Watching the Birds Watching Me

I have been trying to think of the word to say to you that would never fail to lift you up when you are too tired or too sad not [to] be downcast. When you are so sad that you ‘cannot work’ there is always a danger fear will enter in and begin withering around.

A good way to remain on guard is to go to the window and watch the birds for an hour or two or three. It is very comforting to see their beaks opening and shutting.
~Maeve Brennan in a letter to writer Tillie Olsen

My window is a book of birds.
I draw back the curtains
and there they all are,
scribbling their lives in the trees.

Bird in the holly tree,
invisible mentor,
your cheerful philosophy
is a glittering chain of light
slung between us,
drawing me ever closer
to the source of your joy.

The silver thread of your song
guides me through the dark
as surely as the night
I first heard you,
improvising on a theme
of beauty and truth
in the holly tree out there.

~Hugo Williams from “Birdwatching”

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
~Emily Dickinson in an 1885 letter to Miss Eugenia Hall

The windows are dressed in feathers where the birds have flown against them,
then fallen below into the flowers where their bodies lie grounded, still,
slowly disappearing each day until all that is left are their narrow, prehensile bones.

I have sat at my window now for years and watched a hundred birds
mistake the glass for air and break their necks, wondering what to do,
how else to live among them and keep my view.
Not to mention the sight of them at the feeder in the morning,
especially the cardinal in snow.

What sign to post on the sill that says, “Warning, large glass window.
Fatal if struck. Fly around or above but not away.
There are seeds in the feeder and water in the bath.
I need you, which is to say, I’m sorry for my genius as the creature inside
who attracts you with seeds and watches you die against the window
I’ve built with the knowledge of its danger to you. 
With a heart that rejects its reasons in favor of keeping what it wants:
the sight of you, the sight of you.”

~Chard deNiord, “Confession of a Bird Watcher” from Interstate

I made the terrible faux pas of running out of suet and bird seed this week. My little feathered buddies fly up to the feeders by our kitchen window and poke around the empty trays, glance disparagingly in my direction, then fly away disheartened. There is no free lunch today.

I am no birder; I don’t go out looking for birds like the serious people of the birding community who keep a careful list of all they seen or hear. I don’t even track every species that comes to visit my humble offerings here on the farm nor do I recognize the frequent visitors as individuals. I just enjoy watching so many diverse sizes, colors and types coming together in one place to feast in relative peace and cooperation and I’m the hostess.

Birds are my visual and tangible reminder that the good Lord provides, buoyed by the help of hospitable humans who set out irresistible treats next to big windows. These delightful creatures have such autonomy and genuine glee in their daily existence until they forget their boundaries and slam headlong into invisible glass, too often falling to the ground for good. Then the farm cats are gleeful.

I know all about the warnings to stop doing communal bird feeding: spreading bird diseases too easily among multiple species who come together to feast, attracting vermin and assisting their burgeoning population growth, assisting predators like my aforementioned farm cats in their decimation of the wild bird population, encouraging wild birds to ignore their usual migration urge to seek better feeding/breeding climates so they often die prematurely.

As a trained scientist in animal behavior, I understand it all. As a human observer seeking to enjoy feathered friends during long gray winter days, I ignore it all.

Pardon me now, as I better head to the farm store to replenish my bird feasting stash. See you all later.

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An Eternal Ultimate Eye

Silence and darkness grow apace, broken only by the crack of a hunter’s gun in the woods.  Songbirds abandon us so gradually that, until the day when we hear no birdsong at all but the scolding of the jay, we haven’t fully realized that we are bereft — as after a death.  Even the sun has gone off somewhere…

Now we all come in, having put the garden to bed, and we wait for winter to pull a chilly sheet over its head.  
~Jane Kenyon
from “Season of Change and Loss” in Winter: A Spiritual Biography

The tree, and its haunting bird,
Are the loves of my heart;
But where is the word, the word,
Oh where is the art,

To say, or even to see,
For a moment of time,
What the Tree and the Bird must be
In the true sublime?

They shine, listening to the soul,
And the soul replies;
But the inner love is not whole,
and the moment dies.

Oh give me before I die
The grace to see
With eternal, ultimate eye,
The Bird and the Tree.

The song in the living Green,
The Tree and the Bird –
Oh have they ever been seen,
Ever been heard?
~Ruth Pitter “The Bird in the Tree”

Every day now we hear hunters firing in the woods and the wetlands around our farm, most likely aiming for the few ducks that have stayed in the marshes through the winter, or possibly a Canadian goose or a deer to bring home for the freezer.   The usual day-long serenade of birdsong is replaced by shotguns popping, hawks and eagle screams and chittering from the treetops, the occasional dog barking, woodpeckers hammering at tree bark with the bluejays and squirrels arguing over the last of the filbert nuts.

