Wednesday, February 25, 2009

the enchantment of the canary

I've been looking up information about the canary, as the prompt for my writing group, RedShoes on Court, was a bird for each woman. From my stack of bird cards from Bird Signs, I pulled canary.

My '69 Webster's Dictionary says 'canary' means a wine made in the Canary Islands (I wonder if it tastes golden?); an old dance introduced from the Canary Islands into Europe (is it undulating like the flight of these small birds?), and a singing bird, belonging to the finch family, which has long been very common as a caged bird.

"I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and would be free,
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deepest core,
but a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings--
I know why the caged bird sings.
~ excerpt from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, African-Am. poet.

Maya Angelou used the line from Dunbar's poem as the title of her creative non-fiction, I know why the Caged Bird Sings, the first book of her life story.

To write her stories, she goes through a ritual of ENCHANTMENT. She wakes up at 5 a.m., goes to a rented hotel room, lies on the bed with a legal pad in her hands, a bottle of sherry, a Bible and Roget's Thesaurus close by, and a pack of cards. She leaves my early afternoon, having written 10-12 pages that she edits to 3 -4 in the evening. She goes through this enchantment to relive her memories, to place herself back in time, inside the girl and young woman she was.

Maya Angelou says she has to relive the pain, anguish and suffering through the enchantment ritual to access the Truth.

The truth about canaries is that they were not originally solid yellow. Caged, the birds' original dull olive green or greenish yellow streaked with yellow and black, turned yellow. That is, through its capture and centuries of breeding this tiny bird of strong magical song became yellow. And now 'canary yellow' is as much a part of our normalized sensibilities as inky black or cerulean blue. We can even eat canary cake, wild canary cake.

One of the centers of canary bird breeding was 15th and 16th c Austria and Germany; the people of the Hartz Mountains bred and trained the birds to sing for them. The singing of the canaries was inspiration for the meistersingers, the minstrel brotherhoods. Meisters wrote new verses to existing melodies and new tunes, too. Their songs were sung without accompaniment. This bardic schooling taught the power of sound, music and voice, which was simultaneously physical and spiritual.

Some think goldfinches are wild canaries.

How to catch a wild canary? Nets? Traps?
How many died en route, taken from their warm island climes to inland northern places? This is not recorded. Of course, many peoples traveled to the Canary Islands, from the Spanish who conquered and colonized it and its inhabitants, to Arab and Muslim traders. But it was the French and the Spanish who wiped out the Islands' indigenous population, the Guanches. Indeed, the Canary Islands were the "dress rehearsal" for colonizing, conquering and killing indigenous peoples around the world.

Palestinians are the descendants of the indigenous peoples of the area of Palestine. Incredibly, although it is Gaza and the West Bank which are both caged in by walls and fencing and sniper towers, and it is the Palestinian people who have been under threat of extermination for more than 61 years, Israel's defenders have appropriated the phrase "the canary in the coal mine" for that regime. Incredibly, they call Israel a canary of democracy caged in by despotic backward terrorist Arab regimes. Incredibly, the only country in the Middle East with nuclear bombs -- more than 200-- is Israel. Incredibly.

I'm not sure what sort of bird of Palestine this is. Perhaps it has the power of song, too.

The song of the canary is one of healing, of awakening. The power of the canary totem is the Power of Song and Voice. When the canary totem comes your way she alights on your throat and heart, opening them to increased feeling, to heightened sensitivity.

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