When I was a child, my parents required that I kneel before my bed and say my nightly prayers. Raised in a Christian tradition, the formula was to ask God for forgiveness so that I and my family could go to heaven. I changed the script a bit and instead prayed:
Dear God, please take me into heaven. I am afraid of dying. But I don't want to go to heaven without the birds. Could you please send them to heaven too? If not, then I don't want to go either.
Bird with Buddhist prayer flags (photo by Niklassletteland)
Now that I am older, my orientation has shifted, perhaps more to a buddhist sensibility and reflects my years as a Unitarian Universalist minister. I realize that birds are heaven, as is this moment, now, with all the beautiful life around me. The problem is that I stumble with my lack of awareness and acceptance of this very moment's harsh beauty, which also contains countless deaths and suffering. But underneath this understanding, the recipe of my childhood's sense of salvation hasn't changed all that much. One can't get to heaven without death, but in this case it is the acceptance of death that is the gateway. By embracing death we erase any false lines of separation between us and birds, and the rest of nature, and are in turn embraced by the Whole of Life, and Death.
I have seen so many birds die, their fragile bodies warped, and then woven into the life that arises from their bodies mixed with the soil and their beauty splashed across human consciousness. The way of bird life is death, and I want to go where the birds go.
Recently we were surveying parrot populations on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua, and the entryway to one counting location up on the Maderas volcano was through a cemetery. It reminded me that to be with birds we have to journey through death.
Entry point to counting up on Maderas volcano
As my eyes followed the counters stepping through the graveyard to climb the slopes, I felt a relief from any sense of aloneness on this planet, or despair that so many beings die tragically, uselessly. I recalled a poem by Terry Tempest Williams:
“I pray to the birds. I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day—the invocations and benedictions of Earth. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.”
Each time I am at my own counting point, I raise my eyes to the heavens and to the birds. In counting them and in all my conservation work, which is like a prayer, I offer to them and to life:
Please dear birds, take me with you. Don't leave me alone in a world of my own human construction and desires. May the soft animal of my body love all that it can, and like you, may I be wild until death.