Living Like Birds

Kathleen Dean Moore

I. Living Like Birds / American Robin

Never in my memory has a morning been this quiet nor the air so clear. Never have spring colors been this alive — new green leaves under a storm-blown purple sky. Never has rain glistened against the hillside with that magnifying light. Two red-tailed hawks soar in a sky that is unmarred by jet contrails, unshaken by their thunder. Crows stalk down the street, pecking in the piles of pink petals washed from apple trees into windrows at the curb. Crowded together in complete disregard of social distancing, American robins wander singing through what seems like an avian garden party in the lilacs.

For my part, I am more careful in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. I leave my house only at dawn, when I can zigzag three miles through this compact Oregon town and pass only birds. If I do spot a human being in the distance — maybe a pajama-clad man snatching the newspaper from his sidewalk or a masked woman walking a dog — I make an abrupt turn and take a different route. I make sure to be home by eight am, which seems to be when the joggers emerge, breathing like whales. Then, I stay in my house and garden, except for an occasional foray out for groceries or wine.

So I am living like a bird now. My neighbors have also become birds: Under a state-mandated lockdown, we hide in our cluttered houses behind the hedges, darting out only now and then to find something to eat, hoarding food with the cleverness of a scrub jay. We are afraid of being hungry. We are afraid of human contact, the way robins used to be, and we flutter across the street or around bushes to avoid people, knowing that we are vulnerable to every miasmic wind, and that a human touch could kill us. Now and then, we sing from high or hidden places, but mostly we are quiet. We are worried we will sicken and die now, poisoned by human recklessness and political stupidity, dying as birds have done for decades.

Meanwhile, the birds’ voices ring brilliantly in the quiet air, and is it my imagination that they are singing with reckless joy? Of the suffering of cities, the frightened loneliness of elders, the desperation of mothers, the panic of nurses, the bewildered hunger of children, all the suffocating old men attached to tubes — the robin knows nothing.

Sorrow is not carried on the wind; it has to be passed person to person, in close contact. So I do not expect the robin to know our sorrow, any more than he can understand why the sky is suddenly clearer or why his song carries so far. As for the sudden kick in the gut that the virus gave to the Masters of Creation, Mother Nature’s Favorite Children, humanoids brought to their knees by an undead, unalive packet of genes — robins most likely can neither sympathize nor jeer.

But birds are perceptive in their own ways. The robin looks at a worm with one eye, cocks her head to inspect it with the other, then gives it a mighty peck. Like the robins, the other songbirds in my backyard have an eye on each side of their heads, so they can see into the world around them. I don’t know how well they can see ahead. But I expect that they live in the necessary urgencies of the moment, without a concept of yesterday or tomorrow.

Regret for yesterday and preoccupation with tomorrow is a gift peculiar to human beings.  It is a mixed blessing.  Maybe there has been profit in foresight, which allows the constant calculus of means and ends, investment and outcome, human ‘progress.’  But there is agony in foresight too, clearly to perceive what lies ahead on this path we doggedly, dim-wittedly continue to choose: climate chaos, species extinction, injustice spiraling beyond human decency, and now pandemic disease. Now we are living out the betrayal of foresight, when it is possible to be destroyed by despair for the future, even on the most glorious of spring days.

So let me live like a bird in this way too: Not forever, but just for a while, let me perch on my front step and attend to the world around me, rather than the vision ahead. I will watch the robin make her nest. She drops a mouthful of twigs into the crook of the apple tree and then crouches over the growing pile, shivering her tail and what must be her elbows to compact the sticks into a bowl. Then she brings another mouthful of twigs. Then another. Spent apple blossoms fall around her and tangle in the twigs. With no thought for the future, the nestling robins and the hard, pink apples will ripen together.

For this moment, I allow myself to come into the “peace of wild things.” The phrase is from Kentucky poet Wendell Berry. “When despair for the world grows in me, he wrote, and I wake in the night in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, . . . I come into the peace of wild things, who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” Grief may come to the birds in a spring thunderstorm, but it does not lurk in the robin’s mind.

