A Congregation of Feathers

The Life of Nature presses on, as we earthbound bipeds struggle with disease, death and what tomorrow may bring …

Reflections from a Congregation of Feathers

In “The Ways of Nature,” naturalist John Burroughs observes: “I suspect it requires a special gift of grace to enable one to hear the bird-songs; some new power must be added to the ear, or some obstruction removed. There are not only scales upon our eyes so that we do not see, there are scales upon our ears so that we do not hear.” Good observation skills are rare. What’s clouding our vision?

Carol and I sauntered up the hill above our home and were caught in a flurry of robins. All the air seemed to come to life as they winged from tree to tree, branch to branch. There must have been a hundred coming and going from all directions. Other species of feathered friends seemed to be caught in the excitement with us. There were brief chirps and rustling. Yet, the sound of their wingbeats alone was marvelous. A pileated woodpecker swooped through the robinic ruckus, landing on a large poplar up the hill. A mimic-bird (mockingbird) perched among the flock, as if listening for clues to copy. Pines and oaks were decorated with robins like cones and acorns, these delightful birds Burroughs said were so “closely associated with country life.”

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was not only familiar with the red-breasted hoppers—robins were a part of life and living. Like evergreens and rain, robins were daily companions. Hardly a day would pass without the presence of robins. If I took the time, paused to watch, I could see them cock their heads to the side listening for their wormy meal.

As any good naturalist, Burroughs was irritated by people who pass along fiction instead of fact. Making up stories about animals, birds or the environment can draw people away from the wonder and beauty of the real world of nature. “Unadulterated, unsweetened observations are what the real nature-lover craves … to know that a thing is true gives it such a savor! The truth—how we do crave the truth! … In natural history there is no need to counterfeit the truth; the reality always suffices, if you have eyes to see it and ears to hear it.”

How often do we observe something in the wild world around us that fascinates, captivates? It sharpens our senses to notice, to pay attention, to be good observers and listeners. Of course, this applies naturally to our interactions with other people too. Do we see, hear, feel what is happening with others? Do our beliefs or assumptions distract us from awareness and compassion?
Birds can be helpful teachers here. The “congregation of feathers” we stood in today would go unseen if we were in a car, chattering and chirping about some indoor topic or lost in the forest of our own thoughts. In fact, one person walked quickly by with their dog, apparently oblivious to the bird event at hand. A bird in the bushes is worth two in the brain.

Watching (Latin observare: to watch). We hear a lot about “bird-watching.” I like to “catch” birds too—finding and identifying them. I know very little, but I’ve seen a lot of them and can identify some. But I’m pretty ignorant about most and have a lot to learn. Part of my problem is that I’m not that interested in identifying the animal, insect, tree or bird I see. It’s not as important to give something a name as it is to appreciate it, respect it, just be in the presence of its beauty. Does that make me a romantic, a poet? Maybe. Yet it’s much more for me. I used to call it “spiritual” but now the feeling of presence is more earthbound, more grounded in the natural experience of simply being with the other creature I’m sharing the moment with.

And, maybe I’ll write about it.

According to the Cornell Lab (www.allaboutbirds.org) “Robins can be found year round almost anywhere south of Canada. Birds that breed from Canada to the north slope of Alaska leave in fall for the U.S. Some robins winter as far south as the Southwest, Mexico, and the Gulf Coast.” In other words, robins are everywhere, a vital part of our landscape, integral to the nation, the continent, the world. They really are a part of who we are—literally in the air we breathe.

I recall lines from poet Gerard Manley Hopkins: “Wild air, world-mothering air, Nestling me everywhere.” Inspired by birds, the poet wrote of the “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding, Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding … .”

Are poets the most natural human members of the “congregation of feathers?”

Categories: WritingTags: , , , , ,


  1. Chris, thanks for sharing that “robinic ruckus” from your temple of trees.

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