Robert Lynd (1879-1949) was an irish essayist and writer. This excerpt is from The Pleasures of Ignorance, which was published in 1921.

May is chiefly remarkable for being the only month in which one does not like cats. June, too, perhaps; but, after that, one does not mind if the garden is full of cats. One likes to have a wild beast whose movements, lazy as those of Satan, will terrify the childish birds out of the gooseberry bushes and the raspberries and strawberries. He will not, we know, have much chance of catching them as late as that. They will be as cunning as he, and the robin will wind his alarum-clock, the starling in the plum-tree will cry out like a hysterical drake, and the blackbird will make as much noise as a farmyard. The cat can but blink at the clamour of such a host of cunning sentinels and, pretending that he had come out only to take the air, return majestically to his dinner of leavings in the kitchen. In May and June, however, one does not wish the birds to be frightened. One would like one’s garden to be an Alsatia for all their wings and all their songs. There is no hope of this in a garden full of cats. Even a Tetrazzini would cease to be able to produce her best trills if every time she opened her mouth, a tiger padded in her direction down a path of currant bushes. There are, it may be admitted, heroic exceptions. The chaffinch sits in the plum and blusters out his music, cat or no cat. To be sure, he only sings, a flush of all the colours, in order to distract our attention. He is not an artist but a watchman. If you look into the buddleia-tree beside him, you will see his hen moving about in silence, creeping, dancing, fluttering, as she gorges herself with insects. She is a fly-catcher at this season, leaping into the air and pirouetting as she seizes her prey and returns to the bough. She is restless and is not content with the spoil of a single tree. She flings herself gracefully, like a ballet-dancer, into the plum, and takes up a caterpillar in her beak. She does not eat it at once, but stands still, eyeing you as though awaiting your applause. Her husband, sitting on the topmost spray, goes on singing his version of The Roast Beef of Old England. She does not even now eat the caterpillar, but hurries along the paths of the branches with the obvious purpose of finding a tasty insect to eat long with it. It may be that there are insects that play the part of mustard or Worcestershire sauce in the chaffinch world. What a meal she is making in any case before she hurries back to her nest! It seems that among the chaffinches the male is the more spiritual of the sexes. But then he has so little to do compared with the female. He is still in that state of savagery in which the male dresses finely and idles.

The thrush cannot carry on with the same indifference to cats. He is the most nervous of parents, and spends half his time calling on his children to be careful. The young thrush hopping about on the lawn knows nothing of cats and refuses to believe that they are dangerous. He is not afraid even of human beings. His parent becomes argumentative to the point of tears, but the young one stays where he is and looks at you with a sideways jerk of his head as much as to say: “Listen to the old ‘un.” You, too, begin to be alarmed at such boldness. You know, like the pitiful parent, that the world is a very dangerous place, and that your neighbour’s cat goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. It has been contended by some men of science that all birds are born fearless after the manner of the young thrush, and that fear is a lesson that has to be taught to each new generation by the more experienced parents. Fear, they say, is not an inherited instinct, but a racial tradition that has to be communicated like the morality of civilised people. The young thrush on the lawn is certainly a witness on behalf of this theory. He hops towards you instead of away from you. He moves his gaping beak as though he were trying to say something. If there were no cats in the world, you would encourage his confidences, but you feel that, much as you would like to make friends with him, you must, for his own sake, give him his first lesson in fear. You try to give yourself the appearance of a grim giant: it has no effect on him. You make a quick movement to chase him away: he runs a few yards and then stops and looks round at you as though you were playing a game. It is too much to expect of you that you will actually throw stones at a bird for its good, and so you give up his education as a bad job. Alas, in two days, your worst fears are justified. His dead body is found, torn and ruffled, among the bushes. Some cat has murdered him—murdered him, evidently, not in hunger, but just for fun. Two indignant children, one gold, one brown, discover the dead body and bring in the tale. They prepare the funeral rites of one whose only sin was his innocence. This is not the first burial in the garden. There is already a cemetery marked with half-a-dozen crosses and heaped with flowers under the pear-tree on the south wall. Here is where the mouse was buried; here where the starling; and here the rabbit’s skull. They all lie there under the earth in boxes, as you and I will lie, expecting the Last Trump. The robins are not kinder to the “friendless bodies of unburied men” than are children to the bodies of mice and birds. Here the ghost of no creature haunts reproaching us with the absence of a tomb, as the dead sailor washed up on an alien shore reproaches us so often in the pages of The Greek Anthology. There is a procession to the grave and all due ceremony. There is even a funeral service. Over the starling, perhaps, it lacked something in appropriateness. The buriers meant well however. Their favourite in verse at the time was Lars Porsena of Clusium, and they gave the starling the best they knew—gave it to him from beginning to end. What he made of it, there is no telling: he is, it is said an impressionable bird, though something of a satirist. Someone, overhearing them, recommended a briefer and more fitting service for the future. The young thrush had the benefit of the advice. He was laid to his last rest with the recitation of that noblest of valedictories: “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” over his tomb. He is now gone where there is no cat or parent to disturb. The priests who buried him declare that he has been turned into a golden nightingale, and that there must be no noise or romping in the garden for three days, as not till then will he have arrived safely at the Appleiades. That is the name they give to the Pleiades—the seven golden islands whither pass the souls of dead mice and birds and dolls and where Scarlatti lives and where you, too, may expect to go if you please them. Even the black cat will probably go there—one’s own black cat. But not the neighbour’s cat—the reddish-brown one—thief, murderer and beast. It is the neighbour’s cat that makes one believe there is a hell.

