August 03, 2006


After he was shot and wounded, Orwell went to Marrakesh to recuperate: he described the storks he saw there as
great white birds....glittering like scraps of paper.
The storks winter in Africa and summer in Europe: I saw them as a child, on holidays, along the south-western side of France. I see them daily, here, during the summer. They nest at the top of the Cathedral. Huesca is practicaly alone on the plain and the cathedral, itself, like most Spanish churches, stands already on a hill. I don't know if Orwell ever saw it: you cannot see Huecsa from SiƩtamo, there being a ridge between the two, and atop that ridge a castle, Montearagon. From there, seventy years ago, one would have seen the cathedral clear and although Huesca is bigger now than it was then, it still stands out, as it was intended to do. But in dominating the landscape, imposing itself on human eyes, it necessarily attracts the attention of the stork: who must see it from a long way away and see it as an ideal place of rest and sanctuary. The upper reaches of the edifice are full of nests, where the storks, having made the opposite journey to Orwell's, take their rest and make their summer homes.

I can hear them from inside the house. Their cry is more a clatter than a call: it persists for several seconds sounding as if it was being made by someone setting off a wooden mechanism, each slat crashing into the next until its energy is exhausted. Yet when one sees them, in flight, singly or more often in a group heading towards the Cathedral, barely higher than the roofs, the startling thing is how small their bodies appear. They are large birds, but they are all wing: their body functions almost as a joint to hold their wings together, but the curve of the neck stands out, providing a third dimension to its shape.

It seems, at first glance, not quite right. It gives the impression that too much is being asked of the design, that the stork needs to look about itself and fly at the same time, the former requirement detracting from the aerodynamics that serve the latter. But one watches the storks until they are out of sight. It is the very slight ungainliness which makes one watch - that and the knowledge that they have come such a long way, together, understanding by instinct what we can only understand by reading.

What wonders they are, in their instinct, in their flight, in their ability to produce such a loud and lasting clatter from such an insubstantial frame. I am not sure what Orwell meant by "scraps of paper". The body is small but the wings are large, too large for scraps. Perhaps he meant, in the sun that must have shone in Marrakesh, the way it glints off portions of their frame, appearing suddenly whiter than they are, proceeding without much movement of the wings, without much effort, slowly as everything moves slowly in this energy-sapping sun.


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