Saturday, April 04, 2009


Last summer on vacation, there was a marvellous moment on the passenger ferry back to Oban from the beautiful island of Mull. As the passengers from the stern enjoyed the rays of early evening sun spectacularly piercing dark clouds over distant isles, a couple of seagulls demonstrated some amazing aerial techinques. Whilst flying at the speed of the vessel, they were able to hover with enough precision to pluck with their beaks the french fries from outstretched hands. It was clear that, even for the gulls, this was a skill requiring considerable practice as several younger birds, equally hungry, were not quite able to successfully snatch the proffered morsels.

In the lovely town of Oban itself, the gulls are equally rapacious, swooping in to within inches in their attempts to grab a chunk of your tasty fresh fish takeaway supper. They are surprisingly intimidating creatures close up and, without their usual timidity, it's all too easy to feel like Tippi Hedren in an outtake from Hitchcock's classic The Birds. Likewise, here are are some dramatic images of seagulls fearlessly snatching people's ice cream.


Our relationship with birds is a complex one. Wonderfully portrayed in the Greek myth of Icarus is the desperate human vanity which is characterised by attempts to transcend our mortal roles through the power of flight in order to become closer to gods. And our attempts at flying, still such a powerful ingredient to our inner dreams, would more often than not - over the ages - have the same disastrous outcome as befell the young Icarus himself, who had only his arms to flap as the wax holding his feathers in place melted as he foolishly got too near the representation of that most important of pagan gods, the sun. The proverbial fall from grace. Man's dream of being able to fly like a bird is in fact a consistent part of the most ancient myths and religions; almost all ancient art features bird/man hybrid images, including in prehistoric caves dating back around 20 millennia.

My own romantic theory is that the desire to fly like a bird is far older than man itself, and originates with our ancestors the apes, who, upon meeting birds as they acrobatically climbed up into the treetops, would enviously dream of flying high in the sky to enjoy the real and metaphorical freedom that such an ability would offer. We have inherited this profound wish, and it is still hardwired into our very soul. It's as if vertigo itself was the fear of our deepest desire to simply leap from a great height and glide effortlessly through the air, thus finding release from the gravitational pull that is our lifelong burden.

The essence of this notion is wonderfully encapsulated in Project X (1987), a movie about chimpanzees used in life-threatening experiments to test the G-forces experienced in military jet aircraft. Despite many funny moments, at times it's quite an upsetting film to watch, yet culminates in my favourite film ending ever. Beautiful and uplifting in every sense of the word.


Kringle said...

The songbird is of special meaning to me as someone I love has often called me songbird... I found your post very meaningful!

Heike Sperling said...

William Bennett said...

brilliant, Heike! :-D

Anonymous said...

I was feeding seagulls one day and saw one with only one leg, I nearly started crying so I gave it lots of food, poor birdy. I can't say that I have ever had a bird steal something out of my hand, I think the seagulls here in NZ are quite scared of people. Those photos are great.

Jess Blumensheid said...

Wow. The pictures of the gulls stealing ice cream is unreal!