Short is the memory of man, however. Shorter the memory of children. There is no gloom that can withstand May pouring itself out in the deep blue of anchusa and the paler blue of lupin, gushing out in the yellow of laburnum, tossing like the tides in the wind. One is gloomy, perhaps, when one looks at the lettuces and sees how slow is their growth. Watching a plant grow is like watching a kettle boil. It seems to take æons. The patience of gardeners always astonishes me. Were gardening my profession, I should spend half my time inventing schemes for making plants grow up in a night like Jonah’s gourd. I should not mind about parsnips. A parsnip might mature as slowly as an oak and live as long for all I care. There is something, it may be, to be said for parsnips, as there is something, it may be, to be said for Mr Bonar Law. But I do not know it. They do not even tempt the slugs and the leather-jackets away from the lettuces. There is nothing that puzzles one more in a friend than if he confesses to a taste for parsnips. Immediately, a gulf yawns deeper than could be caused by any confession of religious or moral eccentricity. One’s sympathies instinctively close up like a sea-anemone touched by a child’s finger. Yet people eat them. All that you and I know about them is that kind words do not butter them; but, if you go to Covent Garden at the right time of the year, you will undoubtedly find them being sold for food. Why should they make one gloomy, however, seeing that one has successfully excluded them from one’s garden? Perhaps one is gloomy because of the reflection that there must be many other gardens in which they are growing. Gloom of this kind, however, is mere philanthropy. Turn your eyes, instead, to the strawberry-flowers and think of June. Consider the broad beans and the young peas safe amid their tall stakes. Consider even the spring onions. Is it any wonder that the chaffinch sings and the wren is operatic on the thither side of the garden wall? High in the air the swifts scream, as they rush here and there after their prey, like polo teams galloping, pulling up, scrimmaging, turning, and off on the gallop again. The swift is an evil-looking bird, but playful. He has none of the grace of the swallow, for he cannot fold his wings, and he is black as a devil-worshipper. Still, he knows more of sport than most of the birds. I suspect that those rushing companions are not merely bent on food but have chosen out one individual insect for their pursuit like a ball in a game. Otherwise, why such excitement? There are billions of insects to be had for the mere asking. The fly-catcher knows this. He can spend an hour at a meal without ever flying more than ten yards from his bough. Still, one rejoices in the energy of the swift. One wishes the greenfinch had a little of it. The yellow splashes on his wings are undoubtedly delightful, but why will he perch so long in the acacia wailing like a sick cricket? And why did Wordsworth write a poem in praise of him? Probably he mistook some other bird for him. Poets are like that. Or perhaps he liked a noise like the voice of a sick cricket. One can never tell with Wordsworth. He had a cuckoo-clock.

Featured: Le printemps (Spring), by Claude Monet; painted in 1886.