Book Review: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Cherry-Headed Conures perched on a branch
Mark Bittner, the Cherry-headed Conure lover from Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, California, attributes the American poet Gary Snyder as an influence in his own life, writing, and spirituality — and, apparently, Buddhist spirituality — all bound up in his love for parrots.
     According to his book, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (which was also made into a documentary of the same name), Bittner writes about how since he was a young boy, he considered himself different, “and was never going to have a ‘normal’ life” (5). His early adulthood was a nomadic existence; he was an exotic excommunicant, in a way, living with his sister for awhile, then in a friend’s van, never holding a steady job or aspiring for clear career goals. He describes himself as “on a path.” He writes, “I was twenty-two years old and leading the life of a 'dharma bum,' a term coined by the poet Gary Snyder that means ‘a homeless seeker of truth’” (5). Although Bittner does not cite where exactly Snyder wrote about a dharma bum being “a homeless seeker of truth,” I first figured that it comes from Snyder’s book Mountains and Rivers; in this book he weaves a very long poem that builds upon the Buddha’s teaching as an aimless seeker of truth. Upon further probing into Buddhism and dharma spirituality, I discovered that this phrase, “a homeless seeker of truth” was first actually attributed to Sidhhartha Guatama, or the Bhudda. He is called the Saddhu, “the homeless seeker of truth” according to a slim book I found on Bhuddist spirituality entitled, Fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism by Rebecca McClen Novick.
      Snyder obviously saw himself as a kind of Buddha himself, searching for truth, seeking out a path for right mindfulness and right livelihood. In fact, Snyder’s buddy, Jack Kerouac, one of the Beats, wrote a novel, Dharma Bums, where, apparently, Snyder is modeled on the character, Japhy Ryder.
       I thought Bittner’s own identification with Snyder, Kerouac and the Beat Generation and with Buddhism, and his own nomadic existence gives his story of communing with a company of parrots very interesting. Obviously, his encounter with these parrots, Red-headed Conures, and Blue Crowned Conures, that inhabit the urban green spaces of San Francisco was not a haphazard encounter that came to him completely unexpected. Sure, he didn’t expect to have a two-story shack on Telegraph Hill to make his home, where the parrots squawk by every day, nor did he imagine himself residing in San Francisco as long as he had. For at one point he thought he should leave for purer country, away from the buildings and concrete, but, again, a verse from Snyder convinced him to stay: “The city is just as natural as the country, let’s not forget it. There’s nothing in the universe that’s not natural by definition” (28). Bittner is also reminded of a poem by Snyder, called “Night Herons” where he writes about seeing nature in the urban landscape of San Francisco:

Night herons nest in the cypress
by the San Francisco
stationary boilers
with the high smoke stack
at the edge of the waters:
. How could the
night herons ever come back?
to this noisy place on the bay,
like me.
the joy of all the beings
is in being
older and tougher and eaten
in the tubes and lanes of things
in the sewers of bliss and judgment,
in the glorious cleansing

We pick our way
through the edge of the city
subtly spreading changing sky;
ever-fresh and lovely dawn
    In Snyder’s poem, the question why do the night herons come back could be applied to Bittner himself. Why is he drawn to these parrots? He does see them as more than just mere birds who inhabit San Francisco’s Juniper trees. For one, they are immigrant birds, originally smuggled birds from Peru brought to the United States to be pets. But, since owners are fickle types, the birds sometimes did not match the human’s anthropocentric needs and the bird was discarded. Bittner’s point, as he says, at the book’s end, is his concern with anthropocentrism — that human beings are the center of everything — not, anthropomorphism — attributing human characteristics to animals.
    But, Bittner feels the birds, like Connor, the sulky Blue Crowned Conure, or Tupelo, a parrot who died that he loved very much, were more than just an animal, something separate from human beings. Bittner has this idea, probably borrowed as an amalgam of Buddhist or Snyderian thought, that the birds, like us, are part of one big consciousness. In this sense, the book is really worth reading.

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