Nobody knows how the birds began. Not even the Parrot remembers. Ornithologists base their theories upon the fossils of extinct birds and of creatures that came in time before the birds—eons and eitons and alautons ago. Like all scientists, ornithologists are learned men, but not so wise as the philosophers and the poets, who taught the scientists what to think. Aristotle, for instance, the ancient Greek who may have been the greatest thinker who ever thought, was so impressed by the parrots his pupil Alexander the Great brought back from the conquest of India some twenty-three centuries ago that he wrote a fine description of this bird for future ornithologists. As for the beginnings of life on earth, here are a poet’s lines which describe them more intriguingly than any scientist has done:
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
One night when the moon was blood,
Then surely I was born.
That is from a poem about the Donkey. He resembles the Parrot only in that ignorant people have made both the subjects of tiresome jokes. A smaller relative of the Horse, the Donkey has ears that are supposed to be too long for his head and his head too long for the rest of him and therefore he has been considered funny-looking or strange or weird. That could explain why the poet makes the Donkey’s birth under a blood-red moon seem a little scary, like Halloween. Nowadays figs grow on trees, but the Parrot remembers when figs grew on thorny bushes and it was difficult to eat one. Back in the Jurassic period the forests didn’t actually walk, of course. Sometimes it looked as if the forests were walking—or, anyhow, jumping around a bit—because they were full of dinosaurs and brontosauruses roaring about and knocking down the trees.
That Brontosaurus was a lizardlike beast, about as long as a middle-sized airliner and as heavy. When you visit the Natural History Museum, look for a reconstructed skeleton of the Brontosaurus or for a replica in plastic large as life with his eyes and gigantic mouth grinning down upon you. Think: when this animal roamed the earth he made a roar like thunder and the oldtime Greeks, who must have learned about him from their prehistoric ancestors, named him Brontosaurus, which meant Thunder Lizard. He ate trees. His jaws were big enough to hold a rubber tree without much trouble; his teeth were sharp as spears and big as fire hydrants. He waddled through the primordial forests and just chomped on trees when he got hungry. Picture a herd of twenty or thirty Thunder Lizards slouching along with their mouths full of broad-leaved trees which they have pulled out of the ground roots and all. No wonder it looked as though the forests walked. That’s what the poet meant and what the Parrot saw, the first Parrot, for surely he was there among the fishes that flew.
Not the …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.