Birds Of A Feather

By and for Bird-People

The purity myth and the liminal mute

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The purity myth and the liminal mute

I’m always amused when people talk about swans as “pure”. If you were talking about the trumpeter swan, or tundra swan, who live in remote Arctic areas and mostly eat rice, then maybe you would have a point. But the image in most people’s heads of a swan is the mute swan, who is found as much in the wild as in human-made ponds, contaminated with litter and anything else people throw in, threatening humans for scraps of processed, unhealthy food.

Mute swans have made a living on the edges of the human realm, and the animals that do that – rats, pigeons, foxes, feral cats and dogs – we often think as “vermin”. Whether that’s right or wrong, you have to admit that a creature who gets dirty with the leftovers of human life is very far from the typical idea of “pure”, and if we were going to call the mute swan “pure”, we would have to seriously examine what “pure” means.

I do feel sometimes that the wild has a particular “pure” nature that the human world does not. It’s true that both worlds are not perfect, and that the human world is a kind of nature too, but it’s also hard to deny that we have created more trash and more suffering than any other species on this Earth, and that human science has given us a legacy of harsh chemicals and badly-tested inventions with effects on our health and our landscape that we still don’t fully understand. Because of that, because some part of me longs for a “pure” world where life-focused evolution instead of money-focused human minds decides what our environment should have in it, I often find my self admiring my wild cousins, because at least they can claim that they are not involved in that.

If I could choose to be any swan, I don’t think I would have chosen the mute swan, with all its liminal, messy nature. I would choose to be something that stays as far away from humans as possible. Then, at least, I could say, “I didn’t choose this mess. And in my natural form, I would not choose it.”

But, on the other hand, maybe they don’t choose it simply because they don’t know that it exists. Maybe, what we think of as “purity” is more like ignorance of the human world and all its tasty, contaminated riches. Maybe any creature would lose their purity here, and the only pure ones are the ones that stay away.

In any case, I am a mute swan, not a trumpeter or a tundra, and I have to live with the ways that affects my life. I am liminal in a double sense: not just the liminal that comes with being animal in a human body, but also the liminal that comes with the mute swan, who boldly walks between the human world and the wild world.

I am the swan who has learned to compromise the wild in order to have food, who has compromised being pure in order to live in a comfortable way. And that’s true of my life in this world too. I’m a very practical bird. I’m vegetarian, but I know I can’t become vegan without compromising my health, so I don’t. I don’t have the spoons to check every brand to see if the main company is doing something horrible and unethical, so I don’t. I use computers even though they are made from parts that are mined in war zones, because I don’t want to give up one of the few methods of communicate that I am comfortable with. I could reject human society completely and live in the wild, but I know that because of my disabilities I would die, and so instead of giving up my life for the “pure” road, I choose the option that lets me continue to live in a comfortable way. Even if it also hurts me in other ways, by increasing my dysphoria, by holding me back from the life that feels more real to me.

Because I am an animal, I wish to live free. But because I am an animal, I make choices based on my immediate needs (food, shelter) and my immediate fears (I would suffer and die in the wild). I’m not pure. I never claimed to be. If you’re looking for swan wisdom, it is this: very few animals would die for their ideals if they could choose a dirty, messy compromise.

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