Close your eyes, the visual element of the video will distract you from the meaning and power you’ll get just listening. This song is about suffering and redemption, hunger and eating, imagining claiming one’s natural power (Why wait for someday, why make a plan/Fuck birds in the bushes, Let’s take ’em in hand), imagining the day when things are easy, and good. God is feminine in these lyrics. The song definitely feels to come from musical genres rooted in repentant and redemptive religion… I am spiralling down an obsessive Bonnie “Prince” Billy hole… from which I wish to talk to you about:
My first year living in the UK was 2000, the new millennium, which feels now so very long ago yet a time of hope and the energy of a new beginning. We lived in Oxford, at the end of a 1930s, mostly-Council terrace across from a kind of shrubby wasteland that led to the Thames. Nearby was a major ugly thoroughfare road, up a lane was a historic village, and right next door, a sports ground where seagulls sometimes roosted menacingly. It was all there, a kind of urban planning that as an American felt noteworthy– village, country, city, industrial suburb all crazy-quilted together. Lots of magpies, nettles, wonderful brambles in summer.
Our neighbour had a friend who would come by to offer us pheasants he’d found as roadkill. This man maybe was lonely, maybe a wandering character, living marginally, definitely in need of the bare minimum quid he sought. He’d appear at our door with these birds held upside down by their feet, still in feather, which he’d offer to remove should I want to buy. These pheasants were cheap– maybe a pound or two, I can’t remember. But I never did buy one from him. At that point in my life I had no way to understand buying food in this kind of context. I’m sure I was polite, and played innocent.
Looking back, how I wish I’d learned to cook pheasants from those ones, rather than those that come bundled in a neat brace (one male, one female) in plastic and polystyrene from the game sellers in the Covered Market. For all the wild birds that die crossing roads, in that English mishmash of countryside and infrastructure, for all the people who are not in cars and manage to pick up and honour the visible death of living animals, either to reflect upon it or ignore it, a death which renders animal bodies as detritus littering the road– that would be the kind of pheasant I would prefer to eat, imagining myself a kind of benevolent and mindful vulture. Maybe that’s the best humans can aspire to? It’s that kind of day for me…
In The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved: Inside America’s Underground Food Culture, by Sandor Katz, there’s a great little section on eating Roadkill, its history, how as a practice it’s being reclaimed, and includes some good safety tips. Should you be interested….
I know the Bonnie Prince Billy song is about quail, not pheasants. But I got to thinking about pheasants because I was musing also on the history of poaching, a poor man’s way of hunting, the idea that game belongs to land-owners (a brilliant and poignant send-up of which is Roald Dahl’s Danny The Champion of the World whether you do or do not have kids to read to). Collecting Roadkill is free, whereas poaching is a little of the “Fuck ‘birds in the bushes’, Let’s take ’em in hand” approach in the Bonnie Prince Billy lyric. Also hunting of quail in the UK has been illegal for some decades, as quail were becoming dangerously rare.
Here’s an audio of a quail call just to try to keep it real.
And the very different sound of the pheasant.
I don’t know much about the quails in the US, even if they are the same bird we think of here. Old World/ New World naming... And I don’t know that I’ve ever eaten it, though reading around I think the “pleasure” is meant to be a suck-on-the-bones use-your-fingers kind of thing– a very intimate way to eat an animal. I am reminded of Young Girl Eating a Bird painted by Magritte that’s always had so many contrary meanings for me– a feral girl, a hungry girl, a savage girl, a dream, the taboo of raw flesh…. Have a look.
And back we come to Quail and Dumplings. The promise of something beautiful and luxurious and soothing and filling to eat, after hunger, after struggle, after suffering. Here is a link to a wonderful recipe for Pheasant and Dumplings which you could of course transform into literal Quail and Dumplings, as I might do, in a fit of adoration for the music of Bonnie “Prince” Bill. It’s a great cooking/ foraging food blog in general if you haven’t encountered it yet…
And here, my final offering, wanting to finish with birds that are living, and have nothing to do with human appetite, is another beautiful, haunting, absolutely addictive Bonnie “Prince” Billy Song, One With the Birds. Thank you for reading this today.