Bali Starlings, white and blue and gorgeous, are truly rare in the wild. Caught and sold for the captive bird trade, they ended up in cages round the world, but almost extinct on their native island. A captive breeding and release programme has had only limited success and wild birds are still subject to poaching. I’ve been to Bali, twice, but I just saw my first Bali Starling last week – in New York.
I love New York. Great, wild, untidy, luxuriant…the scenery of another planet!
In the face of the exuberance of Manhattan life, you forget to see the dirt, the ugliness, the seamier side; only the splendour of the whole is obvious. Superlatives abound: buildings lour over Central Park, impossibly tall, like comic stereotypes; some streets truly are canyons; Fifth Avenue really is packed with the trappings of the obscenely rich. Stores are bigger, wealth is greater; life is larger; poverty – when seen in the world’s most famous city in the world’s richest nation – is sadder. Manhattan pulses, a living breathing dragon lying there beneath your feet…
Yeah, quite. See what the place does to my writing even?
Would I want to live there? My daughter wants to, even though she already has, for two years when she was a post-grad student. She had a tiny shared apartment with a single window that looked out onto a brick wall. You couldn’t see the sky. I would have hated it.
But ah, the other things. To walk everywhere, as New Yorkers do, and be so close to everything. To have the theatre and museums and music and the restaurants…
But not this trip. This trip we went to the children’s playgrounds where the maids bring the kids to play, except at weekends when it’s mum and dad’s turn. We went to the children’s museum (ditto). We went to F.A.O. Schwarz, which is a toy store that has to be seen to be believed. We went to the Central Park Zoo, where I saw my first Bali Starling living in the rainforest exhibit. We breakfasted in diners, where no one is going to say much if an almost-two ups his scrambled egg all over the floor; we dined in the evening on pizza brought back to the room…
And I went to the Darwin exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Natural History, while my daughter was dragged off by the almost-two to see lots of skeletons and stuffed animals. Especially large ones.
Much of my Isles of Glory is framed by the letters of an ethnographer who has visited the Isles. His character was his own, but his world was partly that of Joseph Banks, the botanist who sailed with Captain Cook (as did an ancestor of mine), and partly that of Charles Darwin and the voyage of the HMS Beagle in the following century. Thus this splendid exhibition – also a statement recognising the reality and wonder of the evolution of life on earth – was something very close to my heart. Ah, yes, there are times when I would indeed love to live in New York, to have access to exhibitions like this.
“The land is one great, wild, untidy, luxuriant hothouse, made by Nature for herself. How great would be the desire in every admirer of Nature to behold, if such were possible, the scenery of another planet! Yet to every person it may truly be said, that the glories of another world are opened to him.”
(Charles Darwin, on seeing a tropical rainforest for the first time: condensed from the “Voyage of the Beagle”)