The Story of the Clotilda- The Last Slaver Ship

There is a lot of excitement on the Alabama Gulf Coast about the discovery of the ruins of the last slaver ship, Clotilda. It was found in an undredged part of the Mobile River alongside Twelve Mile Island, exactly where the kidnapped Africans always said it was. This incredible story was recently told by the discoverer Ben Raines in our local jewel, the Lagniappe. Documentaries are being filmed by National Geographic, as well as by the descendants of these Africans done in conjunction with the University of South Alabama and SpringHill College. But I’m getting ahead of the story of the Clotilda. The history of this ship and the Africans brought into the Port of Mobile in 1861 began as a business venture between Captain William Foster and Mobile businessman Timothy Meaher. The international slave trade, historically referred to as the Middle Passage was abolished in the US in 1808, and yet over a 100 Africans were chained together as the Clotilda sails into US Gulf waters in 1861. This business venture was common knowledge from Mobile to New York City, yet the perpetrators got away with violating the international law.

After working for the Meaher brothers on their plantations, their shipyard and on their steamers, the Africans were freed along with all the Southern slaves following the Civil War. They often told their story of being kidnapped in West Africa by Captain Foster. Harper’s Weekly published an interview of one of the African couples in 1887. Booker T. Washington visited their settlement named Africa Town in 1909, and a local Mobile woman, Emma Langdon Roche published a book about the Africa Town residents in 1914. In 1928, Zora Neale Hurston spent two months interviewing Cudjo Lewis, one of the key residents of Africa Town. She returned to this Mobile settlement over the next three years interviewing the residents about their memories of Africa, the terrible voyage upon the Clotilda, how they had lost the freedom as human beings and were now forced labor for the Meaher family, and the heartache following the war when they realized they would never be able to raise the money to go home to Africa. Hurston named her manuscript Barracoon which is what the slave pens in the Bight of Benin were called. Unfortunately Hurston was never able to find a publisher during her lifetime. Barracoon was published in 2018 for the first time.

My beloved book club read Barracoon this past summer because of the excitement caused by the discovery of the Clotilda. People had been looking for the remains of this ship for decades. Lots of various stories have been told about this ship over the years, such as it was a bet that caused Foster and Meaher to undertake this venture. A book I found helpful in discerning the history was Sylviane A. Diouf’s award winning Dreams of Africa in Alabama published in 2009. Dr. Diouf relates Hurston’s experience writing Barracoon as well as the biographies of the former slaves and their Africa Town settlement. It is well researched and clears up a lot of the conflicting local stories.

I highly recommend reading both books before the documentaries are released. Unfortunately I don’t know the names of the films, but I have seen the trailer about the stories of the descendants. I look forward to seeing both.

PONDERINGS- I was reading an article recently about how James Madison’s and Thomas Jefferson’s plantations are now including information concerning slavery on these particular plantations. It has some folks in a bit of an uproar, claiming history is being rewritten. Actually history is a living thing- traditional narratives often change and grow as new information is made available or discovered. In reality, the historical narrative of the US has been about whites and usually white men. This only began changing in the 1970’s. So to tell the story from a different perspective isn’t rewriting history. It’s just seeing a more complete story using lots of different lens. America has wrestled with slavery since before she was an official nation. Slavery in America was unlike slavery any where in the world at any time. Here a child was deemed a slave if his/her mother was a slave. Yes, it was based on skin color (black), however the irony is that many slaves had so much “white blood” their skin color was light. It is said that Thomas Jefferson’s son with his slave mistress Sally Hemings was white with red hair like his father’s. Yet, under Virginia law like other Southern states, he was a slave. In my humble opinion, America will always wrestle with the idea, the reality, and the consequences of slavery. Slavery is antithetical to our founding beliefs of life and liberty. And having a healthy discussion about it is not rewriting history- it’s looking at the cold hard facts.

