For millennia, humans have romanticized the mechanism of flight, turning a method of travel into some kind of divine endowment. When birds fly, we talk about messages from the gods or departed souls of loved ones being guided the other way, or gifts of fortune, luck, romance, and new-born babies.
Of course, when birds actually fly, they are just off to find food, or a mate, or somewhere to sleep, or getting away from something dangerous as quickly as they can. But our literature, art, music, song, and religions are saturated with the concept that flight is ethereal, magical, and fantastical – perhaps, simply, because we can’t do it.
In 2014, National Geographic ran an article on a new study published in Molecular Biology and Evolution that looked at the origins of flightlessness in birds, and how species such as tinamous, small quail-like birds who can fly but “prefer” not to, align with the DNA of other extant flightless birds like ostriches, and extinct species like the bush moa and elephant birds.
All highly relevant stuff in the field of evolution and understanding how the world’s avians have developed over time. But, since meeting today’s guest interviewee, Rosemarie Corlett, I now notice something that has slipped me by on a daily basis for years but has always been there: the language used to describe these birds.
The article opens thus: “Ostriches, emus, cassowaries, rheas, and kiwis can't fly. Unlike most birds, their flat breast bones lack the keel that anchors the strong pectoral muscles required for flight. Their puny wings can't possibly lift their heavy bodies off the ground.”
Note those words – can’t, unlike, lack, puny, can’t possibly. The negative spin on those words – whether purposefully or not – portrays a bird in dire straits, disabled, probably doomed; and reading them now sets off a warning klaxon in my head.
To the casual observer, this is a perfectly acceptable way to describe these species. But to someone attuned to words, using them like this is an indication of a much larger phenomenon.
Nature-lovers often have some sort of childhood spent wandering and discovering the outside world and being drawn to literature of any form about it after the fact, but for Corlett, it was the other way around. Born in France and growing up in the urbanity of Toulouse, nature wasn’t part of Corlett’s formative environment.
Now, she cherishes the natural world and birds, but she came to that adoration through poetry, specifically at first, the poem Pheasant by Sylvia Plath, one of those rare times when Plath allows us to see her gentler side with that last line, “Let be, let be.”
Corlett crossed the Atlantic to England when she was 18 years old. Not quite settling yet, she moved around for a while, but eventually studied Music, Dance and Drama at Southampton University, earning her degree in 2004. After that, she remained in the southern counties, at one point spending a couple of years in the iconic medieval Somerset town of Glastonbury, even buying her own yin-yang jumper, as one does.
“I worked as a singer and a singing teacher, going between London and Bath and Glastonbury, doing singing lessons, or doing gigs, and that involved a fair bit of train travel. I found myself writing poems as just something to do. Maybe three, four years passed, and I realized I had this little portfolio, and thought, maybe I could have a go at improving them. So, I took a couple of creative writing courses, and upped my confidence.”
One day she went to visit her sister in Plymouth, Devon, and that was that – she fell in love with the city, as many people who visit there do, and became ensconced in its amiable vortex. She took her Masters and then a PhD in English and Creative Writing at Plymouth University and is now an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing there. In November 2022, her first book of poems, Flightless Birds, was published, to critical acclaim.
Oh, tell us, poet, what do you do?
“Poetry is so weird in terms of the way we think about it. In Britain, it feels like a genre of writing that has quite a lot of gatekeepers, and is quite elitist, I suppose. I grew up similarly to a lot of young people that I now teach at Uni, feeling relatively alienated from poetry. I arrived at it as a hobbyist, but it wasn't until I started my Masters that I found myself within this community of writers, lecturers, teachers, and peers where you suddenly could be a poet.
I just thought it was this completely unreachable thing that other people did, and then my teachers and lecturers would say ‘Why don't you have a go at submitting to some magazines?’ You slowly build that self-belief, and the sense of belonging grows. Until then, the idea of being a poet was as unreachable as being an astronaut!”
Flightless Birds is a collection of 30 poems that “explores the plight and place of flightless birds in our imagination and in the world”. That’s the first-line description on the jacket, but what this collection contains is a remarkable deep-dive into the use of language around this distinct clade of birds and how that language has been appropriated, mirrored, and insidiously merged into language to describe the female gender and disability, through idioms, fables, legends, and creation myths.
“The mythical thinking around flight birds is very visible in literature, it’s huge and celebratory, you read about eagles or doves or ravens … and what I noticed is that, in our mythical minds, the concept of flight is associated with divinity and transcendence, but in stories, bird flight is often very useful to humans and allows them access to the supernatural in some way.
