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  • In the Presence of the Bird
  • Abraham Schneider

To Dean Volek and Assembled Panel:

Needless to say, the incident that transpired the morning of February the 8th was regrettable to all concerned—to Mrs. Horvath, who had to play witness to such a spectacle of savagery outside her office window, to the students who witnessed the same, to the college itself, which had to clean up the mess, literally as well as with the press—and of course my sincerest apologies to the local chapter of the Audubon Society, whose more enthusiastic members have unfortunately discovered my home address. While on my current and indefinite leave of absence from my instructor position, I have had ample time to ponder things, and I write this letter as an unofficial explanation for the “bloody birdbath,” as the campus paper dubbed it, that occurred that morning. I am in complete accord, Dean Volek, with your position urging that I “demonstrate that [I] can be trusted to basically even be in a room with a group of students.” Please consider this my attempt.

The incident with which we are concerned began with a Carolina wren and a bit of French theory that had perhaps sunk too deep. Each weekday morning for the past thirteen years of my employment at the college I have strolled the river trail from a nearby parking lot to the staircase that takes me up the bluff onto the back side of campus. These [End Page 543] strolls are particularly enjoyable on sunlit winter mornings. I had just begun walking on the river trail with its bulwarks of brush covered in a snow fallen before dawn.

The Carolina wren, scientific name Thryothorus ludovicianus, state bird of South Carolina, makes its habitation chiefly here in the eastern United States, from just north of the New York state border all the way down to the tip of Florida. Identifying marks are its cinnamon plumage, a long white streak just above the eyes like an exaggerated brow, and a long, extending tail turned slightly skyward in resting position. The birding term for this tail position is “upcocked.”

On the morning of the incident concerned, I was interrupted in my stroll by this songbird, and I stopped for a time to watch it up close where it had perched on a branch. Its call emerged in three consecutive two-steps (ti-ree ti-ree ti-ree) followed by a long quivering vibrato trill. The temperature was twenty-five degrees. The whole valley was covered in a light grayish frost, and the sun was getting ready to bank the horizon. Now I had, over the course of the past week, been teaching Derrida’s “Différance,” which deals, as you know, with his deconstruction of “Being” or “Presence” in language, and I felt an immediate connection between his concept of Presence and this bird’s song. To wit: each time I approached the bird, it took off with a sudden dive from the branch and fluttered away, only to alight on a branch ten feet distant and resume its song. Taking a few steps forward, I would once again reach a place where I could nearly see its small black eyes, but at the moment when I felt myself almost with intimate knowledge of the bird, it took off again, winging its way a further ten feet down the path. This pattern continued for some time, well past the turnoff to the stairs that would carry me up the bluff to my 8 a.m. Section A Lit Theory class.

But when I am on the mental track, I do not give up so easily, even if it is true, as Derrida himself wrote, that I merely “track down tracks” and never the thing itself. I kept thinking that through subtlety of approach or by some alternate means I could get close to this bird whose song had turned me aside from my ordinary workday. But with the eight o’clock hour drawing near I decided it had come to an impasse, and I would approach it directly. I walked toward the wren where it had perched, and this open approach startled it so badly...


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