Dr. Zhivago and the CIA

If you think those two subjects don’t go together, think again. There is a definite connection. It is addressed wonderfully in Lara Prescott’s historical fiction The Secrets We Kept. Prescott researched author Boris Pasternak and Olga Ivinskaya, his lover and his muse for his iconic character Lara. There is extensive research available on these individuals. She also researched the connection with the CIA who had copies of Dr.Zhivago smuggled into the USSR in the Cold War. Why, you might ask. I always saw Dr. Zhivago (book and movie) as wonderful love story situated in snowy Russia. However, Pasternak was very critical of the Russian Revolution and Stalin in particular. Threads of anti-communism run throughout the novel. What I never realized was the USSR banned the publication and was furious when Pasternak and Olga Ivinskaya had the manuscript smuggled to the Italian book publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinella. This set off a hail storm in the USSR because Dr. Zhivago was an instant international bestseller. And all this time, I just thought it was a Russian love story with Omar Shariff and Julie Christie!

Lara Prescott’s novel addresses all the CIA connections, as well as the personal lives of Pasternak and Olga Ivinskaya, including her time in the Gulag which was an attempt to intimidate him. What makes The Secrets We Kept even more interesting is the backstory or maybe it’s the front story of the female employees of the CIA. Many had been active in the OSS during WW2, but after the war, these women were relegated to the typing pool. Prescott sets up her book in such an interesting way. Sections are labeled East or West because she is basically telling two sides of the same story. Sections on the East are about Russia and the goings-on there, and the West sections pertain to the female CIA employees, particularly Sally Forrester and Irina, an American born daughter of Russian emigres. Sally had been a spy with the OSS and helped train Irina as a spy who was instrumental in getting Dr. Zhivago smuggled into the USSR. These two women have an interesting relationship that develops outside the office. Prescott has a lot of respect for these women in the CIA who had done so much during the war and then were put back “in their place” afterwards. Again, it’s a story I didn’t know much about until now.

The Secrets We Kept is Prescott’s debut novel. I look forward to seeing what else she produces in the future. The subject matter and style of this book shows me how creatively she thinks and processes information. If you a Dr. Zhivago fan, this book is a must. If you are a fan of a good spy novel, this book is a must. If you like a good book you can’t put down, this book is a must.

Ponderings: My Christmas prayer is hope and healing for our country and many blessings for you and your family. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

A Story of Troublesome Creek, Kentucky

My beloved book club chose to read Kim Michele Richardson’s fabulous novel, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. It’s historical fiction that is very well researched about the Pack Horse Library Project in Kentucky that was funded by the WPA during the Great Depression. The main character is “book lady” Cussy Mary, nicknamed Bluet. She is named after Cussy, the French village in Normandy where her family originates. Her nickname Bluet comes from the small delicate flowers by the same name, which are often blue in tint. Cussy Mary is also blue in tint. She is one of the “blue people” from Troublesome Creek, Kentucky who suffer from an inherited genetic disorder called methemoglobinemia. This is a rare genetic blood disorder that causes elevated levels of methemoglobin which is a bluish/brown color and causes a depletion of oxygen in the red blood cells. There can be many side effects of this disorder, one of which is blue skin. Years ago it was associated with inbreeding in the Appalachian Mountains. The blue people in Kentucky endured the same prejudice that African-Americans endured. In the eyes of rural white Kentuckians, they were all “colored.” This is the story of the bigotry that Cussy Mary suffers while being part of the Pack Horse Library Project delivering books to the hills and hollars of eastern Kentucky.

You will love Cussy Mary. She is everything you want in a main character. She is independent, strong, brave, compassionate, determined and believable. She has a heart for her fellow Kentuckians regardless of how well or how little they think of her. She knows what these hill people endure in their daily lives. They are mostly coal miners, like her father, struggling against coal company policies which suck the life out of their workers. She knows the grinding poverty and near starvation these families suffer, the grief these mothers suffer as they bury malnourished children. Some of the passages are heartbreaking. The author portrays her characters with such empathy and compassion because her own story includes struggles and heartbreaks. Richardson grew up in the orphanage/foster system in rural Kentucky until she found herself homeless at the age of 14. Her heart for the rural people and her understanding of the social ills of Appalachia makes this story rise above the mere words on the page.

