What's in a Cheep?
John David Morley's last email
Dear Wai On,
Thanks for your Christmas greetings.
Yesterday, January 6, was the feast day of the Three Holy Kings, also known as the Three Wise Men. In many paintings, such as the famous one by Leonardo, they are described as Magi, a word with connections to magic. Leonardo in his version of the Adoration of the Magi (Margaret’s Xmas card to me) shows more than three such figures, actually, and the painting poses many more riddles.
The most recent one is the discovery that the painting we see was not in fact painted by Leonardo. Infrared photography has shown his detailed and very different work underneath, covered by layers of paint; battle scenes with mounted warriors, for example, suggesting Leonardo’s allegorical vision of a manger scene encompassing infinitely more than depictions of the Adoration are conventionally confined to. Was he anticipating Christ’s kingdom on earth as the embattled kingdom it would indeed become, as the sectarian history of the last two thousand years has shown, still with no end in sight, let alone any glimpse of a Second Coming?
But what interests me in this letter is the traditional representation of the Magi as kings or wise men. Why not as queens and wise women? Has the time come to look around for women to take on the many jobs from which they were traditionally excluded because traditionally performed by men, the three visitors bearing gifts from the Orient included? Why can’t we just nominate a woman for Puigdemont’s job as president of Catalonia, for example? Or replace Rajoy by a woman? This has happened in many European countries, in Asia, Latin America and India, too.
Issues such as Catalonia seeking to go its own way is an example of the attempt that smaller, less powerful entities are bound to make to break away from the stronger and more powerful organisations into which they were integrated by force. This is the history of colonialism. To some extent, it is also the history of male-female inequality. It will take a long time yet, but hope has a long breath, a capacity to survive under even the most difficult conditions. This hope is something we can look forward to, if not this year, then in five or ten or fifty years. In the Muslim world no doubt longer, but in time there will gradually be a reordering of societies, and perhaps new societies will emerge based on more equality.
For the time being, we continue to take comfort from small things, such as the first cheep within a week of the winter solstice (on December 21) of what I think must have been a finch I heard in the garden. How come? Why now? A week later it was a double cheep, a scolding tut tut (impatience?) that in the weeks to come will be drawn out into a long drawn out cadence that never fails to touch me with a shiver of sadness.
In the early days of the year the birds start to sing again – had you noticed? – not much, but their biological clocks have switched on the instinct to sing, which itself anticipates the instinct to breed from early March on until early July. Then, when the mating games are over, eggs have been laid, broods have been reared and the reproductive cycle is completed, they stop singing. The dates when they start singing and stop singing coincide with the summer and the winter solstice, June 21 and December 21 respectively. Listen into your garden when summer comes round. In the first week of July silence replaces the chorus of blackbirds, unfailingly. Between Christmas and New Year, if you listen carefully, you will hear them beginning again, unfailingly.
Small, finely tuned mechanisms such as song birds starting and ceasing to sing are tied in with the much larger mechanisms and masses involved in the earth’s orbit around the sun. As the earth orbits the sun the earth is itself orbiting, turning on its axis. For six months the poles of the earth are inclined at an angle leaning slightly more towards the sun or slightly more away from it, resulting in the summer and winter seasons. When the angle of inclination results in the northern hemisphere being exposed more to the sun it is summer there, while in the southern hemisphere it is winter, and vice versa.
The 23.4° inclination of the earth’s axis from the perpendicular with the plane of the earth’s orbit is measured relative to the background stars and doesn’t change in the course of the year. Relative to the movements of the sun, however, this slight axial tilt means that when the sun moves south across the equator into the southern hemisphere the angle of incidence of sunlight falling on earth changes. With more sunlight now falling on the southern hemisphere spring begins there while in the northern hemisphere where correspondingly less sunlight is falling autumn arrives. This may all be a bit much to absorb at first blush so I enclose an attachment to ease your way into the astronomy behind it.
Have you noticed when the birds start and stop singing, and wondered why they do? Have you ever wondered why such happenings occur? For the first half of my life I failed even to notice them, let alone how they might be interconnected. Time for you to begin noticing too!
Happy new year, brave old world! And watch out for the displacement of the seasons under the impact of climate change! Nothing stays the same, not even the diurnal movements of the stars. At least in the northern hemisphere, winters are now statistically significantly shorter than they were half a century ago.
John David Morley was an English writer and novelist, the youngest child of the artist and sculpter Patricia Morley (née Booth), and grandson of Victor Booth, who was a piano professor at the Royal Academy of Music. He had written ten novels, including the bestseller Pictures from the Water Trade.
John David Morley to Me