By Laurel Dykstra
I was beyond excited to discover that the Aberdeen Bestiary (right) has been digitized and is available online. In recent years there has been, among a certain set, a revival of Herbals—illustrated volumes for the identification and medicinal use of plants, with an emphasis on women’s and Indigenous knowledge traditions. But the faunal analog, the Bestiary has seen no parallel resurgence. Composed in medieval monasteries, these often anecdotal sometimes allegorical, encyclopedias of animals were the height of scientific
learning. Perhaps such “facts” as weasels giving birth through the mouth, deer eating poisonous snakes as a restorative, and the dove’s eye color indicating their maturity and discernment, dissuade modern would-be champions of the genera.
I am equally taken with the fragmentary history of Dame Juliana Berners a noblewoman come nun, who is credited with authoring the Book of St. Albans, which is not a Bestiary but a detailed 15th Century treatise on falconry, hunting and heraldry. An additional essay on fishing includes some of the earliest ideas about streamside habitat conservation and is the basis for Isaak Walton’s the Compleat Angler.
The book on falconry gives a hierarchy of hunting bird designated for each social rank. The Yeoman may hunt with a Goshawk (left: this one is hunting ducks) and the priest with Sparrowhawk. Sparrowhawk closest to my bioregion, the American Kestrel, is smaller than a crow and feeds on mice and grasshoppers so it’s probably a good thing this priest is a vegetarian.
Dame Juliana’s book on hunting includes one of the oldest lists of collective nouns, or “terms of venery” in the English language including the well known gaggle of geese, the fanciful unkindness of ravens and exultation of larks, as well as a siege of herons (left), a sword of mallards (right), a host of sparrows, and a charm of finches.
What I love about these early compilations of biological wisdom and the work of Hildegard of Bingen, Gregor Mendel, William Turner and the parson-naturalists, is that for hundreds of years it was common practice for clergy to be at the forefront of scientific knowledge and exploration. The study of creation was understood to honor the creator. Today when swaths of North American Christianity pit themselves against scientific knowledge—creationists and climate
change deniers—I root myself in the heritage of Juliana and Hildegard. For me the study of the natural world, is an act of praise. When I see spawning salmon return to a restored creek, peer through a microscope at a drop of pond water, fasten a band on the toothpick leg of a Downy Woodpecker, no allegory or a moralizing object lesson is required, there is miracle enough right there.
The 40 Birds of Lent documents Laurel Dykstra’s Lenten practice of daily prayer outdoors noticing birds in the lower Fraser watershed. Laurel is the gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territories.