Then I started to think about ‘flightless’ birds like penguins and emus and so on: what happens in stories to birds that can't fly? How have we been comprehending birds that don't have that ability?”
By adding the use of the suffix -less to a noun, you give it the quality of being without something: bottomless, pointless, helpless. By applying it to some birds, we are focussing solely on what they can’t do, rather than any other attribute they have. We don’t see that anywhere else in other animal families, such as the insects. There are thousands of species of insect that do not fly, but they are all just insects.
Similarly, the term flight bird is not common usage – we say either birds, or flightless birds. Once you see the language, Corlett says, you start noticing it everywhere. And she’s right.
“When I was researching my thesis, I found that flightless birds in literature tended to fall into overarching themes of gender and/or disability. There are many representations portraying flightless birds as disabled, with one of the most famous examples being the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland, a farcical, joke character, with glasses and a stutter.
There are also many portrayals of flightless birds as women: one example is Edwina the Emu, the children's book, who always wanted to be a ballerina but of course couldn't because she wasn't able to soar like ballerinas, coming back to this idea of flight. The idea that flightless birds are ungainly or not elegant in some way, not fulfilling that perfect idea of femininity as a ballerina might. So instead of becoming a ballerina, at the end of the story she goes back to being a mother, her ‘true calling’.
There are also many creation myths with flightless birds at their root, and I'm thinking of the kiwi here. The kiwi is one of the few flightless birds which is culturally celebrated, but if you look at the creation story of the kiwi, it sacrificed its ability to fly to save the dying forest, whereas the other flight birds like the cuckoo refused. So, I found it interesting that at the same time the kiwi is being put forward as this savior, the crux of the creation story is still about justifying why it can no longer fly.
My supervisors directed me towards all these kinds of difficult philosophical modes of inquiry. Eco-feminism was what I came to first: it’s a philosophy that explores the links between the oppression of women and the domination of nature, that this is characterized by hierarchical thinking. Put plainly, we see that happen a lot with how we think about eating animals like chickens, but not dogs, that sort of thing, and the idea that some environments are more valuable than others. The dualisms that arise from that hierarchical thinking then gives us moral justification for certain kinds of oppression. [The French feminist, critic, and writer] Hélène Cixous coined the term écriture feminine, the idea that women can express their lived experiences through writing: there's this phrase, ‘writing through your body’.
This can produce something in literature that escapes that patriarchal system. I suppose the conclusion that I came to with my own poetry is that the aim of it is to unsettle those paradigms, you know, just to shake them up a little bit, and to glimpse alternatives to that way of using language. To celebrate flightless birds, for sure, and but it's also about accessing the imagination and writing new stories and new mythology around flightless birds, that isn't a direct response to that disempowering mythology.``
Faring a little better than the NG article, the Wikipedia entry for flightless is thus: “birds that through evolution lost the ability to fly”. But still there is the mention of loss, absence, lacking. Evolution is not a process that edges organisms ever closer to perfection, but simply how an organism adapts to its surroundings over time. After continental drifts or flying or swimming to a sanctuary away from the teeth and claws of animals keen to eat them, for millions of years those birds simply no longer needed to expend all that energy on getting off the ground.
Instead, they developed strong legs and beaks, and grew tall to reach food higher up; their bodies became more streamlined; wing bones extended and fused, the muscles around them enlarging; feathers shortened, became more insulating. The anatomical structures that once created lift were now flippers, stabilizers, braking systems. Their wings still have function, just not what we ordinarily associate them for.
The end of the islanders
One bird who evolved this way was the great auk, a large species whose wings made this bird a powerful swimmer. It bred on rocky, remote islands with immediate access to the open waters of the Atlantic, their range spreading as far south as Spain, and along the coastlines of Canada, Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway, Ireland, and Great Britain. It stood on average at 80cm tall and could weigh up to 5kg as an adult.
At the height of their population, it was estimated their numbers were in the millions, but their value to humans as a food source and their skins, covered in thick, warm down, sealed their fate. They were culturally revered as well; with their bones found in necklaces and in graves; one person buried at a site in Newfoundland, dating to about 2000 BC, was found surrounded by more than 200 great auk beaks, thought to be the remnants of a suit made from their skins, with the heads left attached as decoration. But as the years passed, their numbers fell as their systematic slaughter gained pace.
