There comes a time in every fall before the leaves begin to turn when blackbirds group and flock and gather choosing a tree, a branch, together to click and call and chorus and clamor announcing the season has come for travel.
Then comes a time when all those birds without a sound or backward glance pour from every branch and limb into the air, as if on a whim but it’s a dynamic, choreographed mass a swoop, a swerve, a mystery, a dance
and now the tree stands breathless, amazed at how it was chosen, how it was changed. ~Julie Cadwallader Staub “Turning” from Wing Over Wing
…yesterday I heard a new sound above my head a rustling, ruffling quietness in the spring air
and when I turned my face upward I saw a flock of blackbirds rounding a curve I didn’t know was there and the sound was simply all those wings, all those feathers against air, against gravity and such a beautiful winning: the whole flock taking a long, wide turn as if of one body and one mind.
How do they do that?
If we lived only in human society what a puny existence that would be
but instead we live and move and have our being here, in this curving and soaring world that is not our own so when mercy and tenderness triumph in our lives and when, even more rarely, we unite and move together toward a common good,
we can think to ourselves:
ah yes, this is how it’s meant to be. ~Julie Cadwallader Staub from “Blackbirds” from Wing Over Wing
Out of the dimming sky a speck appeared, then another, and another. It was the starlings going to roost. They gathered deep in the distance, flock sifting into flock, and strayed towards me, transparent and whirling, like smoke. They seemed to unravel as they flew, lengthening in curves, like a loosened skein. I didn’t move; they flew directly over my head for half an hour.
Each individual bird bobbed and knitted up and down in the flight at apparent random, for no known reason except that that’s how starlings fly, yet all remained perfectly spaced. The flocks each tapered at either end from a rounded middle, like an eye. Overhead I heard a sound of beaten air, like a million shook rugs, a muffled whuff. Into the woods they sifted without shifting a twig, right through the crowns of trees, intricate and rushing, like wind.
Could tiny birds be sifting through me right now, birds winging through the gaps between my cells, touching nothing, but quickening in my tissues, fleet? ~Annie Dillard from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Watching the starlings’ murmuration is a visceral experience – my heart leaps to see it happen above me. I feel queasy following its looping amoebic folding and unfolding path.
Thousands of individual birds move in sync with one another to form one massive organism existing solely because each tiny component anticipates and cooperates to avoid mid-air collisions. It could explode into chaos but it doesn’t. It could result in massive casualties but it doesn’t. They could avoid each other altogether but they don’t – they come together with a purpose and reasoning beyond our imagining. Even the silence of their movement has a discernible sound of air rushing past wings.
We humans are made up of just such cooperating component parts, that which is deep in our tissues, programmed in our DNA. Yet we don’t learn from our designed and carefully constructed building blocks. We have become frighteningly disparate and independent creatures, each going our own way bumping and crashing without care.
We have lost our internal moral compass for how it is meant to be.
The rustling ruffling quiet of wings in the air is actually muffled weeping.
there are no words there is no song is there a balm that can heal these wounds that will last a lifetime long and when the stars have burned to dust hand in hand we still will stand because we must
in one single hour in one single day we were changed forever something taken away and there is no fire that can melt this heavy stone that can bring back the voices and the spirits of our own
all the brothers, sisters and lovers all the friends that are gone all the chairs that will be empty in the lives that will go on can we ever forgive though we never will forget can we believe in the milk of human goodness yet
we were forged in freedom we were born in liberty we came here to stop the twisted arrows cast by tyranny and we won’t bow down we are strong of heart we are a chain together that won’t be pulled apart ~Kitty Donohoe “There are no words”written on 9/1/11
As a grade school child in November 1963, I learned the import of the U.S. flag being lowered to half mast in response to the shocking and violent death of our President. The lowering of the flag was so rare when I was growing up, it had dramatic effect on all who passed by — something very sad had happened to our country, warranting our unified silence and our stillness.
Since 9/11/01, our flag has spent significant time at half mast, so much so that I’m befuddled instead of contemplative, puzzling over what the latest loss might be as there are so many, sometimes all happening in the same time frame. We no longer are silenced by this gesture of honor and respect and we certainly are not stilled, personally and corporately instigating and suffering the same mistakes against humanity over and over again.
There remains so much more sadness to be borne after that tragic day 18 years ago – such abundance of grief that our world has become overwhelmed and stricken and it seems we’ve lost all imagination for the “milk of human goodness.” Instead it seems we have become more divisive, pulling ourselves apart.
We must return, as people of faith, to that stillness to which we are called on a day such as today. We must be still; we must be silent. We must let the bells toll and the names be read out. We must grieve the losses of this turning world and pray for release from the suffering we cause and we endure. Only in the asking, only in the kneeling down and pleading, are we surrounded by grace. A flag half lowered may have lost its power to punch our gut, but we are illuminated by the Light, forged in freedom, born in liberty.
We must stop allowing our chain links from being pulled apart.
