Fieldnotes: Tireless contributions of the birds go unnoticed
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Saturday, February 16, 2013
Invisible life that sustains all,
I awaken to life everything
in every waft of air …
The stars shine,
Radiating with life-light.
All creation is gifted
with the ecstasy of God’s light.
— Hildegard of Bingen
February is not a great month for burning your old brush pile. But it is a fine month for seeing.
The birds have already been returning and pairing up, locating nesting sites in what we think of, somewhat blindly, as “our” yard, “our” thicket, maple grove or pile of winter-hewn branches. This place was their ancient, God-given habitat, before we thought it had no purposes but our own.
That habitat and those creatures have a role quite apart from our tiny use (or uselessness) for them, and a vast, life-bringing role it is, too.
They’re preparing to do their work of insect/grub-reduction, joyful singing/ praise, and the raising of a next vital generation of songbirds. They are faithful, devoted and uncomplaining, while their difficult, all-weather work allows us humans, likewise, to flourish.
Their tireless contributions rarely occur to us, particularly in these unmindful times when we’re trained only to see as valuable whatever product or service has a fiscal number attached.
But our unintended blindness is also one aspect of an ancient human trance, a coma, that different spiritual traditions have long tried to wake people from on a daily or seasonal basis.
The Christian season of Lent, having begun this past Wednesday, is one example of the call to wake up, open one’s eyes and see.
St. Francis of Assisi was known for his deep-seeing love for God, man and all creatures.
The medieval stories told of him by his fellow friars include one by Brother Pacifico.
Francis, here, preached to his “sisters, the birds,” who listened quietly, then burst jubilantly into song. Francis sang with them, adjuring all the monks who had paused in astonishment to join this joyful chorus of hymns to God.
Though it’s hard to imagine this story being covered by certain religious broadcasters who portray nature-love as suspect, quite likely the event happened. Francis could see, after all, unlike the Pharisees that Jesus said could not see.
The Iroquois had a ritual “Thanksgiving Speech,” given before any important meetings requiring mindful awareness. It, too, was a call to see.
Chief Irving Powless Sr., of the Onondaga tribe, gave one version in 1984, packed with recognition of all the creatures “still doing their duty.”
“The Creator also put upon Mother Earth the birds. He gave us small birds and large birds… [who] sing to us and also provide us with food.”
Chief Powless observed, “They never tire and say, ‘I’m not going to do my duty anymore.’ And for that we are very grateful. So let us put our minds together as one and thank the birds.”
Now here is good seeing. Who can complain and feel unappreciated when whole catalogs of creatures are humbly, without notice, working for the good of the whole biosphere and oneself?
Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor who strove daily to stay awake, aware and keen-sighted, wrote in his journal:
“In the morning when thou risest unwillingly, let this thought be present — I am rising to do the work of a human being.”
Cautioning himself against oblivion, he continued, “Dost thou not see the little plants, the little birds, the ants, the spiders, the bees working together to put in order their several parts of the universe? And art thou unwilling to do the work of a human being?”
What is the work of a human being? According to many ancient cultures, from Aristotle to cosmologist Brian Swimme, humans are here to see — to feel stirred accordingly by wonder, and to respond by acting for the good of the big picture.
That includes the little picture — one window into the big.
As I write this, beside a cold window that overlooks a small woods and the flotsam-bespeckled town creek, two tiny birds are entering and exiting one of four backyard brush piles.
This is the very pile I was going to dismantle for firewood, this month, as it lies in the way of a footpath.
But already, here is this young couple moving in for spring, to my grateful amazement. With native bird species in deep decline, I want them all to live.
Inside that twiggy structure, hidden from sight, this pair will make that handy, low-impact, C-2-C construction called a nest, and probably be protected (by the wattled, thorn-inclusive brush pile) from 'coons and cats, chicken hawks and invasive cowbird.
So while that pile may not serve my little aims right now, nor win any architectural-review board awards, it will stay there all summer.
Human foot-travelers can go around it, eyes drawn toward it with keen interest and a yearning to see life emerge from those old sticks.
Liza Field’s column runs every other Saturday in Extra.
Weather JournalStarting to look a lot like summer