A small island off the coast of Newfoundland, Funk Island, was the site of their largest breeding colony; by the early summer of 1800, none returned. The last great auk of the British Isles to be seen alive was in 1840 on the now-abandoned archipelago of St Kilda, and the tale of its demise reveals a dichotomy of doom.
The poem St Kilda details this intertwined fate. Corlett finds this relationship fascinating, and whether there are parallels to be drawn between the wholesale slaughter of an entire species with the fate that befell the islanders, when the last remaining population was evacuated from Hirta to the mainland in 1930.
“The St Kildans lived off the auks and gannets and all other kinds of seabirds for a long time. But what rendered the great auk extinct wasn’t hunters, it was collectors. This bird was so abundant but so many had been killed for oil and feathers and meat, and as it became scarcer, it became more valuable: collectors wanted its eggs and skins. Because the St Kildan islanders were incredible at scaling rocks and captured these birds every day, one collector commissioned some members of the St Kildan community to capture a great auk for its skin.
They climbed the sea stack, captured it, then later that day there was a huge storm which lasted for three days. At the time, there was also the belief that weather witches existed in Scotland, so they decided that the bird was a witch, and they clubbed it to death through fear and superstition. And that was the last Great Auk to be seen on the British Isles. Less than a hundred years later the last St Kildan people lost their own homes, as they were sent to the mainland against their will. So, there’s this example of that same logic of domination and that same idea that some species or people have that privilege to commodify and eradicate others.”
There had been a human population on St Kilda probably as far back as the Neolithic period, but in the 19th century, tourists from the mainland would take boat trips past the islands, fascinated by the people who lived in this isolation, and the steamers would sound their horns so the tourists could watch great clouds of seabirds lift off and the islanders go about their day. Mooring alongside brought in money and new commodities, trade boomed from passing fishing boats; the children would learn English in school as well as Gaelic.
But with prosperity came disease, especially neonatal tetanus; then a flu epidemic in 1913 took its savage toll. When the First World War came along, a military outpost was stationed there. After the war, the population dropped to 75, the economy broke down, and self-reliance was all but a memory. Talk of evacuation became a prominent subject in Edinburgh. On the 29th of August 1930, the remaining St Kildans were escorted onto one of those tourist boats that had begun this cycle of exposure, and the now-extinct natives wept as their verdant island disappeared from view forever. As Corlett says in her poem:
Before humans vanished from St Kilda, there was a golden hour
in which their paucity was rehearsed
with seabirds enacting the dry run
of what it means to be flatteringly scarce
Sorry, and other words
On this subject of extinction, Corlett mentions the prospect of bringing some of these birds and other animals back – the Revive and Restore organization is looking at using biotechnology in the field of conservation. One of their projects potentially involves resurrecting the great auk. How does this sit with Corlett?
“It’s quite interesting; it feels for me like a kind of apology, I suppose. Maybe there's a particular compunction or sense of guilt about killing birds that were flightless. You look at the accounts from the 17th and 18th century of sailors describing these great auks just walking on to the ships to be killed, defenseless like dodos, who we are told were so trusting because they had no predators, hence evolving flightlessness. So, I do wonder when I look at the Revive and Restore project, whether there might be a particular sense of atonement.”
As we conclude the interview, I mention Jennifer Ackerman’s excellent book The Genius of Birds that starts with the premise that the term “birdbrained” used to mean stupid, but now we barely hear that as studies have relentlessly shown us just how clever birds actually are. I ask if, through her poetry, would she like for the world to eventually make a shift into a celebration of attributes and stop categorizing something as lesser just because they are different to everything else?
“Yes, absolutely. It is time to shine a light on that unhelpful and damaging way of framing the world. Women and birds are connected linguistically through idioms, and often unflatteringly: old crows, chicks, birds and so on. Calling someone a dodo either implies they are either stupid or dead, but now this idea that birds are thick is revealed to be completely untrue. Flightless birds’ admirable physical attributes aren’t always known or celebrated: when you look at penguins in the water that are so deft with this incredible elegance, ostriches have amazing physical resources, obviously the fastest runners on land, and an emu is able to literally tear a steel fence in half – but we don't associate them with strength. We certainly would not associate that with women and our physical strength is also considered inferior.
In French, flightless birds are called les oiseaux coureurs, which means running birds, which is not only more accurate but seems more aligned with these creatures’ physical strengths. That would be a better alternative, I think.”