Soon, I will come back with a jolt to the global tragedy and turn, panicked, to what is required of me. But right now, I am comforted by imagining what the world looks like from the height of a soaring hawk, as the sun sweeps over the green hills, the glistening rivers, the empty streets, pushing back the night, as it has done, and as it will do, until the end of time.

II. Dying like birds / Barred owl

Without cloud cover, night came late to my garden. The moment the sky went black, the moon seemed to pop open at the top of the sky — just half a moon, and waning. It backlit the little clouds, making them look like sneezes. I was waiting for the barred owl to call. All week, he and his beloved had been hooting and clacking at dusk, catcalling in a lusty jazz duet. Maybe they had found a nest cavity in the towering Douglas-fir tree in the corner of my garden.

But I didn’t hear the owls, and at the time, I didn’t wonder why.  I was distracted by a faint gargling from high in the night sky. It turned out to be a moonlit vee of white-fronted geese, migrating north. The barking, honking brays descended from a great height, as if the clouds were laughing. I was laughing too, happy that the geese had escaped the lockdown, freely touching wings as they flapped through the night toward the pure Arctic tundra tussocks. But my happiness made me feel guilty, knowing that thousands of people were choking and calling out in the night.

“Someone will say: you care about birds. Why not worry about people?” the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote. He went on: “I worry about BOTH birds and people. We are in the world and part of it, and we are destroying everything because we are destroying ourselves spiritually, morally, and in every way. It is all part of the same sickness.”

What is he talking about, a human-caused sickness that is destroying the natural and cultural world, as it destroys our souls? It’s undeniable that for decades, Americans have recognized the symptoms of something terribly wrong in our country, in the drained marshes and melting arctic plains, the street camps where sick people sleep, the huddled immigrants, the poisoned strawberry fields and brown city air, the miles of pumpjacks and oil trains, highways twelve-lanes thick with cars — the dying, all the dying, the economic investments in dying, the political collusion with dying, and the furious defense of the instruments of death. Thirty percent of all songbirds, the robins and swallows, are gone from North America. People of color are three times more likely than whites to die of the coronavirus. Those who notice the spreading soul-sickness swallow sour pills of confusion and regret.

We Americans have not loved enough. Oh sure, we loved money. But we have not loved the poor and fragile, not the threatened and endangered, not the brown children or the birds. We have systematically undermined the ability of human and other animals to get food and shelter. We have poisoned their neighborhoods and meadows. We have darkened their skies and dimmed their cities and drowned their music under the industrial din. We have allowed ourselves to think, What is it to me if they are hungry or cold or displaced from their homes? What is it to me if their habitat is bulldozed, their means of subsistence is destroyed, and their offspring die of hunger or despair? If extinction and misery are the price to be paid for prosperity, how convenient that we can send the bill to animals and to the poor and displaced.

But then, weakened, they die in great numbers, and we are astonished. We protest: We loved the robins. We loved the jazz musicians and the wise elders with their rheumy eyes. Really? Well, maybe not as much as we loved other things. The disastrous failure to love enough has sickened us. I believe that is true.

How long have we breathed the dust of meadowlark nests crushed in the ranchers’ combines? We inhale the molecules of what the vultures leave of the truck-struck skunk at the side of the road. We breathe the exhalations of exhausted mothers working three jobs and the poisoned sweat of field workers. The treacherous fragrance of our gardens carries the ground bones of seabirds caught in fish nets. What remains of owls, ancient forests, or injured loggers in the wide cedar beams in our homes? In the course of every ordinary day, we inhale the droplets of deaths that our culture carelessly causes, and surely this is another way the sickness spreads.

My neighbor found the male owl the next morning. He was dead, splayed on his back beside the little fountain under the roses in the backyard.  The owl’s body was bigger than my neighbor expected, feathers fluffed, and his dark eyes were wide open, wildly looking ahead. Rat poison ruptured his heart, most likely. Another unintended but entirely foreseeable death.

I will not be able to return to the garden tonight. I could not bear to hear the female owl crying out for her mate. But I can’t stay inside, in front of the news. Seventy-five thousand people have died of the corona virus in the United States so far. I cannot bear to imagine the crying out.