I could write a book about this book- all the interesting historical aspects, but I won’t. I will just say- go get the book and read it.

Dinner at the Center of the Earth

This is a most unusual title and storyline, this Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander. It may sound sci-fi or dystopia, but it’s a spy novel/love story. It’s an Israeli spy story with Israelis and Palestinians as the enemies. I love spy stories, I’ve blogged on spy stories, I love spy movies. I must say I’ve never read a spy story like this one. I promise no spoilers. The backdrop is the perpetual conflict between the two groups, so there are a couple of different threads and different time periods going on. The main thread is how does an American Jewish boy from Long Island become an Israeli spy who then betrays Israel? What is he thinking? The basic answer of how this happens is told poetically toward the end, “How it had come to this…had been set so very early…He had been given it so long ago, back in suburbia, back in America, a birthright spoon-fed to him in his Jewish day school classroom…A smile from the teacher, a glimmer to the eye. ‘We are going, my little Yidelach, to Yerushalyim. We are flying, right now to Israel. The Moshiach is coming and we need to get there. We need to help welcome him in.’ The teacher then spreads her arms wide….And she takes off like that, flying desk to desk around the room…all those arms tilting, and everyone running and howling and flying…I feel it, until I am looking down at the classroom below, down at New York, at America, until it all looks like desert…”

This idealistic little boy grows up and becomes a prisoner in a black-op prison in Israel whose existence is known only to an elderly general who is in a coma. Definitely a predicament. There are threads of relationships and friendships – the best one is between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man. It will make you believe in humanity again against the brutality of this conflict. But the relationship between the spy and his long term guard is interesting as well. The two men are close in age and develop what might be described as a type of friendship. And the relationship between this general and his right- hand assistant becomes familial in nature or so it seems.

Basically that is all I can tell you without ruining some great parts of this really good book. It’s creative, it’s political, it’s suspenseful, it’s clever. Englander has a way of portraying the pain and suffering of both sides of this conflict, the shared humanity and the shared desire for revenge. The Jewish Journal says it’s “a dark, profound meditation on the state of Israel and also a gripping thriller, full of twists and moral ambiguity, it is an absolute joy to read.” I couldn’t say it better myself.

Invite Nancy Drew to Bookclub

If your book club is looking for a fun book to read and reminisce about, then this is your book! Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her by Melanie Rehak is the true story of the history of the Nancy Drew series. Note the title says women who created Nancy because Carolyn Keene is the pen name used by two different authors over the decades. But I get ahead of myself. Nancy was invented by Edward Stratemeyer of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Edward Stratemeyer also invented the Boobsey Twins series and the Hardy Boys series. Stratemeyer was a genius at creating fictional characters and plots for series. He would select ghost writers to write under his selected pen name and would then edit their manuscripts. This way he could have full and total control over the storyline and the profit of his series.

Girls were discovered as a reading demographic at the turn of the 20th century when series about girls began being published. In fact, in 1926, the New Republic magazine declared the 20th century the “Century of the Child.” With child labor laws and mandatory education, children had leisure time and book publishers responded. In 1925 alone, 25 million children’s books were published. Stratemeyer was very much a traditionalist and kept a tight reign on “his” characters. His female characters were not boy-crazy flappers in the 20’s, nor were they testing any moral boundaries in the post WW2 years. Nancy’s sidekicks, Bess and George were subject to the same scrutiny. George could be a tomboy, but not too masculine. Bess could be flighty and a little interested in boys, but not too much. The Nancy Drew series have been updated a few times over the last 50 years to keep the relevant.