In the clear cold evenings, when coyotes aren’t howling in the moonlight, the owls hoot to each other across the fields from one patch of woods to another, their gentle resonant conversation echoing back and forth. Our horses, confined to their stalls in the barns, snort and blow as they bury their noses in flakes of summer-bound hay.

But there are no longer birdsong arias; I’m left bereft of their blending musical tapestry that wakes me at 4 AM in the spring.

And no peeper orchestra tuning up in the swamps in the evenings, rising and falling on the breeze.

It is way too quiet – clearly a time of bereavement. The chilly silence of the darkened days, interrupted by gunshot percussion, is like a baton raised in anticipation after rapping the podium to bring us all to attention. I wait and listen for the downbeat of spring — the return of birds and frogs tuning their throats, preparing their symphony.

Oh, give me the grace to see and hear the Bird in the Tree with an eternal ultimate eye and ear.

Like a bird on a tree
I’m just sitting here
I get time
It’s clear to see
From up here
The world seems small
We can seat together
It’s so beautiful
You and me
We meant to be
In the great outdoors
Forever free
Sometimes you need to go
And take a step back
To see the truth around you
From a distance you can tell
You and me
We meant to be
In the great outdoors
Forever free
~Eldar Kedem

Between the March and April line—
That magical frontier
Beyond which summer hesitates,
Almost too heavenly near.
The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,
The maddest noise that grows and grows,—
The birds, they make it in the spring,
At night’s delicious close.
The saddest noise I know.
It makes us think of all the dead
That sauntered with us here,
By separation’s sorcery
Made cruelly more dear.
It makes us think of what we had,
And what we now deplore.
We almost wish those siren throats
Would go and sing no more.
An ear can break a human heart
As quickly as a spear,
We wish the ear had not a heart
So dangerously near.
~Lyrics adapted from an Emily Dickinson poem

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Simply to Be is a Blessing

Before the adults we call our children arrive with their children in tow
  for Thanksgiving,

we take our morning walk down the lane of oaks and hemlocks, mist
  a smell of rain by nightfall—underfoot,

the crunch of leathery leaves released by yesterday’s big wind.

You’re ahead of me, striding into the arch of oaks that opens onto the fields
  and stone walls of the road—

as a V of geese honk a path overhead, and you stop—

in an instant, without thought, raising your arms toward sky, your hands
  flapping from the wrists,

and I can read in the echo your body makes of these wild geese going
  where they must,

such joy, such wordless unity and delight, you are once again the child
  who knows by instinct, by birthright,

just to be is a blessing. In a fictional present, I write the moment down.
  You embodied it. 
~Margaret Gibson “Moment” 

On this day,
this giving-thanks day,
I know families who surround loved ones fighting for life in ICU beds,
others struggling to find gratitude in their pierced hearts
when their child/brother/sister/spouse is gunned down in mass shootings,
or too many tragically lost every day to overwhelming depression,
as well as those lost in a devastating three year pandemic.

It is the measure of us – we created ones –
to kneel in gratitude while facing the terrible
and still feel touched, held, loved and blessed,
to sincerely believe how wide and long and high and deep is His love for us —
even when we weep, even when we mourn,
even when our pain makes no sense.

God chose to come alongside us and suffer,
rather than fly away.
He knew being alive
~just to be like us at all~
was His blessing to last an eternity.

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Heart Sore

The trees are in their autumn beauty,   
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water   
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones   
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me   
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings  
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,   
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,   
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,   
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;   
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,   
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,   
Mysterious, beautiful;   
Among what rushes will they build
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day   
To find they have flown away?
~William Butler Yeats “The Wild Swans at Coole”

All is changing
yet even though
my pace has slowed
from younger days,
my heart aches
to know I finally behold
this mysterious beauty,
a witness now because I no longer
choose to hurry headlong through life.

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Passing Through

Wild geese fly south, creaking like anguished hinges; along the riverbank the candles of the sumacs burn dull red.
It’s the first week of October.
Season of woolen garments taken out of mothballs;
of nocturnal mists and dew
and slippery front steps, and late-blooming slugs;
of snapdragons having one last fling;
of those frilly ornamental pink-and-purple cabbages that never used to exist, but are all over everywhere now.
~Margaret Atwood
from The Blind Assassin

But it was no good trying to tell about the beauty. It was just that life was beautiful beyond belief, and that is a kind of joy which has to be lived.

