On a recent Saturday morning I stepped outside to do the usual chores: put yesterday’s recycling in the barrel, take yesterday’s kitchen scraps to the compost pile, fill the bird feeders, and bring in the newspaper. What was unusual was that I was listening to a podcast. The podcast was one that I had downloaded some months ago from On Being. Krista Tippett was interviewing Gordon Hempton, an acoustical ecologist, on the subject of silence.
The interview was interspersed with recordings of sounds that Gordon Hempton would have recorded in his search for The Last Quiet Places: ocean waves, wind blowing in the trees, and bird songs. Although it’s clear that some of the recordings were made by Gordon Hempton, I’m not sure if they all were.
As I stepped through the door into the backyard a recording of a songbird, perhaps a wood sparrow, was being played on the podcast. At the very same moment, in the background and over the sound that was coming through the earbuds, I heard the distinct call of a red-bellied woodpecker in a nearby tree. Maybe it’s because bird songs are sounds that I want to hear that I hear them readily, but near the end of the podcast Gordon Hempton made an observation that human hearing has evolved so that it hears most distinctly sounds in the range of 2.5 to 5 kHz. He points out that this is above the frequency range of most human speech. However, it is the exact frequency of bird song. His conclusion is that “bird song is the primary indicator of habitats prosperous to humans.”
What does this connection between the bird song and human survival mean? Does it mean that if birds are thriving in a given environment, humans will also? Does it imply the obverse, that if birds are threatened by conditions in the environment then humans are as well? This requires more thought. Anyone reading this is invited to comment.
With approximately six inches of new snow on the ground in our backyard, the bird feeders and the places where seeds fell to the ground were very popular today. Because of the snow I opted to work at home and when I needed a break from my laptop screen I stopped at the kitchen window to check out the action. Many of the regulars showed, up including this downy woodpecker and goldfinch. The downy woodpecker was the first bird on the scene this morning when I finished shoveling. Soon after I filled the sunflower tube with seeds the juncos appeared, followed by mourning doves, a cardinal, and some house finches. A bit later a red-bellied woodpecker visited the suet feeder. That’s a rare treat. I hear and see red-bellied woodpeckers often in the park but only occasionally in our backyard. I’m also pretty certain that a hairy woodpecker stopped by, and at one point there were two downy woodpeckers in the pussy willow tree. At lunch time two (or were there three?) chickadees paid a visit. Chickadees have not visited as frequently this year as they have in the past, so it was encouraging to see them.
The blue background is snow. It is reflecting the color of the sky above it, which was the deep blue color that is typical after a strong storm.
On New Year’s Day I spotted a mockingbird in the backyard. Like robins, the mockingbirds will stay nearby if they can find berries and other fruits. I’m guessing that the mockingbird is a bit less choosy than the robin, because this one was going after the barberries that have been growing in the neighbor’s yard for years.
To illustrate how much I still have to learn about the flora and fauna of the neighborhood, I just learned the name barberry on New Years Day. I’ve seen barberry bushes all my life and while I do not think of them as weeds I do not think much more highly of them than I do of weeds. They are, after all, possessed of many small, sharp thorns. Likewise I was not aware that mockingbirds would eat berries when their preferred food, bugs, is not available.
Snow is an inconvenience, although this storm could have been much worse. A decent snowfall ensures that the neighborhood birds will stop by for a meal, and that in turn means it’s incumbent on me to continue feeding them. I’m grateful that I can do so and that I have opportunities to observe them when they do stop by.
If I am home during daylight hours I can go to the kitchen window at almost any time and see a variety of birds in our pussy willow tree. Often they are waiting and watching another strange tree a few feet away with no leaves and only two branches. From time to time food appears in the hollow branches of this strange tree—our bird feeders—and the birds are able to pick it out. It reminds me of the crippled man who sat by the pool of Bethesda waiting for the water to be agitated. He didn’t understand how the water was being agitated, although there was a local myth about an angel, but he believed that if he could be the first person to get into the pool when the water moved, he would be healed.
Jesus came and asked him if he wanted to be healed. The man assumed Jesus was offering to wait with him and help him into the pool when the water moved. Instead, Jesus simply told him to pick up his mat and walk.
This story is not a parable or an allegory. It’s an account of a real healing miracle. Jesus healed because he felt compassion toward people with real needs, but also to demonstrate that he is Lord of Creation. Jesus also knew that this miracle, performed on the Sabbath, would bring him into conflict with the religious authorities.
Although this story is not a parable, there is some similarity between the crippled man’s behavior and the behavior of people in our time. Most Americans are too sophisticated and rational to believe in unseen spirits who interact with the world around us to cause harm or good, but many of us still demonstrate a belief in fairies and pixie dust. Lottery tickets sell like hotcakes, as do miracle weight-loss pills. Men and women look for magic in adulterous relationships. You might recall a moment in your own life where you found yourself waiting for a magical event to take place that would solve a problem, meet a need, or make you or someone else the person you or they should be. I recall many such moments of expectation.
The reality, though, is that such hopes and expectations always end up in disappointment. In the end, only Jesus, the Lord of Creation, is able to bring about change in our lives and the lives of those around us. Then, when he does, it’s not with great fanfare, but with the simple instruction to embrace the miracle that life represents every day, and to put one foot in front of the other in obedience to him.
For almost thirty years a mulberry tree has been growing in the easement/alley at the rear of our property. I was not particularly attached to it because it cast a shadow over our vegetable garden and at this time of year it dropped unripe berries by the hundreds into our yard where they fermented and created a slippery film on the ground. Nonetheless it provided a roosting place for countless birds and I believe the berries attracted specific birds such as the grey catbird.
I also recall one evening several years ago when I observed what I believe to be a family of five raccoon, two adults and three juveniles, as they made their way through the neighborhood and came to that tree. They then climbed the tree and feasted on the berries.
Yesterday two-thirds of that tree came down during a rain storm. The rest of the tree is probably damaged to the point where it cannot survive and it will also have to be taken down.
What has taken thirty years to grow came down in a few seconds. The space that it filled in those thirty years has now become an open space, a breach if you will that allows our neighbors to the rear to have a clear view of the back of our house, and us of theirs. Not that I worry about that; we have nothing to hide except for modesty’s sake. But I don’t care for the gap left by the falling of the tree. It’s jarring.
Imagine how the people of Joplin, Missouri or Moore, Oklahoma felt to emerge from their tornado shelters to find their world occupied by thousands of such gaps where trees, homes, schools, stores, and other objects once stood.