Waterside Birds, Part III: the River-Ousel or Dipper

by Nobuyuki Yuasa (Sosui)


Another waterbird that wears a monk’s robe is the river-ousel, or dipper. It is a small bird the size of a sparrow. This bird lives only in the upper parts of rivers, where water is clean and cold. Like cormorants, river-ousels are good divers, but they do not catch fish. What they catch is the small insects that live on the river beds. It is a wonder to me that they can dive into a fast-flowing stream without being swept down. They fly low at surprising speed, and dive into the foaming water; but, unlike cormorants, it seems they cannot stay underwater very long. You will soon see them emerging from the water, only to fly away between the rocks and dive again. They are always active and seem to need no rest. They are solitary birds, too, having nothing to do with human beings; not even with the trout fishermen nearby. Their short sharp cries also sound aloof. Such headwaters, where river-ousels live, are indeed sanctuaries. Alas, each year some of these sanctuaries disappear. Yet in my mind, they will never cease to exist.

A river-ousel flies
Askance the dashing river —
The foaming shallows.

3 Responses to “Waterside Birds, Part III: the River-Ousel or Dipper”

  1. I especially love the second line, both for its sound and for its freshness of language. “Askance” is such a great word for the daredevil antics you describe, and “dashing” captures the danger of the water.

  2. ‘ousel’ or ‘ouzel’ may be an old term, certainly in Britain, but the Americans in certain regions perhaps still use it – viz. the following haiku I came just across:

    the whole forest
    running through the winter river
    one water ouzel

    (J. Zimmerman)

    I prefer Nobuyuki’s haiku, but wonder if his last two phrases are not a touch repetitive? How about ‘its shallows foaming’? Hopefully, this will bring in another comment …

  3. Richard Donovan Says:

    How about “foaming at the mouth” — of the river or of the ousel anticipating its dinner?

    Sorry Tito, this probably isn’t the comment you hoped to bring in…. And of course it doesn’t make sense for a river bird to be out by the sea anyway.

    I agree with Tito that “the dashing river” and “[t]he foaming shallows” are a little too similar, but Sosui’s haiku is clearly superior to Zimmerman’s in terms of the specificity of its observations. While Zimmerman’s syntax allows an interesting reading (that of the forest itself running through the river, rather than the river itself, bespeaking the timelessless of the river as an entirety, as in Hesse’s Siddhartha), “the whole forest” is an empty, unenvisagable phrase. (Yes, spell-checker bot, that is a real word!)

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