The Poetry of Bird Watching


Yes, you can read wildlife guides about the wildlife species you may encounter during your Chile tours. But what better way to learn about animals, especially birds, and the soul of a country at the same time than in the poetry of Chile’s beloved Pablo Neruda? He was a man who knew his birds, a life-long fascination. Like all birders, he studied them and collected books about them. He could identify every species found in Chile and knew their songs. The dying black-necked swan he tried to nurse back to health when he was a child became the subject of his first poem. In 1949, when he obtained fake documents to help him escape his government across the Andes to Argentina, he got a new name and address as well as a new profession: ornithologist. It didn’t fit his formal training but surely his passion.

Neruda’s collection of poetry on the subject of birds, Arte de Pajaros, was published first in 1962 as a limited edition by the Chilean Society of Friends of Contemporary Art and in a wider distribution, a second printing in 1966. The book contained illustrations by the Chilean painter, Julio Escamez. The two worked on the manuscript together at Isla Negra, Neruda’s home near Valparaiso, setting out from the house on birder expeditions to study the species. Isla Negra is a popular stop for many poetry lovers who travel to Chile. Arte de Pajaros contains poems on no less than thirty-eight different species, displaying Neruda’s enormous knowledge of the abundance of birds that made their home in his native land. From Magellanic penguins (“the static traveler”), visitors will encounter during their Patagonia tours to the Chilean Flamingo (“a flying rose”) in the eastern regions of the Atacama Desert. Arte de Pajaros captured the wonder of Chile’s birds, plus offering Neruda’s poetic take on migration, flight and bird-watching. Some of the species contained in the book he observed on his walks in the spring with his wife, Matilde, from Isla Negra. Along the streams and lagoons they would see such species as black-necked swans when the migratory birds were returning. Other birds he witnessed on trips north in the forests and desert. The final twelve poems contained in Arte de Pajaros are not accompanied by illustrations because they are figments of Neruda’s imagination, including one autobiographical species, entitled El Pajaro Yo. In a meeting with French President, Georges Pompidou, while ambassador, Neruda gave him a copy of his Arte de Pajaros before requesting more lenient terms in paying back Chile’s loan to France.

Neruda’s other poetry collections also pay homage to birds. Odes Elemental includes an ode to bird-watching as well as ones to an assortment of bird species such as the Oriole. From Veinte poems de amore y una cancion desperada, one of his earliest published collections, to Canto general, a later collection, one finds the birds of Chile. In one of his poems, he compared the shape of Chile to an albatross, with the Pacific at one tip and the Andes at the other.

An illustrated bilingual collection of his verse, Arte de Pajaros, is still in print. Neruda donated his extensive collection of birding books to the University of Chile in Santiago.