Sometimes, when they came down from the cirrus levels to catch a better wind, they would find themselves among the flocks of cumulus: huge towers of modeled vapor, looking as white as Monday’s washing and as solid as meringues. Perhaps one of these piled-up blossoms of the sky, these snow-white droppings of a gigantic Pegasus, would lie before them several miles away. They would set their course toward it, seeing it grow bigger silently and imperceptibly, a motionless growth; and then, when they were at it, when they were about to bang their noses with a shock against its seeming solid mass, the sun would dim. Wraiths of mist suddenly moving like serpents of the air would coil about them for a second. Grey damp would be around them, and the sun, a copper penny, would fade away. The wings next to their own wings would shade into vacancy, until each bird was a lonely sound in cold annihilation, a presence after uncreation. And there they would hang in chartless nothing, seemingly without speed or left or right or top or bottom, until as suddenly as ever the copper penny glowed and the serpents writhed. Then, in a moment of time, they would be in the jeweled world once more: a sea under them like turquoise and all the gorgeous palaces of heaven new created, with the dew of Eden not yet dry.
~T.H. White from The Once and Future King

Each day this first week of October, feathered travelers have slipped past us unseen and unheard.  They may stop for a drink in the pond or a bite to eat in the field and woods, but we never know they are there – they are simply passing through.

Others are compelled to announce their journey with great fanfare, usually heard before seen.  The drama of migration becomes bantering conversation from bird to bird, bird to earth, bird to sun, moon and stars, with unseen magnetic forces pointing the way.

When not using voices, their wings sing the air with rhythmic beat and whoosh, like the creaking of rusty hinges.

It reminds me how we are all together here — altogether — even when our voices are raised sharply, our silences brooding, our hurts magnified, our sorrows deep. How we spend our days becomes a matter of debate.

Our destination is not in dispute however.  We’re all heading to the same end to the human story of creation/fall/redemption, no matter how we manage to get there.

It is just that life is beautiful beyond belief, and that is a kind of joy which has to be lived.

So let’s unite our wings and voices in joy: we are just passing through, just passing through, just passing through.

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Antidote to Bitterness

Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come–
~Chinese Proverb

photo by Harry Rodenberger

I heard a wood thrush in the dusk
Twirl three notes and make a star—
My heart that walked with bitterness
Came back from very far.


Three shining notes were all he had,
And yet they made a starry call—
I caught life back against my breast
And kissed it, scars and all.
~Sara Teasdale, featured in “The Wood” in Earth Song

…then came a sound even more delicious than the sound of water. Close beside the path they were following, a bird suddenly chirped from the branch of a tree. It was answered by the chuckle of another bird a little further off. And then, as if that had been a signal, there was chattering and chirruping in every direction, and then a moment of full song, and within five minutes the whole wood was ringing with birds’ music, and wherever Edmund’s eyes turned he saw birds alighting on branches, or sailing overhead or chasing one another or having their little quarrels or tidying up their feathers with their beaks.
~C.S. Lewis from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

Their song reminds me of a child’s neighborhood rallying cry—ee-ock-ee—with a heartfelt warble at the end. But it is their call that is especially endearing. The towhee has the brass and grace to call, simply and clearly, “tweet”. I know of no other bird that stoops to literal tweeting. 
~Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

I hope you love birds too. It is economical. It saves going to heaven.
~Emily Dickinson in an 1885 letter to Miss Eugenia Hall

I need reminding that what I offer up from my heart predicts what I will receive there.

If I’m grumbling and falling apart like a dying vine
instead of a vibrant green tree~~~
coming up empty and hollow with discouragement,
entangled in the cobwebs and mildew of worry,
only grumbling and grousing~~~
then no singing bird will come.

It is so much better to nurture the singers of joy and gladness with a heart budding green with grace and gratitude, anticipatory and expectant.

My welcome mat is out and waiting.

The symphony can begin any time now…

Original Barnstorming artwork note cards available as a gift to you with a $50 donation to support Barnstorming – information here

The Need to Praise

A blue horse turns into
a streak of lightning,
then the sun —
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful,
I can’t calculate
how the earth tips hungrily
toward the sun – then soaks up rain —
or the density
of this unbearable need
to be next to you. It’s a palpable thing —
this earth philosophy
and familiar in the dark
like your skin under my hand.
We are a small earth. It’s no
simple thing. Eventually
we will be dust together;
can be used to make a house,
to stop a flood or grow food
for those who will never remember
who we were, or know
that we loved fiercely.
Laughter and sadness eventually become
the same song turning us
toward the nearest star —
a star constructed of eternity
and elements of dust barely visible
in the twilight as you travel
east. I run with the blue horses
of electricity who surround
the heart
and imagine a promise made
when no promise was possible.

~Joy Harjo “Promise of Blue Horses” from How We Became Human

Birds embody the shapes of my heart
these days


holding the warmth of a hug
in their feathers


the gleam of a kiss in
their eyes


building a home for my love
in their beaks


and spreading, with their song,
the promise of blue horses.

