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In On Wings of the Soul anthropologist and philosopher Ton Lemaire goes in search of ‘the broad eloquence of nature’, guided by birds, the creatures that have grown, as no other animal could, into symbols of the human soul. He paints a panorama of all that birds have signified in different cultures. Not confining himself to cultural anthropology, he looks at literature, music, fine art, philosophy and even politics. From Europe he also makes regular excursions to America, Asia and Africa.
The songs of the nocturnal nightingale and the diurnal lark have inspired innumerable poets and composers, and Lemaire shows how they compete. The eagle is the symbol not only of St. John the Evangelist and Christendom in general but of the United States, where it is portrayed on coins and stamps. The raven of Celtic tradition is still such an important good luck symbol that Churchill was quick to introduce a new colony from Wales and Scotland to the Tower of London in 1940 after the ravens said to have lived there from time immemorial fl ed the Blitz.
People have always identified with birds, while at the same time regarding them as binding links to the heavenly. Lemaire describes two ways in which birds have opened up a wider reality than that of pragmatism and the desire for dominion over the earth. Birds made clear how closely human beings were related to animals, thereby giving man his own ecological niche, and they carried him away to an overarching reality in which he knew himself to be spiritually secure.
Lemaire loves birds and is critical of people. He appeals urgently for a new, more ecologically conscious human vision. While biodiversity is declining at an alarming rate, birdspotting is increasingly popular. Lemaire regards this not so much as a sign of growing ecological awareness but rather of a culture obsessed with quantification, with scoring. His ironic conclusion is that this demonstrates the degree to which we have lost sight of the cultural, spiritual and sacred dimensions of nature.