Birding and Nature Poetry in the Americas
Is there a bird inside of you, yearning for freedom, for meaning? Can poetry and birds help liberate you, and others? DH Lawrence wrote, “Birds are the life of the skies, and when they fly – they reveal the thoughts of the skies.”
Their songs too can tell us nature’s thoughts. Anthony de Mello wrote of what bird song can do for us:
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 Rosen, author of 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, and our own wild nature as well.
So, we lost dinosaurs along the way for the dynamite soaring birds of today, and now we are losing the birds 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. Once there were hundreds of thousands of Carolina Parakeets, and 2 billion Passenger Pigeons in the U.S and now they are gone. 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 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. I was given a private tour so that I could see them, and when the curator opened the drawers of the storage cabinet, it was as if I had walked into a holy temple, and like any place of homage, life and death were inseparable.
Painting of Carolina parakeets by JJ Audubon
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 that can so easily die 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 arts, such as painting, prose, and poetry, all can tell us of life, death, and the wildness within.
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 is causing earth’s birds to disappear. In the early 20th Century, President Teddy Roosevelt heard reports about plume hunters wiping out bird populations in Florida, and created Pelican Island, the first time the federal government set aside land for the sake of wildlife. Roosevelt was a great conservationist, as noted by Jonathan Rosen, "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”
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. And poetry of birds brings this message of bird’s quieting song to us.
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's 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.
Poem from Emily Dickinson
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. Rosen writes, “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.” The expanse of North America birthed a nation of poets and a new religion that was based at once both on infinite beauty and its diminishment, and both on the frailty of bodies and the divine light and possibility in them.
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, the loss of biodiversity, and climate change? 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. For those who may know of Unitarian Universalism, many in the USA had times to this religion, birds, politics, or poetry: Whitman, Dickinson, Thoreau, Frost, Emerson, the two Adam Presidents, and Thomas Jefferson who kept a pet mockingbird in the White House Study.
So here we descendants in the USA are today, helping one another face the darkness around us and in us, seeking to free ourselves from senseless suffering through joy. Birding and poetry are but a few ways 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).
To embrace all is no easy path. A number of years ago I went for a short walk to get my mail. There flew across me a Cooper’s hawk carrying a red-bellied woodpecker screaming its final song. The hawk could barely fly so burdened was it with the crying, pitiful woodpecker. 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. I was not alone in reacting to this drama, for a red-tailed hawk was chasing the Cooper’s hawk, either to steal the prey or the life of the smaller hawk. Following these two predators was a mixed-species flock of song birds, their calls fierce for their size. 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 three 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, and the dove with a rising spirit of joy that cannot be caged.
In the movie, "The Thin Red Line" based on the 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.”
In our American lives, awash with death and loss, there is a rising hope, as captured by American’s first bard, Walt Whitman, who is not so much Christian, as Christ, or so much a dead bird as the rising phoenix. Invigorated by nature’s expanse in America, he came to know who he was and what we all could be – a rising of the human spirit even in the midst of our folly and foibles.