Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Bird's Eye View of History

They took a red hot needle and pressed it, hard, into the eyes of birds. They did it purposely, aware of the creatures cries, fully knowing the pain they caused. They did it to win contests. They did it out of a belief that the bird would sing, all the sweeter, when blinded to all but song.

It was a common practice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, popular in Britain and other European countries. It was considered a 'sport' and prizes were given to the bird who could sing the most phrases in a set time. Vinkensport, as it is called, means literally, 'finch sport'.

Thomas Hardy wrote a poem against the sport:

Blinded ere yet a-wing
By the red-hot needle thou,
I stand and wonder how,
So zestfully thou canst sing!

But the practice of blinding the birds (substituted by having them sing while in a dark, well ventilated box) was ended because of a campaign led by veterans of the trenches who had been blinded in the war. Their campaign brought to an end a practice of unimaginable cruelty.

I found little on the web about this campaign but can only wonder at the generosity of spirit and the gentleness of soul of men who returned home, disabled, to face immense issues of rehabilitation and poverty, of unemployment and discrimination, taking up the cause of little birds. Raising a public outcry that brought an end to a barbarous practice. The precise same public who would respond with a callousness and cruelty to the veterans who returned home, having fought a war for freedom.

This story moves me.

I found out about it because it was mentioned on the television show QI and after hearing about it I wrote the 'QI Elves,' who are the people who research the show, and asked them for more information. Imagine my surprise when I opened my mailbox to find an email from 'elves'. They kindly send me information and a link to a New York Times article about the practice along with a brief mention of the service men's protest.

Disability history is replete with stories like this one. Stories of people who in extraordinary circumstances do extraordinary things.

A two line novel:

Chapter One:

They took needles to the eyes of birds.

Chapter Two:

And blind men stopped them.

Disability history is as rich as it is often hidden. This little fact has captured me, inspired me, motivated me and most importantly, gave me a sense of true awe at the immensity of the human spirit and the generosity of the human heart.


Anonymous said...

Maybe the blind man felt that no one (and no creature) should suffer like he did.

Compassion let the human being fight extraordinarily.


Happy said...

Thank you for sharing that story. It's heartbreaking, but real.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

Thank you for sharing this story. It shows humanity at its best and worst. I vote for the best!


Anonymous said...

My first thought was that this was a story best told at some other time of the year. I'm trying to get myself into the holiday spirit and maybe tone down the ho ho ho factor in my kids. But, after I read it a while ago, I decided to come back and say something very different. I think this post is perfect for the season. Those men fought two wars, one against tyranny and the other against cruelty. They had spirit. I admire them.

ivanova said...

Love this post.

theknapper said...

I remember my first workshop that I attended by you, and how impactful it was to hear about history of people with intellctual disabilities. I was hooked. Thanks for sharing the events and stories that are so hard to find.

Elizabeth McClung said...

Today I learned from the EPSN documentary that in BC Terry Fox, trying his prosthetic leg the first time to try and run, with his high school basketball coach to help him kept falling. A woman, due to children being able to see this....this amputee, chased him out of a public park screaming 'Freak!!" in order to protect children.

Terry Fox practiced running at night after that.

Go Canada.