10. A bridge of magpies

The mirror self-recognition test is one of the most famous clever experimental scenarios designed to test if an animal thinks in the same way a human does. In this case, the question is if the animal sees itself the way a human does: looking into a mirror, does an animal see the mirror image as itself? Is it aware of changes in its self-image? Developed by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. in 1970 to test chimpanzees' reactions to mirrors, the test involves applying a non-tactile mark or dye to a part of an animal's body it cannot usually see. Looking into the mirror, if it scratches at the mark, that means it sees the mirror image as a projection of itself and wonders at the change in its body. (Obviously, the test does not account for animals who see a weird mark on their skin, think "Eh, good enough," and head out to work anyway; even in species that tend to pass, however, a large number of individuals do not.) Chimps, elephants, dolphins, whales, humans over the age of 18 months, and some other primates can pass, but the only non-mammal to have passed so far is the Eurasian magpie (Pica pica), cementing their reputation as clever and charming divas of the bird kingdom—of course they notice bright yellow stickers on their chests! Never mind that birds didn't seem to have the part of the brain that allowed self-recognition in mammals; the magpie would never allow such a trivial issue get in the way of looking its best. The mirror reveals the mind of the bird, and, in the case of the magpie, the revelation is of no future conquest or far-off stars; it is that it thinks about itself much as we think about ourselves. 

The poetic association for magpies in classical Japanese, though, is a bridge and, more than that, a bridge over stars: they spread their wings to reach out across the Milky Way (the "River of Heaven") so that two young lovers can meet. It's an imported Chinese festival, as so many are, called Tanabata which takes place on the seventh day of the seventh month (in the lunar calendar, roughly in August, but now usually celebrated whatever week in July the local area decides is most convenient.) The story goes that the Weaver Star (Orihime, Vega, daughter of the king of Heaven) fell in love with the Cow-Herd Star (Hikoboshi, Altair); they married (which, in 8th century Japan, more or less just meant they started having sex) but they spent so much time together (having sex) that Orihime neglected her work sewing robes for her father. He banished Hikoboshi to the other side of the River of Heaven. Orihime cried and cried until her father relented: they could meet once a year, in the seventh month, but only if Orihime could cross the River. Hearing her despair, the magpies came to her and said, "We will make a bridge of our wings for you to cross. But we can only come when the weather is clear." (Magpie vanity again—don't want to get their feathers wet in the clouds!) So now in July, people write wishes and tie them to bamboo poles and hope that the weather will be clear enough for their meeting. The magpies are a small part of the story, but when you see a magpie kasasagi in a poem, it's usually about the kasasagi no wataseru hashi, the magpies' bridge of crossing.

But the cultural symbolism of the magpie closest to home, in Europe and America, is that of the thief—or, as I prefer, the collector—who grabs shiny human things for his own benefit and edification. If anything is clear about this project, it should be the logic of the thieving magpie which informs its structure and breadth. Recently I've felt the loss of the depth of focus needed to do sustained academic work in the way the academy demands. In the fallout of November 2016, the distraction of constant disaster pulled me into even deeper integration with the media platforms which provided me with endless information and the illusion of activity. I became one with the twitter conspiracy theorists and the facebook calls-for-action. A medication change made it harder to focus even while it made day-to-day life and work doable at all. In this landscape, I returned to the model that had informed my childhood of material and media hoarding: a magpie logic, grabbing little sections of texts like I once collected pretty rocks from the ground. It's ironic since I've never really been one for jewelry, to my grandmother's frustration, but all I ever wanted from media was little gems of decoration to dress up the nest of my mind, a bridge across the River of Heaven.