An Ostrich for the New Year
Aristotle had not been entirely certain that the ostrich was a bird, but it took pride of place among the birds in the Versailles menagerie and in the 1676 Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle des animaux. Ostriches had first made the long journey from Africa to Paris in the early seventeenth century; the young Louis XIII’s “volière” or bird enclosure at Fontainebleau included them as well as storks, cranes, eagles, herons, and cormorants. The anatomist Joseph-Guichard Duverney had dissected an ostrich at the salon of the Abbé Pierre Michon Bourdelot in the late 1660s, before the Paris Academy of Sciences dissected one of the Versailles birds in 1671. There were dozens at any time at Versailles, although they did not come cheap; Colbert’s animal buyer Monier spent 330 livres to buy 11 ostriches in Alexandria in 1679, and another 600 livres to transport them from Marseille to Paris on special carts. Their corpses also required special carts to be transported to the Academy for dissection. Between 1687 and 1694, over 100 of the giant birds made their way to the menagerie, and around 1700 they had their own quartier there. The Academy even received ostrich eggs from Versailles which they attempted, unsuccessfully, to incubate.
Ostriches have continued to fascinate naturalists and artists. The beautiful book on the Versailles menagerie by Gérard Mabille and Joan Pieragnoli features several paintings by the menagerie’s resident artist Pieter Boel, including this one of ostriches which wonderfully captures their ungainly beauty. As Boel captured the ostrich in paint, so the American poet Marianne Moore (1887-1972) captured it in words, in her 1941 poem “He ‘Digesteth Harde Yron’.” Her title comes from John Lyly’s Euphues but recalls Duverney’s discovery of over seventy coins in the craw of one of the ostriches he dissected. Here is the poem, from poets.org:
He “Digesteth Harde Yron” by Marianne Moore
Although the aepyornis
or roc that lived in Madagascar, and
the moa are extinct,
the camel-sparrow, linked
with them in size–the large sparrow
Xenophon saw walking by a stream–was and is
a symbol of justice.
This bird watches his chicks with
a maternal concentration-and he’s
been mothering the eggs
at night six weeks–his legs
their only weapon of defense.
He is swifter than a horse; he has a foot hard
as a hoof; the leopard
is not more suspicious. How
could he, prized for plumes and eggs and young
used even as a riding-beast, respect men
hiding actor-like in ostrich skins, with the right hand
making the neck move as if alive
and from a bag the left hand strewing grain, that ostriches
might be decoyed and killed! Yes, this is he
whose plume was anciently
the plume of justice; he
whose comic duckling head on its
great neck revolves with compass-needle nervousness
when he stands guard,
in S-like foragings as he is
preening the down on his leaden-skinned back.
The egg piously shown
as Leda’s very own
from which Castor and Pollux hatched,
was an ostrich-egg. And what could have been more fit
for the Chinese lawn it
grazed on as a gift to an
emperor who admired strange birds, than this
one, who builds his mud-made
nest in dust yet will wade
in lake or sea till only the head shows.
. . . . . . .
Six hundred ostrich-brains served
at one banquet, the ostrich-plume-tipped tent
and desert spear, jewel-
gorgeous ugly egg-shell
goblets, eight pairs of ostriches
in harness, dramatize a meaning
always missed by the externalist.
The power of the visible
is the invisible; as even where
no tree of freedom grows,
so-called brute courage knows.
Heroism is exhausting, yet
it contradicts a greed that did not wisely spare
the harmless solitaire
or great auk in its grandeur;
unsolicitude having swallowed up
all giant birds but an alert gargantuan
little-winged, magnificently speedy running-bird.
This one remaining rebel
is the sparrow-camel.
The “camel-sparrow,” (Struthio camelus), and its apparent ability to ingest metal, as the Abbeville Press blog explained a few years ago, was well known in medieval bestiaries.