What I remember is the ebb and flow of sound That summer morning as the mower came and went And came again, crescendo and diminuendo, And always when the sound was loudest how it ceased A moment while he backed the horses for the turn, The rapid clatter giving place to the slow click And the mower’s voice. That was the sound I listened for, The voice did what the horses did. It shared the action As sympathetic magic does or incantation. The voice hauled and the horses hauled. The strength of one Was in the other and in the strength was impatience. Over and over as the mower made his rounds I heard his voice and only once or twice he backed And turned and went ahead and spoke no word at all. ~Robert Francis “The Sound I Listened For” from Collected Poems
In the rural countryside where we live, we’ve been fortunate enough to know people who still dabble in horse farming, whose draft teams are hitched to plows and mowers and manure spreaders as they head out to the fields to recapture the past and experience working the land in a way that honors the traditions of our forebears.
A good teamster primarily works with his horses using his voice. No diesel engine means hearing bird calls from the surrounding fields and woods, along with the steady footfall of the horses, the harness chains jingling, the leather straps creaking, the machinery shushing quietly as gears turn and grass lays over in submission. No ear protection is needed. There is no clock needed to pace the day.
There is a rhythm of nurture when animals instead of motors are part of the work day. The gauge for taking a break is the amount of foamy sweat on the horses and how fast they are breathing — time to stop and take a breather, time to start back up and do a few more rows, time to water, time for a meal, time for a nap, time for a rest in a shady spot.
This is gentle use of the land with four footed stewards who deposit right back to the soil the digested forage they have eaten only hours before. This is gentle to our ears and our souls, measuring the ebb and flow of sound and silence.
The horse-drawn field mower is a sound I listen for, if not next door then in my dreams.
Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. ~Rabindranath Tagore
...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
Every spring I hear the thrush singing in the glowing woods he is only passing through. His voice is deep, then he lifts it until it seems to fall from the sky. I am thrilled. I am grateful.
Then, by the end of morning, he’s gone, nothing but silence out of the tree where he rested for a night. And this I find acceptable. Not enough is a poor life. But too much is, well, too much. Imagine Verdi or Mahler every day, all day. It would exhaust anyone. ~Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings
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
What does it say about me that in the darkness of December mornings, I yearn for the early sunrises of June but once I’m firmly into the June calendar, it no longer is so compelling? It confirms my suspicion that I’m incapable of reveling in the moment at hand, something that would likely take years of therapy to undo. I’m sure there is some deep seated issue here, but I’m too sleep deprived to pursue it.
My eyes popped open this morning at 4:17 AM, spurred by vigorous birdsong in the trees surrounding our farm house. There was daylight sneaking through the venetian blinds at that unseemly hour as well. Once the bird chorus starts, with one lone chirpy voice in the apple tree by our bedroom window, it rapidly becomes a full frontal onslaught symphony orchestra from the plum, cherry, poplar, walnut, fir and chestnut. Sleep is irretrievable.
This might be something I would ordinarily appreciate but last night nearby pastures roared past midnight with the house-shaking rumble of heavy tractors and trucks chopping and hauling fresh green grass destined for silage.
Only a few months ago I remember wishing for early morning birdsong when it seemed the sun would never rise and the oppressive silence would never lift. I conveniently forget those mornings years ago when we had a dozen young roosters who magically found their voices very early in the morning a mere 10 weeks after hatching. Nothing before or since could match their alarm clock expertise after 4 AM. No barbecue before or since has tasted as sweet.
So I remind myself how bad it can really be and today’s backyard birdsong is a veritable symphony in comparison.
Even so, I already need a nap, yet a full day of clinic awaits. Ah, first world problems of a farmer/doctor/sleep-deprived human.
This child through David’s city Shall ride in triumph by; The palm shall strew its branches, And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry, Though heavy, dull, and dumb, And lie within the roadway To pave his kingdom come.
Yet he shall be forsaken, And yielded up to die; The sky shall groan and darken, And every stone shall cry. And every stone shall cry For stony hearts of men: God’s blood upon the spearhead, God’s love refused again. ~Richard Wilbur from “A Christmas Hymn”
When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” Luke 19: 37-44
So much conspires to keep us silent~ Faith is not fashionable A crutch for the weak Outmoded, obsolete, Outrageous belief.
Far easier to worship the earth Or each other Or nothing at all Rather than exalt the Living God Everlasting.
His name no longer spoken At school or work Remembered one hour a week By some, Forgotten by most.
So we shall sing of His glory In joy and gratitude Imperfectly sincere, Never to be silenced While we have tongues.
If we do not shout out loud, Nor spread branches at His feet, Or worry what others might think, The stones will cry out and will not stop, As He, in turn, weeps for us.
These last few days of winter are a reawakening of nature’s rebirthing rhythms, with increased activity of all the wild creatures and birds around us, and most importantly, God’s renewal of our weary wintery hearts.
Some late winter and early spring mornings still are pitch black with blustering winds and rain, looking and feeling like the bleakest of December mornings about to plunge into the death spiral of winter all over again.
No self-respecting God would birth Himself into a dawn as dark as night.
But this God would.
He labors in our bleakest of hearts for good reason. We are unformed and unready to meet Him in the light, clinging as we do to our dark ways and thoughts. Though we soon celebrate the rebirth of springtime, it is just so much talk until we accept the change of being transformed ourselves.
Though soon the birds will be singing their hearts out and the frogs chorusing in the warming ponds, we, His people, are silenced as He prepares us and prepares Himself for birth within us. The labor pains are His, not ours; we become awed witnesses to His first and last breath when He makes all things, including us, new again.
The world and its creatures, including us, is reborn — even where dark reigned before, even where it is bleakest, especially inside our healing wintery hearts.