Is there a bird inside of you? Yearning for freedom, for meaning? DH Lawrence wrote, “Birds are the life of the skies, and when they fly – they reveal the thoughts of the skies”.
There’s more to bird watching than meets the eyes. I’m probably preaching to the choir here, but now and then the choir likes to hear a song it knows.
Do you know the song of a bird? Well then, maybe a story like this has happened to you.
A Buddhist master is walking with the disciple and accuses the master of hiding the secret of Zen from him.
Just then a bird called from the riverside.
The master asked, do you hear the bird.
Yes said the disciple.
Well then you know I have hidden nothing from you.
Yes said the disciple.
And then he was enlightened.
In watching birds not just a lightening of the spirit is possible, but something fiercer and not all that comfortable to behold. For when birds tell us of meaning, they tell us not just of life, but also of death. And it’s in that crucible held by feathered wings that we can be held in both beauty and tragedy, and make meaning of our lives.
Jonathan Rose, author of the ministers’ book of the month, The Life of the Skies – Birding at the End of Nature, says the reason why there are some 50 million bird watchers in this country is because birds are the last remaining wild animals that are abundantly visible to us. They are the windows into all of wild nature, our own wild nature as well.
Birds link us back in time to evolution, where creative life constantly arises out of death. Each year it’s increasingly clearer that birds evolved from dinosaurs. If the movie Jurassic Park were made today, Tyrannosaurus Rex and all the velociraptors would have feathers. It’d be great to see such a dinosaur, but I’m glad it’s a goldfinch that comes to the feeders and not a T.Rex.
Photo by Aarong Gustafason
So we lost dinosaurs along the way for the dynamite soaring birds of today, and now we are losing them too, at our own hands, and it’s not clear what new life might arise. It’s hard as a bird watcher to not be aware of their dwindling numbers, and to despair. How amazing that there are 5,000 Sandhill cranes, but imagine 50,000 here in Florida, hundreds of thousands of Carolina Parakeets, and 2 billion Passenger Pigeons in the U.S. The Parakeet and Pigeon went extinct for many reasons, and tragically the last birds succumbed to collectors. The only nest of Carolina Parakeet eggs, long dead, is housed here at the Florida Museum of Natural History. They were turned in by a poacher who would not reveal the location of this last nest until long after the parents died, and subsequently the entire species.
In our primate minds, the urge to kill and the urge to conserve are so closely linked, death never far from life, as experienced so acutely with a flying bird of life easily dead due to the fragility of their hollow bones, air sacs, and paper thin feathers. John James Audubon saw a monkey kill his parrot. He mused that it is this image that caused him to study and paint birds with pleasure, and to do so he killed thousands of birds.
The wild primate lives inside of us all. We hunt as we look for birds through our binoculars, and we are haunted by a lifestyle that leaves ¼ of Florida’s birds in danger.
In the early 20th Century, President Teddy Roosevelt heard reports about plume hunters wiping out bird populations in Florida, and made Pelican Island the first time the federal government set aside land for the sake of wildlife. Roosevelt was a great conservationist, not “in spite of the fact that he was a hunter, but because he was one. He never discounted the human urge to destroy, since he indulged in that urge so zealously himself. Rather accepting it as a given of human nature, he allowed that knowledge to inform his understanding of the necessity of check and balances of human rapacity.” (Jonathan Rosen).
Knowing who we are and what we might do based on our understanding of our place in communities of mixed species are key religious questions. Birds help us know of our sacred reality, our divine possibility, and how we must arise out of the ashes of our burning human greed.
Harold Bloom who studied American Religious Poetry found in Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Adams, Frost, and Dickinson the image that the risen Jesus is in each of us – that each of us as individual can bring salvation to this world through the blessing of our very being. John James Audubon paintings captured this in his anthropomorphized birds. They don’t look like birds as much as they look like humans with feathers. He melds birds with humans – wild nature, beauty without end, amen.
Walt Whitman perhaps best portrayed nature and birds as lived religion. As a boy Whitman listened to a pair of mockingbirds one summer. Then one of the pair died, and the remaining bird sang throughout the night. The young Whitman went out into the night to listen to this song, and was changed forever. Later he said, “Now in a moment I know what I am for.”
He wrote about this episode in his famous poem, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. “It’s fusion of the human and the animal, and in its depiction of an entire country through animal symbols is a kind of poetic extension of Audubon’s paintings” (Rosen, pg. 59).