 

“A blue horse turns into a streak of lightning,
then the sun—
relating the difference between sadness
and the need to praise
that which makes us joyful.”
~Marjorie Moorhead, “That Which Makes Us Joyful” from Literary North

Even when my heart isn’t feeling it, especially when I’m blue (along with much of the rest of the world on this September 11 anniversary), I need to remember to whisper hymns of praise to the Creator of all that is blue as well as every other color.

I’m reminded of the goodness of a God who provides me with the words to sing and a voice to sing them out loud.

That reality alone makes me joyful. That alone is reason to worship Him. That alone is enough to turn blue days, blue horses and blue hearts gold again.

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The Pain of the Empty Nest

If you notice anything
it leads you to notice
more
and more.

And anyway
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.

If I stopped
the pain
was unbearable
.

If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world can’t be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.
~Mary Oliver from “The Moths” from Dream Work

Whenever you find tears in your eyes, especially unexpected tears, it is well to pay the closest attention.

They are not only telling you something about the secret of who you are, but more often than not God is speaking to you through them of the mystery of where you have come from and is summoning you to where, if your soul is to be saved, you should go next.
~Frederick Buechner from A Crazy Holy Grace

It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for a bird to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad.
~C.S. Lewis from Mere Christianity

For the past eight days of August on our farm, we have heard loud cries from the sky, starting soon after sunrise and becoming more frequent before sunset. Every few minutes from one high tree top or another, we hear a shrill “kree” which sometimes sounds angry, too often mournful and full of pain.

These cries come from a young red-tailed hawk whose nest is emptied and whose parents have left it to fend for itself. Old enough to hunt, but not ready for that heady responsibility.

This is one unhappy bird, a fellow creature in distress, feeling abandoned in a confusing and often hostile world. I understand the distress; I felt it as well when I was young and still feel it at times now when the world feels hopelessly lost.

My new overly-vocal hawk neighbor will eventually find a home and its destiny in a new nest. Its wings and voice remain strong and are strengthening daily with constant exercise. And I will stop noticing the sting of tears in my eyes every time I hear its voice calling out its loneliness to me.

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Summer Nap

In the afternoon of summer, sounds
come through the window: a tractor
muttering to itself as it

Pivots at the corner of the
hay field, stalled for a moment
as the green row feeds into the baler.

The wind slips a whisper behind
an ear; the noise of the highway
is like the dark green stem of a rose.

From the kitchen the blunt banging
of cupboard doors and wooden chairs
makes a lonely echo in the floor.

Somewhere, between the breeze
and the faraway sound of a train,
comes a line of birdsong, lightly
threading the heavy cloth of dream.

~Joyce Sutphen, “Soundings” from Naming the Stars

As a young child, I remember waking from my summer afternoon naps to the sights and sounds of our rural community. I could hear tractors working fields in the distance, farm trucks rumbling by on the road, the cows and horses in the fields, a train whistle in the distance and the ever-present birdsong from dawn to dusk.

These were the sounds of contentment and productivity, both together. Surely this is how heaven must be: always a sense of something wonderful happening, always a reason to celebrate, always a profound sense of respite and sanctuary.

Even now, there is that moment of awakening of my heart and soul from a summer nap when I try to listen for the chorus of angels outside my open window.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

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Astonished

It’s an early summer day, going to be a hot one.
I’m away from home, I’m working; the sky is solidly blue
with just a chalk smear of clouds. So why this melancholy?
Why these blues? Nothing I’ve done seems to matter; I
could leave tomorrow and no one would notice, that’s how
invisible I feel. But look, there’s a pair of cardinals
on the weathered table, pecking at sunflower seeds
which I’ve brought from home. They don’t seem
particularly grateful. Neither does the sky, no matter
how I transcribe it. I wanted to do more in this life,
not the elusive prizes, but poems that astonish. A big flashy jay
lands on the table, scattering seeds and smaller birds.
They regroup, continue to hunt and peck on the lawn.
~Barbara Crooker, “Melancholia” from Some Glad Morning

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the green heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
~Wendell Berry “The Peace of Wild Things” from The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

I lay awake last night worrying over our son and his family’s ten hour overnight flight from Tokyo. Our two young grandchildren arrive today after 30 months of pandemic separation – to them, we are just faces on a screen.

We go soon to collect them from half-way around the world where they said a sorrowful sayonara to grandparents and family there, arriving here to a new life, new language, new everything, with their worldly belongings in suitcases.

From the largest city in the world to our little corner of the middle of nowhere.

I will watch them discover for themselves
the joys and sorrows of this world.
When I look through their eyes,
I will be reminded there is light beyond the darkness I fear,
there is peace amid the chaos,
there is a smile behind the tears,
there is stillness within the noisiness
there is rest despite my restlessness,
there is grace as old gives way to new.

I do not need to do anything astonishing myself.
Astonishing happens all around me.

I need only notice and cherish it.

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