Are we mentally deficient, my wife and I, or are we apprentice angels who, when we pop off, will grow heron-wings and soar skyward to a heron heaven where our human transgressions will be overlooked because the feathered divinity thinks we’re birds?
I’d put our almost eight years of supplying free lunches to our ‘domestic’ heron down to weak minds, not angelic instincts. That was certainly my analysis last Tuesday night as I ploughed 120km there-and-back to Baltimore for herrings to feed the bird during our imminent absence from home, when neighbours and resident family will take on the job.
On the return journey, the car and myself was redolent of the herring heron-food in the rear luggage space. In fact Bouquet of Herring is not unpleasant, not to be sniffed at in the perfumerie of fish smells. Actually, no fish smell is objectionable if the fish is fresh. However, the odour of the Swedish delicacy Surströmming — comprising herrings fermented for at least six months — is enough to knock a horse. Surströmming has been voted the smelliest food in the world but the Swedes, apparently, find it delicious.
Driving conditions were atrocious that night. I drove with my nose almost against the windscreen, not because of the fishy smell, but because of the glare of oncoming high-voltage double-layer headlights all but obscured the road and made it appear narrower than in daylight. Meanwhile, roadworks, flashing lights and traffic cones were interminable, the routes through Leap and Clonakilty like minefields and, it seemed, half of west Cork dug up.
To help me keep calm, I crooned Raifteirí’s poem ‘Anois teacht an Earraigh’ to the air of ‘The Streets of Laredo’, or ‘The Bould Thady Quill’ but I think this made matters worse. When that fledgling heron fell from the nest in April 2011, he certainly “fell on his feet”. Two adults enslaved by an orphan bird (who is now 20 years old in human terms) is surely a flagrant waste of human resources.
“Show him the road!” my wife sometimes says, but I don’t think she means it. She’s as naive as myself, when it comes to being conned by dumb animals. When I arrived home at near 10 o’clock, we were then obliged, in driving rain, to stash the herring booty in a back shed out of the way of cats.
I tell you this, dear reader, not in a plea for sympathy, but as an example of extreme Heron-Compulsive-Disorder syndrome. The following morning, found us dividing the herring cache into mini-packets. We make the packets heavier as the year advances because he mates in February and begins to feed fledglings, via regurgitation, in March.
I unearthed some interesting facts in my internet search for the world’s smelliest fish (the fermented Baltic herrings). For example, fresh fish never smell, but fish can smell other fish. I also found the sources of some popular metaphors.
Dirt poor, for instance, was coined because a poor man’s house had a dirt floor. The rich had slate floors. In winter, when they got slippery, thresh (straw) was spread on the slate. Eventually, so much was spread that when the door was opened, it would slide out. A short plank known as a thresh hold was placed in the entrance.
Poor folk could rarely afford meat. If the man of the house “brought home the bacon” it was proudly displayed when neighbours visited. Pieces would be shared with guests as they sat around “chewing the fat.”
In richer homes, servants got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and guests got the upper crust. Booze was imbibed from lead tankards. Lead poisoning would sometimes flatten hard drinkers so that they’d be taken for dead. However, as a precaution before burial, they’d be laid out on the kitchen table for a couple of days while the family ate, drank and waited to see if they’d wake. Wakes became customary rituals.
When public burial grounds were overcrowded, coffins were disinterred and the bones removed to a bone-house. After evidence was found of folk being buried alive, it became customary to tie a string to the wrist of the corpse and lead it to the surface where it was tied to a bell. Someone would sit in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift?) and listen for an urgent tinkle; someone could, thus, be saved by the bell.
Some of these stories are probably baloney — derived from blarney? — but may provide a brief holiday diversion. Meanwhile, a happy Christmas to all!