Monday, January 28, 2008

when birds grew on trees...


in the early days of airforms i did a post related to a belief in the middle ages that lambs grew on trees. i'd never seen anything else related to such things until a gift arrived in the mail from the wonderfuls at woolgathersome, in the form of pouchet's "the universe - or the wonders of creation - illustrated". published in 1883, pouchet's history of natural sciences explores both "the infinitely great and the infinitely little". the illustrations are quite wonderful, and lo and behold in the back of the book in a section entitled monsters and superstitions, i discovered the above image of "the bird-tree", based on a sketch by sebastian munster.

pouchet elaborates: "several water birds were long considered to be the produce of certain trees which grow in the marshes or borders of the sea. our credulous forefathers were persuaded that there was one of these growing in scotland or the orkneys, the fruits of which, as large as eggs and having the same shape, opened at maturity and allowed each little duck to escape.

the vulgar would have not dared to doubt such a fact, for it was quoted by the most renowned scholars. sebastian munster attests the truth of it in his great work on "cosmography". "we find", he says, "trees in scotland which produce a fruit enveloped in leaves, when it drops into the water at a suitable time it takes life and is turned into a live bird, which they call a tree-bird." in order to produce a still fuller proof, the writer himself gives a drawing of it!

pouchet goes on to condemn aldrovandus, a renaissance ornithologist, for propagating "such ridiculous fables"; and believes that aldrovandus was actually talking about barnacles. unfortunately, he doesn't explain when barnacles fly or how one mixes them up with birds... but i'd like to give aldrovandus and sebastian munster a break, since the idea of birds growing on trees is kind of beautiful.

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