Mike Fink on the Birds of His Life

Mike Fink
Professor, Literary Arts and Studies

Photos by Asher White.

Like all of us, I could write a thousand memoirs or more, but the metaphorical creature that most prominently guides my life would be the bird, which gave us the feathered pen to write with (the “plume”). All species are my special companions: the hummingbird that can fly backwards, the pigeon that can roost everywhere and anywhere, the robin that can build its nest (and its future) in a flowerpot on your back porch, or the once-upon-a-time state bird of Rhode Island: the Bob White (before it changed into the more industrial and commercial Rhode Island Red). In due time birds have become one of the centers of my life.


The book that always meant the most to me was Christopher the Canary, which told the tale of a golden singer in a turquoise cell that escaped and flew … around the world and then came back? Or just circled the block before meeting so many troubles within the surrounding wildlife that it returned humbly to its home with a loving jailer? I remember it as the former, but it turned out it was the latter. Outside, the robins were too busy to bother with an uninvited guest, and the sparrows were most unfriendly. What was the moral for me, a small boy? I think, sadly, it was simply: be where you are, what you are, with your family, however they may accept your shortcomings. Christopher my Canary remains my guardian angel. Within the present confinements of COVID—masks and computers distancing us from each other—I live with glimpses in memories both sad and glad of the wizards with wings that return to us each spring. I will greet them with delight and hope!


There was once a boy in downtown Manhattan who had a pet English Sparrow, which kept him company in school, perched on his shoulder during class exercises. Boy, did I envy him!


In the ninth grade, when our public school teachers would take us to the RISD Museum, we were once given a major assignment in which we were to predict our future careers. We each had to present a “Career Book,” and my choice was, of course, Ornithology: the study of birds, the pursuit of their flight all over the world. The cover was a painting of a pair of barn owls on their nest that had been painted by my mother, an artist (on the kitchen walls, she also painted a mural of bluebirds—a mother feeding a worm to her baby—as a sort of “propaganda” art to convince me to eat more and put on nice healthy weight). At any rate, I soon discovered in my research that due to my myopia, near-sightedness, and bookishness, I would not make a great adventurous wildlife scholar. So I gave up that ambition. I guess my role in life was to read, muse, amuse, and follow the footpaths of fate.


I won a lifetime membership to the Audubon Society for a letter to the editor published in the Providence Journal criticizing the push to exile or even exterminate pigeons (as, it was argued, they are not a wild and indigenous species to our downtown). The then-Books editor at the Journal, George Troy, heard about my enthusiasm and sent me a book to review. It was the life story of the last of the passenger pigeons that once darkened the sky. Sadly, the species once so abundant as to darken the sky firmament became extinct within a few years, the last survivor fluttering its desperate wings inside the Smithsonian Museum in DC.


Our feathered friends have always meant much to me symbolically, and my last class at RISD—my final elective at our school of design after a career of sixty five years!—is titled “Birds and Words.” This course began among the stuffed specimens in our fabulous Nature Lab (where I sketched the taxidermy in Miss Edna Lawrence’s collection) and now I fill the spaces of this campus with my lectures, primarily on the grand truths reached by these mysterious messengers. Are they divine postal workers, carrying messages from Earth to Heaven and back?


“Gilbert” the Swan was born at the Gilbert Stuart Birthplace, Museum and Snuff Mill in South Kingstown, RI. As a bird he was territorial and a bit terrifying, especially as I paddled my canoe through the pond. One sad day, a youngster on a jet ski purposely attacked the feathered Gilbert, killing his mate and crippling him. Other swans then exiled him and even attempted to put him out of his misery. A fine lady with a riverfront cottage soon rescued Gilbert. Believe it or not, they watched television together throughout the winter, and he bonded with an albino cat. If, from his new home, he stared at the little cove among the turns and curves of the shoreline, he might become a sort of protective uncle to the ducklings that might otherwise be hassled and hunted. Well, I would bike along the coast road to greet Gilbert and snap a few shots of him.


One of the high points of my long RISD career was my service as faculty advisor to the Pigeon Club. Mohammed, a student of mine from Dubai, loved birds. He raised them in his Fox Point apartment, hatched them (yes!) in the class, filmed it, and won a prize for his document­ary. He once somehow smuggled one of his bird babies in his pocket on an international flight, to present to his younger brother as a birthday gift. They both arrived safe and sound and silly and successful, bird and boy!


A childish souvenir: once upon a time, there was a pretty girl across a field from my house, and her father raised canaries in the cellar. I believed, naively, that she was Snow White in person! I talked my parents into allowing me to purchase a Christopher as my Canary. In due time it died, and when I found it on the floor of its cage, I wept so passionately at the enormity of the loss that I developed pneumonia from grief! This is a true tale—a dead bird almost killed me.


During my wartime boyhood, I wrote a book on a kids’ typewriter, with only capital letters, about the evolution of birds. You see, the influence of the Catholic Church at the time forbade the teaching of evolution, which meant I couldn’t fully explore the ways birds developed from reptiles beyond some display cases of our neighborhood branch public library. My book’s illustrative maps were drawn by my elder brother Chick.


Our dad built us a little chamber underneath the cellar stairs where we could show off our collection of nests, broken eggs, found feathers, and magazine pages. You see, throughout the war, Hollywood and the magazines suggested in part that we were battling overseas to protect birds, our feathered friends, from the machinery of destruction designed by our foes, with their bombs and concentration camps. Birdwatching was patriotism! Lyrics to a melancholy ballad of the era: “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, tomorrow when the world is free!”

Mike Fink arrived at RISD as an instructor in 1957, and has simply adored collaborating with v.1 over the past few years.