A long time ago, in a village far, far away, there was a young, intelligent woman named Maude.1
Maude lived in a village beside a river that ran through mogotés of arable land, that was rich and ripe for planting tobacco and coffee. A woman of Maude’s resourcefulness could easily live a long and productive life in this village, but she had a taste for adventure and found village life rather dull to be perfectly honest.
When she reached the age where this sort of thing is done, she declined the offers of marriage that awaited her and carefully packed all of her belongings in a bag. Her parents gave her the finest tobacco and coffee that grew in their estate and she took with her the various pots and pans and grinders and things she would need to enjoy or share the treasures of her land with others.
Telling everyone that she was off to settle new lands in the name of her family, she set out early one morning in the direction of some mountains to cross, and after a last wave, she turned her eyes to the horizon and resolved never to look back. As soon as she was out of sight of the village, she stopped and changed direction, picking her way carefully towards an enormous forest.
Maude took pains to ensure that nobody saw her going towards the forest, because she didn’t want her family to worry. For like many such forests to be found in fable and legend, this was an enchanted forest.
When the valley was first settled, many entered the forest to hunt the songbirds that nested there, to collect their eggs, or to chop the timber to use for building. But those who entered the forest were never heard from again, and it was said that a kind of lotus spell fell upon them and they wandered the forest eating berries and murmuring to themselves until they grew old and passed away, their hair and fingernails long and their clothes rotted away.
Now the villagers kept well away from the forest, and Maude encountered nobody as she made her way to and into its leafy embrace.
Maude was not in the forest long before she noticed that it was an unusual forest. While there were many, many birds of all sorts flying here and there and singing noisily, she saw no large animal tracks or droppings or other signs that anything larger than a squirrel inhabited the floor of the forest.
She walked along carefully, noting the many berries and fruiting trees. She wondered if these apparently edible treats contained some kind of opiate that induced insanity. Thinking it over, she decided not to eat anything just yet, so when she became hungry, she stopped, cleared some space, and made herself lunch with food she had packed.
After lunch she made herself a coffee, and the aroma drifted out into the forest. She took a sip and was just abut to take another when she heard a bird’s call that sounded just like a human voice. She looked around, startled, but nobody was there, just a few birds pecking away at some breadcrumbs she had dropped.
She took another sip and heard the voice again. Was she dreaming?
She looked around carefully. Absolutely no people in any direction, just a few birds pecking at the earth. One had a particularly sparkling plumage and seemed larger than the others. It turned its head sideways, fixed her with its gaze, and opened its beak.
“Hello,” it said.
Maude nearly dropped her coffee. The bird had spoken to her! Then she gathered her wits. No, that was not possible. Far more likely, she reasoned, that it was parroting something that it had heard from a person. Or from another bird that heard it from a person. Maybe these bird had passed snippets of human speech down to each other through generations, like the parrots in a comic she enjoyed as a child.
She smiled and decided to play along.
“Hello, and how are you?”
The bird said nothing for a moment, then opened its beak again:
Hello, I am Moses. It sure is great to get out of my nest!
Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I’d like to share with you a maxim I thought of the first time I met a mammal: Never trust a creature that can’t fly!2
Maude stared, open-mouthed. Her brain felt like three people trying to squeeze through a doorway at the same time. One was the thought that she had somehow fallen under the spell of the forest and had gone mad. One was that this bird could talk and what a wondrous discovery she had made. And one was that she felt insulted that this gaudy popinjay had insulted her and she was eager to put it in its place.
After a while, the third won out and she pursed her lips. She forgot altogether that this might be a dumb bird merely parroting things it had heard.
“Well, Moses,” she replied, “You should get out of your forest and see the world. For there are mammals that can fly. Sugar gliders are mammals and they inhabit forests much like yours. And there are bats, they fly very well and have echolocation to boot.”
Moses3 hopped for a moment and then spoke again. “Oh? I would be very interested to hear about the things outside of my forest. Tell me more.”
Maude was amazed, but also curious. “I’d be delighted to tell you of things outside of your forest. But if we are to be friends, we must be equitable to each other. If I tell you of the world outside your forest, you must tell me about your forest so that we may both learn.”
Moses considered. “Well that is very well with me,” he said somewhat formally, “Most of my friends would say that it is essential to drive a bargain with me to stop talking about my forest. I love it so and have spend my life studying it.”
Maude, perhaps under the influence of the enchanted forest, or perhaps caught up in strange circumstances, listened as Moses began to speak.
birds of paradise
“All of the birds in this forest have descended from a few common ancestors. We have evolved various differences to suit our micro-habitats and temperaments, but we share many common behaviours.
“In our forest, we are quite safe from the kind of nasty predators you will find elsewhere, so we have had the opportunity to evolve in unique ways that have strengthened our social behaviours and intelligence. This is why our songs are more complex and beautiful than the songs you will hear from birds elsewhere.
“And you will also find many other interesting things in our forest, such as birds that perform complex dances, birds that build and play with complex structures and machines. But to me, our very best birds combine a penetrating intellect with the delicate beauty of a magnificent plumage.
“My main interest is in the songbirds in the forest. Each songbird, when it hears the song of some bird, will call back the song of another songbird. They are great mimics. A songbird’s personality can be defined once you understand its particular habit of responses to songs. The entire songbird society is governed by their responses to each other’s songs, and my lifelong study has been the behaviour of songbirds.
“I have discovered that there are rules and that the consequences of these rules lead to some deep and fascinating insights into the nature of thought itself. The brilliance of my discoveries is matched only by my plumage.”
Maude thought Moses was just a little vain and didn’t like to be spoken down to, so she responded rather tersely. “I’m sure this is all very interesting, but your views do seem a little egocentric.”
Many people would have been taken aback by such a forthright remark, but of course Moses was not a person. In fact, he was so assured of his own place as a star in the intellectual firmament that he seemed incapable of viewing a remark about himself as being critical.
“Ah! Egocentricity is a very interesting subject touching upon fixation and the elusive family of Sage Birds. While I am, of course, conversant in these matters, the real expert in this area is The Magnificent Smullyan Bird.4 While his grey feathers are rather dowdy, his song brings to mind great piano performances.5
“I have been meaning to hear him sing for some time, let us go to his nest now, you will hear all about the significance of egocentric birds and I will enjoy his music.”
Normally Maude would hesitate at such an abrupt suggestion, but as one does in dreams sometimes, she found herself walking through the forest with Moses without remembering exactly when she had agreed to go and in what direction she was walking.
In memory of Lois Maude Barzey née Braithwaite, my grandmother, who overcame very difficult circumstances. And in honour of Clara Maude Braithwaite, who is as spunky as stereotypes would suggest for someone with a mop of red, curly hair. ↩