So who were the two women who wrote as Carolyn Keene? The first was Mildred Wirt Benson, who also authored books of her own. Benson “invented Penny Parker, daughter of a newspaper editor, champion swimmer and diver, sophomore at Riverview High, and all-around wit.” Penny could be and do things Stratemeyer did not allow Nancy to be and do. After Mr. Stratemeyer died, Benson continued to write under the pen name Carolyn Keene. However, Benson and Harriet Stratemeyer Adams eventually parted ways in 1953 over different visions of Nancy. Benson wrote 30 books in the series, and she had violated her NDA several times by stating she was Carolyn Keene. Harriet Stratemeyer Adams took over the Syndicate when her father died and was fully aware that the Nancy Drew series was her family’s cash cow and had to be protected at all costs. Upon parting ways with Benson, Adams began writing the series in the same traditional vein. Adams declared on several occasions that she was Carolyn Keene and implied that she had always been Carolyn Keene. When Adams died in 1982, the question arose among Nancy fans and the publishing world of who was Carolyn Keene? Both Adams’ and Benson’s obituaries declare each woman was Carolyn Keene. This question is basically the thesis of Rehak’s book. So to all you Nancy fans, this book will give you an understanding of Nancy you’ve never had before.

Ponderings: I came of age before Nancy’s big update in the mid 1970s, and I found her to be a rather dated. I was big fan of the Trixie Beldon series instead.

Betrayal, Danger and War- The Lost Girls of Paris

“Sometimes a few must be sacrificed for the greater good.”

Pam Jenoff’s new novel, The Lost Girls of Paris encompasses betrayal, danger and love in war torn France and England. It is historical fiction based on real life Special Operations Executive missions and the amazing story of young English women recruited to be saboteurs and radio transmitters in the heart of Nazi-occupied France. The characters are composites of real women who went into France, were betrayed, captured by the Nazis, and never returned home to England. We learn their story as it unfolds, and as a New York woman researches their story after serendipitously finding pictures of the twelve women who never returned. The two different timelines are seamlessly written by Jenoff. The novel is well written and the characters are believable.

Eleanor Trigg is appointed to head up the network of the all-female secret agents. The women are not spies exactly. Their job is to transmit messages between the French Resistance and the war office in London. The resistance is sabotaging the movement of Nazi troops by blowing up bridges and train tracks. The SOE puts these women in safe houses in small French villages where they can supposedly transmit via shortwave radio. The plan is effective until a radio and its agent are captured, and messages begin to be questioned for their accuracy by Eleanor and her higher-ups back in London. As Eleanor begins to suspect counter sabotage, she is increasingly sidelined by her boss. After the war, Eleanor discovers the magnitude of the betrayal within her department and begins to search for her “girls” who remain missing.

The story has two other strong female protagonists, Marie, a young English mother who finds purpose as a secret agent, and Grace, a young American woman who begins searching for Eleanor and Marie after the war. Both of these young women have had trauma in their lives and through the course of the story find purpose, acceptance and love. However, Jenoff is not writing a fairytale so I can’t say all live happily ever after.

I highly recommend this novel. It’s well done and has a plot line that is unusual. I researched the real life Vera Atkins and the female agents who served under her. Eleanor is based on Vera Atkins, and Atkins too searches for missing agents after the war. Most of the missing female agents were murdered in Nazi concentration camps after being captured. Fascinating history, and I discovered lots of documentaries and books written about this part of World War 2.

CHAOS 1969

“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969.” Joan Didion on the Sharon Tate murder

With all the Summer of Love reminiscing in the media, I joined in and read Tom O’Neill’s new book, Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties. Let me start by saying, this is not a bunch of conspiracy theories, and O’Neill is quite adamant about that. In fact, Rolling Stone writes, “It’s hard to explain Tom O’Neill’s new book Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA and the Secret History of the Sixties without sounding like a conspiracy theorist down a rabbit hole.” The story begins in 1999 when O’Neill is commissioned to write an article on the 30th anniversary of the murder of Sharon Tate and others by Manson and the “Family.” He initially thinks everything has already been said, but ends up researching this book for the next 20 years. He interviews many of the players around this sensational murder case. Some of the people were still scared to talk, some were defensive, but some were eager to get some things off their chests. Many were willing to confide misgivings about the official story of these murders, Manson and his followers. This is a well researched book of 436 pages and then an additional 67 pages of notes. O’Neill is forthcoming about not having a smoking gun and a new story. He writes, “My goal isn’t to say what did happen- it’s to prove that the official story didn’t.

