Essay: The Birds we don't see
John R. Campbell
Woodpeckers on the far sides of tree trunks, or swallows darting directly overhead. A yellow streak in the willows. That eagle, at the upper edge of my windshield, then gone. The nighthawk I heard booming in the dusk.
Geese above the fog. Geese in the hinges of an old door. As I sleep, owls are prowling the neighborhood, and a tiny bird whistles inside my wheeze.
Birds are inherent. In what sense are their lives my life? In what sense is their suffering my suffering?
Robins flit from post to post. They delineate their nesting territories. They activate tangles of neurons scattered here and there in my brain.
Early spring, and the first swelling of willow buds. I’m walking among black cottonwoods, near rippled water. The smell of silt is both rich and acrid. Confused and frustrated by worldly affairs, I scuff my shoes on fallen limbs. I stumble to any riverbank, only to find this slough.
Lest I feel too tragic, though, there’s the comic relief of projecting my emotions onto the neutral landscape. Nature receives me easily, allows my brooding, my every mood. Look: even the blackberry hedges are haggard, their leaves blotched and diseased. Isolation, loneliness: where are my fellow creatures? It’s too soon for turtles, sleeping beneath the duff, and a bit too late for geese, restless for the Arctic.
So I find my way to a blind I know. Octagonal, shake-roofed, well-constructed, it conceals us clumsy humans and affords a view of birds.
Think of the huts that seclude initiates in certain tribal rituals. Or think of a rustic chapel, dim. Instead of candle wax, swallow droppings; instead of altars or shrines, openings onto a more vivid world.
Why, traditionally, are gods and spiritual emissaries located in local fauna? There’s a memorable scene in Nostalghia, a film by Andrei Tarkovsky, in which a woman in the Italian countryside enters a church to pray. She’s imploring a Madonna figure for a child. After her impassioned prayer, she opens the Madonna’s robe. A flock erupts from Mary’s womb and scatters in the church. The event seems inevitable--certainly no one, except perhaps the innocent viewer, is startled.
So yes, I take animals on faith. My faith is secular, but nonetheless firm. For the most part, the lives of animals are absent to me, intimated at best. Today, even at the blind, there are few birds to be seen. No swans, no eagles--only a stray cormorant, some ducks paddling at a distance. Juncos, as usual, in the riparian brush.
But something more. A sleeping bag stashed in the bushes. An old blue tarp, its fringed edges weaving with the grass. A gallon jug, a disposable lighter. The homeless person may have sheltered, during the recent rains, right here in the blind. My guess is that he, or she, may not return. The blind is too remote from town— the guest will likely move on. Who knows his migration habits? Who knows her feeding regime?
What of his affiliations? What of her contact calls?
How can I claim an affection for birds if I can’t even muster empathy for my fellow human being?
If the totality of a single bird’s life is absent to us, what about the totality of our own lives? Unattainable, unless the all is somehow contained in every instance. Imagine a drop of dew in a web. Now imagine that this dewdrop reflects all other dewdrops. Buddhists call this the doctrine of interdependence. They speak of dependent origination.
Or consider the science of ecology: each life form depends on others for its very existence. (On all others? Certainly not merely on immediate others.) Well, singular existence, we know, is a myth, and yet we pursue our individualism, our identities, so as to be known. We have our reasons for doing so. And we do possess the means; we have language and culture.
But when we express ourselves, I wonder, might we actually address the all? I mean all the unseen others. Who exactly receives our utterances? Don’t I mutter in otherwise vacant rooms? Alone, I hum from memory. Once I tried singing myself to sleep.
Expression is an urge, first, and then perhaps a strategy. We wish to make ourselves known, yes, to one another, but also to the all. Our existence seems to require expression--or more accurately, is expression itself. What, do you suppose, could our very being express?
Birds, too, at least in their season, want to be known. Plumage is language. So is song. At some distance up the trail, a white-crowned sparrow sings for a mate. I can’t see him yet, but I know his tune. I know that his breast and throat throb with each phrase. He fills his tiny lungs with air. He fills the air with song.
The song, not meant for me, nonetheless brings me pleasure. I share the necessity at the core of the utterance. I too, have learned my song from elders, have practiced and refined it. It’s been passed down through generations, along analogous pathways in my and the sparrow’s brain.
Or maybe the song is meant for me, in a way. Birdsong is an emblem of our interdependence. If I hear it, even as mere ambience, it delineates the moment we co-inhabit.
The moment, like the song itself, that becomes a habit of mind.
The birds we don’t see are the everyday strivings.
Imagining the birds we don’t see, we acknowledge the dignity of each living being. Such an exercise is not grandiose--it’s a recognition of the humility of survival.
Having risen early to work, I notice juncos stirring where they’ve roosted in the ferns. They evoke in me a tenderness that I need to retrieve. Think of common human kindness--the gestures of lovers, the sacrifices of parents, the gifts carried in children’s hands. How many times have we held our acrid tongues? How often have we spoken courageously? The media won’t report such ordinary doings. Instead we’ll hear of atrocities. Societies are driven by deplorable aggressions, but also by laudable decencies. I wish to speak of both.
The birds we don’t see are vast in number, varied in circumstance. They range the entire earth. They emerge from eggs in cup-like nests, they feed according to their imperatives. They mate with awkward grace. They die silently, their down feathers ruffling in the breeze--perhaps deep in the mountains, or just here, in the forest litter. Countless birds die each day, yet we seldom glimpse their corpses. Like humans, they’re sequestered beyond our lines of sight, in earthly ossuaries.