Emerson too melds human experience with birds. Drawn to Sufism, Emerson writes of the Conference of the Birds, one of the most central of all Sufi texts. In this text, birds undertake a spiritual journey and show us the way of Emerson’s Transcendentalism, a kind of homegrown American Sufism. We are the image of God, and divinity reflects from our souls ever more brightly as we work to polish our inner mirror.
Colleague to Emerson, Emily Dickinson compared birding to church, and preferred birding. It’s a tough call. The point is birds and church-like activities are just some of the ways to grow more connected, more aware, and more whole, which is the eternal light ever shining in the darkness.
Robert Frost wrote in the 20th century, a time of darkness, death and extinction. His poem, The Ovenbird poses this: The question that he (the bird) frames in all but words is what to make of a diminished thing.
What are we to make of our diminishing lives through age, illness, death, and the loss of biodiversity? Hope isn’t the thing with feathers – it’s us. We are the ones who can learn to know ourselves and the world around us, and take intentional steps forward into a future of abundant life.
In the U.S. there is a unique chance to know who we are through birds and to respond accordingly because of our long history with birds and nature religion. We’re the Republic of Feathers. We could also probably call our congregation the Unitarian Universalist Feathership of Gainesville because so much of our country’s nature/bird traditions come from those with UU ties. Whitman, Dickinson, Thoreau, and Frost had strong Unitarian Universalist connections. Unitarians clearly claim as their own Emerson, the two Adam Presidents and Thomas Jefferson who kept a pet mockingbird in the White House Study.
So here we descendants are today, helping one another face the darkness around us and in us, seeking to free ourselves from senseless suffering through joy. Birding is but one way to take up an intentional practice that asks us to look within at our inner demons and look outward in acknowledgement that though we may be alone or feel it, we are interconnected to all of life.
Thoreau, the patron saint of backyard birders, exhibited the paradox of birding and our kind by loving isolation and craving connection. He wrote:
Each new year is a surprise to us.
We find that we had virtually forgotten the note of each bird, and when we hear it again, it is remembered like a dream, reminding us of a previous sate of existence.
The voice of nature is always encouraging.
In a bird we meld the past with the dream of the future.
Birding is the synthesis of individuals and communities, of art and science, and of secularism and religion. Watching birds allows us to live in a symbolic world that is also scientific. We do not lose our rational mind, but find our wondrous mind in seeing wonder around us. Birding perhaps seems such a small thing to do, but small gestures can save the world, as can small groups upon wooded or sandy trail. For it is there on the path where beauty is all around us, as is death, that we can let loose our joy. Joy does not lead us to “escape the world, but to fly free in it, to embrace it with all its suffering and all its wonder and creative powers.” (David Spangler).
It’s not an easy path. In the middle of preparing this sermon yesterday I went for a short walk to get my mail. There flew across me a Cooper’s hawk carrying a red-bellied woodpecker screaming it’s final song. The hawk could barely fly so burdened was it with the crying pitiful bird. I wanted to run after it and tear the beautiful dying thing from its talons, and yet was also mesmerized by the beauty of the successful hunt. In me was a turning of the gut, a heart-wrenching glimpse of reality where all moments consist of inseparable life and death. In that one moment, I knew what I am for.
We all are burdened with dying things. For a good part of my life I have been a bird veterinarian and I know the stark truth that that the desire to have bird beauty in our homes is killing off the wild birds, and causing much suffering to those held captive. I’ve handled Spix Macaws, which are now extinct in the wild, due largely to collectors who desired these startlingly blue beings. In my career as a bird veterinarian, I worked for 3 of the four largest bird collections in the world. I did this so I could be close to beauty and hence I captured my joy, binding the world to my desires with resulting loss and suffering. I am the monkey with parrot blood on her hands, the hawk with a dying bird in its talons, the dove with a rising spirit of joy that cannot be caged.
In the movie The Thin Red Line based on John James novel the hero says, “One man looks at a dying bird and sees nothing but unanswerable pain, and another looks at the same bird and feels the glory, feels something smiling through it.”
Before Christmas I was in Puerto Rico where I reunited with the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Project. Once there was nearly a million of this parrot species on the island and by the 1970s, only 15. Two weeks ago there were 40 in the wild and I witnessed 20 more captive raised birds released into the wild, increasing their numbers by 50%. To see those birds fly free, prone yes to hawks and the ravaging reaches of humankind, death ever before them, creates a smile that did not end that day and I believe echoes the eternal smile in each of us that is born in each sunrise.
I wish I knew how to live more constantly like that, to free and feed the bird within and the bird without.
Do you know how?
Please let me know. Let us share this life of the skies together.