For many of us, the official story is the book Helter Skelter written by the chief prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi. I clearly remember holding the paperback in my hands reading it with chills running down my back. Who doesn’t? O’Neill is able to get a treasure trove of all kinds documents through the Freedom of Information Act. He documents who perjured themselves in the investigation and during the trial. He documents cover-ups by the LAPD and the DA office. He writes of aspects of Manson’s life that was not thought relevant at the time, like the year and half Manson spent in Haight Ashbury which put him in contact with undercover CIA agents doing research (the project is MKULTRA) on using LSD as a mind-controlling and mind- altering technique. The US learned in the early 1950s that Russia was working on mind-controlling techniques using drugs and hypnosis which was deemed important in case one of their spies was captured by the US. So the US began experimenting with LSD, sleep deprivation and hypnosis too. The CIA recruited doctors and psychiatrists as undercover agents to work on these experiments.

During the 1960s, the question becomes how to experiment with humans to see if people can be programmed against their will and knowledge. It’s documented that the CIA experimented with military personnel, civilians and mentally ill patients without their knowledge. Sounds kind of like the Tuskegee Airmen being injected with STDs by the government without their knowing, doesn’t it? Of course, the other question is how did Manson turn a bunch of free-love teenage girls into killer robots? How is he able to override their innate sense of self to totally control them? O’Neill is never able to find the direct link between the CIA experiments and Manson’s actions, but the circles certainly overlap in Haight Ashbury in 1967-8. Again, Rolling Stone writes, “What explains the similarities between government funded, LSD-fueled mind-control experiments, and Manson’s techniques? And why were there so many people in his orbit who seemed to have ties to the CIA?

Is it a lot? Yes, definitely, and there’s tons I have not mentioned here. Truth is, I couldn’t put this book down. I am fascinated by the information presented, and the questions left unanswered. If you are looking for a meaty book that makes you ponder, this could be it.

Of Love, Loss and Life

I agree with Ann Patchett, this book does have “the makings of an American classic.” Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl centers on “kinship, the way human beings are connected to each other and to the natural world” as she says in a recent interview. In short lyrical essays, Renkl writes of family, love and the grief that follows loss. The books is a soulful look at life around us- the simple ordinary things that only become meaningful when we slow down to truly notice and appreciate. It is a memoir in a sense that Renkl threads her mother’s story through her own story, like a beautiful tapestry of love, mental illness and the grief that follows her death. She recounts the dreams she had following her mother’s death, one of which her mother looks in Renkl’s hall closet and says,” ‘But why would you take all my nice wooden hangers?’…’Because you died, Mom…You were dead’. ‘Oh’, she said. ‘ That’s’ OK, then.’ ” Renkl writes that though loved ones die, on that very same day other people are celebrating- “Someone was hearing, ‘Its benign.’ Someone was saying, ‘It’s a boy!’ Someone was throwing out her arms and crying, ‘Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!’- the world goes on every day.”

One of my favorite vignettes is about the 4th generation family Dr. Van Fleet rose planted in 1910. Each generation takes a cutting from this rose bush to their new house when they marry. Renkl plants her roses in Nashville, and unfortunately the bush dies of rose rosette virus. She writes, “Having no choice, we cut it down and dug up as many of the roots as possible, heartsick. All my beloved elders were gone, and the roses I had hoped to pass along to my children were gone now too.” She writes that later, a potted cutting survives, “ three years later, at age 107, it bloomed.” I love the intentionality and sentimentality of this family!

Another great story that we all can relate too is playing with her great-grandmother’s rings and hands during church as a child. I can relate to how Renkl talks of taking her elder’s hand “in my own and pat it smooth, running my finger across its impossible softness, marveling at the way it ripples under my finger, as yielding as water. My great-grandmother’s skin is an echo of her old Bible, the pages tissue-thin, the corners worn to soft felt.” I too played with my own grandmother’s beautifully manicured hands while waiting on the sermon to end. I have the same puffy veins now on the back of my hands, and I am reminded of her every time I rub lotion on my hands. Remember the song, “Grandma’s Hands” by Bill Withers? We probably all have memories of our elder’s hands.

