In 1893, Norwegian artist Gerhard Munthe made a watercolor design for a tapestry, one of many. His subject, The Wise Bird, illustrated a Norwegian legend about a king who sought advice from a Wise Bird living in the chestnut forest beside his castle instead of from his courtiers. Munthe pictured the king engaged in conversation with his avian advisor while his page enjoyed melodies chirped by the smaller birds fluttering about.
I love this image, partly for its cartoony, graphic simplicity, partly for its message. The king, his great age signaled by his lavish beard and the walking stick he hold in his left hand, knows where the answers lie and walks calmly there to listen. The bird – more a crow than an owl – parts its beak as if conversing. The youth, in contrast, is beardless and holds a sword in his right hand. For him, the forest is a place of uncertainty and danger, and it may be his duty to protect the king. The underlying message of the legend is, of course: look to Mother Nature for solutions, not your fellow humans.
I thought of Munthe recently when I had a strange and wonderful experience walking down a dusty path to desolate Playa Lagartillo, where I spend mornings from sunrise until the disappearance of shade, around 9:30 a.m. when I’m there. It is a Wagnerian chorus of birds shortly after sunrise but by the time the sun is visible, the birds have vanished. They, too, require shelter from the blistering sun. There were a lot of parakeets, as usual, blue ones and green ones, squealing and darting about.
On a branch ahead of me I saw a giant parakeet. No, a parrot. A yellow-naped Amazon, as I discovered when I returned ‘home’ later. I froze. It was large – 12-14 inches (30-32 cm) tall. It watched me. I continued to walk very slowly toward it and, not only did Amazon not flee, but it slid down its branch get a better view. I stopped before I walked under the branch, put down my backpack and studied the parrot. It was lime green with lighter, smaller feathers on its breast and darker ones, edged in even darker green on its back – their perfect rounded geometry resembled fish scales. Its feet/claws were grey and wrinkly, like an elderly person’s finger. Its black beak was rounded and looked very strong and it stared at me impassively with its glinting orange eye.
I must have fascinated Amazon as much as it fascinated me, for It jumped onto a lower branch and slid down towards me, claws encircling the branch and wings puffing out to maintain balance. I felt something important was happening. Or maybe My Octopus Teacher put ideas into my head. We both stood there quietly for more than ten minutes. I was getting restless but couldn’t bring myself to leave.
Then, in a creaky voice, Amazon blurted out: “Hola! Hola!”
I tried to imitate its register when I responded: “Hola!”
We ‘ola’d’ for a few minutes and then I tried some other words – ‘Buenas días’, ‘buenas tardes’, ‘te amo’, but its vocabulary seemed to consist of only one, well-chosen and friendly, word.
Then, my new friend flew across the road and perched on a fence post, about elbow height. I walked over. Now Amazon and I saw literally eye-to-eye, less than 3 feet from each other. This was the moment when I most regretted having dropped my iphone in the ocean because I’m certain it would have allowed me to take a photo. But even as we stood locked in mutual fascination, I knew this moment would be etched forever in my memory. I was tempted to reach out to pet Amazon but feared that attempt would drive it away. We ‘hola’d’ intermittently.
The sun began to infiltrate the leafy trees and I had no sunscreen. I was peckish. I opened my backpack, took out a rice cake (emergency food for the gluten intolerant) and broke off two pieces. I offered one to Amazon. It took it in its beak, then reached up with its right claw and broke it. We then proceed to nibble away at our respective bits, I, holding mine between my thumb and forefinger, Amazon, holding it in its right claw and balancing with perfect control on its left leg as it ate.
It had been a somewhat stressful trip (subject of a future post), but my Amazon’s gaze was reassuring, and I felt my cortisol level sink, worry about pre-flight vaccination timing dissipated. I was glad we shared a mini-meal. Still, if I didn’t move soon, I’d get sunburned, so I continued to the beach and looked over my shoulder one last time to see Amazon still perched on the fence post, watching me from its amber-colored side eye.
I walked to one of my spots and settled into the sand to watch hermit crabs fight over mango bits, pelicans troll for fish, and the tide roll in. After about twenty minutes, I heard a familiar voice on a beach where I rarely see any humans.
“Hola! Hola!” Amazon greeted from a nearby branch.
“Hola!” I responded, amazed that it found me and that had made an effort to do so. I’ve never seen birds other than pelicans and gulls at the beach. It offered one more ‘hola’ before flying off. I knew I’d never see it again, but hoped I would on the subsequent mornings.
I truly felt that, like the Norwegian king, I had also met a wise bird, a comforting bird, one that knew my future and wanted me to understand that it would be filled with exactly this kind of magic.