Saturday, March 22, 2008

What’s With the Name?

I’ve used Feral Sparrowhawk as a nom de net for a while on other people’s blogs. It may be pretentious, and it’s certainly obscure, but it is my attempt to honour two artists whose work has influenced me more than any others. One of these is reasonably famous, while the other one deserves more publicity than I can provide, but you do what you can.

In both cases the name comes from what I consider a truly stunning work of art. In each case the piece in question is one of those things you can experience over and over again, and find something new each time. Both works referred to served as my introduction to a superb, and hugely influential, body of work. And in each case the piece in question gave me one of those extraordinary moments of revelation and joy you cherish your whole life, although I think those are stories for another time.

The original idea came from Penelope Swales’ inspirational meditation on environmental activism and deep ecology Black Carrie. The song is dotted with references to sparrows. To understand the multi-layered symbolism and references you need to read the full lyrics, or better still hear it performed. However, the pertinent line runs, “Sparrows, although feral, remind me that sparrows are not to blame for what they are…we’re like sparrows, we’re not to blame for what we are.”

A note for non-Australian readers*: sparrows are an introduced species in Australia and something of a pest, taking up ecological space that would otherwise be filled by native species, often endangered.

Feral sparrow was thus the first pseudonym I came up with. However, it doesn’t really sound right, and anyway no one meeting me is likely to consider my totem animal a sparrow.

More people are probably familiar with the other part of the name. Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea books are fairly popular with teenage readers, predecessors of sorts for Harry Potter. Some readers come back to them later and discover, as I did, just how deep the waters run. Much as I enjoy JK Rowling, she can’t compare with Le Guin’s wisdom. Btw, stay well away from the abomination which is the television version of Earthsea – it’s worse than you could possibly imagine.

Le Guin’s father was a leading anthropologist and all her writings draw heavily on myths and cultural practices common across many civilizations. Central to the books is that names have power, and the characters only tell their true names to those they trust most intensely and have “usenames” by which the rest of the world knows them. The central character’s usename is Sparrowhawk, because an early sign of his magical abilities was his capacity for calling birds of prey fromt eh skies.

Arguably, I’m not much of a hawk either, but in rare moments of maximum intellectual clarity it can seem that problems I have been struggling with are laid out before me like an open field before a circling raptor. It may not happen often, but I treasure the sensation above almost all others, and aspire to achieve that clarity more often. Feral sparrowhawk gives me, in a sense, a personality to live up to.

* in the unlikely event there are any

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