Renkl writes of the natural world- birds in her backyard, the changing seasons, the cicadas and the bees. Of her childhood, she insightfully says, “I am a creature of piney woods and folded terrain, of birdsong and running creeks and a thousand shades of green, of forgiving soil that yields with each footfall. That hot land is a part of me, as fundamental to my shaping as a family member, and I would have remembered its precise features with an ache of homesickness even if I had never seen it again.” It’s not surprising that poetry is her first love, and her words will touch your heart.

This book will nourish your heart and soul, and it would make a thoughtful gift to a friend who is experiencing one of life’s many struggles.

Deep Time and Deep Places with Robert MacFarlane

Wow, where do I begin telling you about Robert MacFarlane’s masterpiece Underland? MacFarlane is a literary natural history writer and literature professor at Cambridge, and he uses a God-given gift of language to write about underground spaces and subterranean journeys he takes over 7-8 years filling 20 notebooks with notes and sketches. Underland has been described as “an epic explorations Earth’s vast subterranean landscape in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself.” It is a narrative non-fiction account of MacFarlane’s journeys into mines, catacombs, caves, moulins which are melting tunnels inside of glaciers. He goes into unbelievably deep and scary places in which I sometimes held my breath until he re-emerges back above ground. And why does he do this? To study deep time which is time measured geologically “in units that humble the human instant: millennia, epochs and aeons, instead of minutes, months and years. Deep time is kept by rock, ice, stalactites, seabed sediments and the drift of tectonic plates…” He talks about the Anthropocene- The Age of Man and the human impact on the natural world. Each age has its own tell-tale signs left for future generations. MacFarlane says our age will leave plastic, domesticated animals, coal and fertilizers. He writes that “plastiglomerate” is the “emblematic substance of our epoch.” He is sicken by the plastic debris floating in the bays of northern Scandinavia above the Arctic Circle and says, ” the density of human debris is shocking. Fishing buoys, toothbrushes, bleach bottles, tangled fishing nets, thousands of unidentifiable shards.”

MacFarlane studies prehistoric cave art all over Europe; he goes into caves so deep that cave divers set up base camps and advance camps all through them; he explores underground rivers and aquifers that run for miles underground; he gets momentarily wedged in a tight spot exploring unmapped tunnels in Parisian catacombs; he tours a potash mine in England that runs underground ranging from 4500′ deep in Yorkshire out into the North Sea- 600 miles of mazes.

MacFarlane also talks about violence in the landscape ranging from sinkholes and caves as places of death and suffering during civil unrest and war, specifically the West Bank, Slovenia and the Scottish Highlands. He writes, the “landscape itself had become an actor, agent, combatant” as a means of execution, also violence as in the Deepwater oil spill in the Gulf in 2010 which still hurts my heart.

One of the scariest and most treacherous places MacFarlane explores is the Knud Rasmussen glacier in Greenland that is part of the Knud Rasmussen mountain range which is uninhabitable. He writes that ice has a memory and the color of the memory is blue. The blue is called the “blood” of the glacier. “Ice is blue because when a ray of light passes through it, it hits the crystal structure of ice and is deflected, bounces off into another crystal and is deflected again, bounces off into another, and another, and in this manner ricochets its way to the eye.” I saw a photo of MacFarlane descending 60 feet by rope into a moulin which is a vertical shaft caused by melting water on a glacier. The intensity of the blue inside the shaft was breathtaking, almost a surreal color. He writes that mapping and Google Earth cannot keep up with the rate of sea ice melt and that “Greenland, Antarctica and the Arctic are now front-line territories, in which the fate of ice will shape planetary futures.” There is a melt site on the Thwaites glacier in west Antarctic the size of Manhattan that has already caused an increase in sea levels by 4%. MacFarlane writes, “the ice seems a ‘thing’ that is beyond our comprehension to know but within our capacity to destroy.”

