind and heart wander periodically back to the marsh in winter.
Perusing Snipe and Woodcock by L.H. De Visme Shaw, from the Fur, Feather and Fin Series, published 1903 by Longman, Green and Co. I stumbled across this plate with a line from Tennyson’s On a Mourner:
“The Birds of Tennyson”, by Watkin Watkins, beautifully describes Tennyson’s treatment of the snipe here:
‘The Snipe. — Tennyson’s reference to
The swamp, where humm’d the dropping snipe,
is remarkable as an instance of his accuracy of observation of natural objects. Chapman “Bird Life on the Borders” tells us that ‘snipe only drum head to wind and when falling.’ The drumming of humming of the snipe is a curious sound which the bird makes with it’s wings, and is only heard when it takes a downward course. Its flight is well described by Wordsworth, who in The Excursion speaks of the “darting snipe”‘
Below is Tennyson’s thought provoking poem. How often do our thoughts drift in such directions while wandering the snipe bog?
On a Mourner
By Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892)
NATURE, so far as in her lies,
Imitates God, and turns her face
To every land beneath the skies,
Counts nothing that she meets with base,
But lives and loves in every place; 5
Fills out the homely quickset-screens,
And makes the purple lilac ripe,
Steps from her airy hill, and greens
The swamp, where humm’d the dropping snipe,
With moss and braided marish-pipe; 10
And on thy heart a finger lays,
Saying, “Beat quicker, for the time
Is pleasant, and the woods and ways
Are pleasant, and the beech and lime
Put forth and feel a gladder clime.” 15
And murmurs of a deeper voice,
Going before to some far shrine,
Teach that sick heart the stronger choice,
Till all thy life one way incline,
With one wide will that closes thine. 20
And when the zoning eve has died
Where yon dark valleys wind forlorn,
Come Hope and Memory, spouse and bride,
From out the borders of the morn,
With that fair child betwixt them born. 25
And when no mortal motion jars
The blackness round the tombing sod,
Thro’ silence and the trembling stars
Comes Faith from tracts no feet have trod,
And Virtue, like a household god 30
Promising empire; such as those
Once heard at dead of night to greet
Troy’s wandering prince, so that he rose
With sacrifice, while all the fleet
Had rest by stony hills of Crete. 35