In closing, I must agree with a reviewer for the Telegraph, in which he writes, “I turned the last page with the unusual conviction of having been in the company of a fine writer who is- who must surely be- a good man.” Yes, and I have been in the company of a good man who took me on some amazing journeys who let me see in my mind’s eye some amazing things.

Mozart’s Starling

I’ve just finished a most unusual and delightful book by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, entitled Mozart’s Starling. It is a dual telling of pet starlings- Mozart’s starling and Haupt’s starling. These wild birds apparently make charming pets- they mimic sounds and can learn to talk. Mozart buys his starling from a bird seller in 1784 after hearing it whistle a version of his Piano Concerto no.17 in G Major. Mozart has just finished composing this concerto, and it had only been performed in small settings, so he is amazed and fascinated to hear this bird’s song version. Haupt and her husband take a baby starling from its nest to raise as part of her research into Mozart’s bird. Before you get your shackles up- as terrible as this sounds, let me say that there is an open hunting season on starlings. They were brought over from Europe in 1890-1891 by the American Acclimatization Society who decided that all birds mentioned in Shakespeare’s works should live in North America too. The Society released a 100 starlings in Central Park. As with many non-native species of plants and animals, starlings are considered an invasive and pesky. They can decimate a field of crops in minutes and are very much despised in agricultural regions of the US. So Haupt and hubby “saved” their starling from a possible early death. Their pet’s name is Carmen, and she is a delight.

Haupt as a self-described ecophilosopher and naturalist as well as a music-loving violin and piano player, thus her interest in Mozart. She does a good job researching Mozart’s life and career. There are many references to Mozart’s bird in letters and journals, but nowhere could Haupt find the bird’s name. She nicknames his bird, Star for the purpose of the book. Haupt writes, “…the more I have discovered of Mozart’s personality and the more I learn about starlings by living with Carmen, the more I find the similarities between Mozart and Star to be more extreme than I’d ever dreamed: the unusual cleverness, the playful disobedience, the propensity for almost ceaseless chatter. Both were fluttering and curious and disorderly. Both were incapable of being still and quiet in a world so full of sound and happenings and beauty. Both shared the impulse to make wild, original, constant music.”

Birdsong has inspired music lovers and composers since the beginning of time. Ornithologists have long studied this connection, and one ornithologist discovered that many birds sing in the same scale as Western music. Others have found that some birds sing in perfect intervals. Haupt says, “Both music and birdsong flit past our tympanic membranes, connect with our brains, brighten our minds, and transport our spirits…Mozart found inspiration in the presence of a common bird. For us, too, the song of the world so often rises in places we had not thought to look.”

As a bird lover with no real knowledge of starlings, I am fascinated with the characteristics of this bird. They are very social creatures, gregarious, and communicative. Carmen learned to imitate Haupt’s coffee grinder, would sing along when her daughter played her cello or Haupt played her violin. Haupt never could get Carmen to learn any of Mozart’s piano concerto that his own starling would mimic. Another thing that fascinated me is that a flock of starlings is called a murmuration and can number up to tens of thousands of birds. Haupt beautifully describes their “flock dances” as “bewitching…mysterious, graceful, spellbinding dance-clouds.” How do thousands of birds swirl so beautifully in perfect coordination? Many studies have been done, and many theories offered. Haupt writes about one renown study, “…the change in the movement of one bird will affect the seven birds closest to it. These seven birds will each affect seven more birds, and their movements will ripple, scaling rapidly, through the flock…starling murmurations might be the most visible and also the most winsome iteration of biophysical criticality, a mirror into deeper, unseen, all-embracing secrets of life that have yet to be understood.”

To close, I’ll end with Haupt- “…we are not a lone pair of hands or eyes or a single voice…we do not create in isolation but bring our gift, the art of our lives, to one another, to the earth. We each touch the seven starlings closest to our own murmuration, and the ripple spreads faster than we could have imagined…The gift offered is different for each but all are equal in grandeur.”

ponderings: unknown source of murmuration photo