III. Loving Like Birds / Tree Swallows

If I were a bird, I would be a tree swallow. The diet of gnats would be worth it, to soar over water in extravagant arcs and to make love on the wing, just the lightest touch of two iridescent bodies spiraling toward the river.

I live in a college town at the confluence of two rivers that flow through a fertile valley between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade mountain range in Oregon. The pioneers who settled here in 1845 thought they had arrived in God’s garden, unaware or uncaring that it was not divine providence, but devastating smallpox plagues among the Native people that left the land so beautiful and empty.

At the first sign of the coronavirus, descendants of those settlers crowded to the forest trailheads and strode through the shadows, stopping only to breathe great gulps of fresh, green air. Those who did not flee to the forest found comfort in the long, empty expanses of beach on the Pacific coast, where westerlies lift gulls and soft rain washes the air. Just the touch of that air, that’s what people craved, just to feel its light touch, to consummate that great love. Of course, the search for the solace of nature overwhelmed the parking lots and trailheads. So authorities closed the beaches, then the parks, then the national forests, then the wildlife refuges, then the boat launches, leaving people in lonely misery, isolated from the sources of their consolation.

The people withdrew to their gardens, and oh, there have never been such gardens. At first it was flowers that people grew, an abundance of daffodils and tulips. But now kale and lettuce and peas grow abundantly between the spent blossoms, and never is kale so lovingly attended. In their gardens, people find life on-going and deep gratitude for gifts that Earth continues to give, although her body is weary and her skin is flayed.

The gratitude is expressed in sharing, much as the Native Calapooya people gave thanks to Earth by sharing the huckleberries and salmon. My neighbors share news of birds:

Tonight you can watch a hundred Vaux’s swifts swirl around the chimney at the end of the street and, one by one, drop in for the night.”

“The chickadees are nesting in the box behind my house; come and see.”

“Who can tell me if that is a mourning dove I hear in the mornings?”

“So evenly spaced on the telephone wire, are the swallows practicing an avian sort of social distancing?”

A bouquet of tulips found its way to my front step, a bag of the first nettles, a child’s drawing — and who is to say which is most nourishing of all these gifts? They all feed the same hunger, to be part of continuing life, to be part of growth and blooming, evidence of the great healing force of nature. They invite each of us to be subsumed into something far more powerful and enduring than any human grief. The gifts of nature tell us there is a persistence to life that no measure of insolence or greed can destroy.

What we are looking for, out here in the Pacific Northwest, is a love that is worthy of this sheltering world. How can we measure this love?

Love is measured in comfort and joy. The natural world holds us tight in its arms — calm as we tremble, patient as we mark the days “until this is over,” strong as we weaken. When the time comes, the natural world will embrace us as we die. It will never leave us. If we are lonely, Nature strokes our hair with light winds. If, frightened in the night, we wander outside to sit on a bench in moonlight, it will come and sit beside us. If we are immobilized, having lost faith in the reliability of everything, still the Earth will carry us around the sun. If we feel abandoned, the Earth sings without ceasing — beautiful love songs in the voices of swallows and storms. This sheltering love calms me and makes me glad.

But I also believe this love is measured in grief. The more we love the robins, the more we love the frightened grandmothers, the deeper is our grief when we lose them. This is as it should be. Our grief should be magnificent and terrible, to match the magnitude of our loss.

A love that is worthy of this world is measured also in fury. By what right have human decisions drained the veins of the world, killing off fully sixty percent of its beloved small lives, plants and animals, over the past fifty years? By what right have corrupt governments withheld the information, planning, and equipment that might have saved thousands of beloved friends from the virus? It’s the same sickness that destroys the solace of nature even as it creates our boundless need for it — the exercise of power and accumulation of wealth unconstrained by foresight or conscience. This cannot continue.

So a love that is worthy of this world must be measured in action. In the midst of a pandemic, we have shown that we don’t need profligate consumption of fossil fuels and meat. We have shown that we can leave aside our selfish concerns and make huge changes in our personal lives — some sacrifices, some improvements — for the sake of the common good. We have shown that we can make good decisions without the leadership of idiots. We have shown that when we reduce our dreadful presence on the planet, the world rushes in to heal itself and thereby heals us, almost overnight washing the air, silencing the din, brightening the colors, growing the gardens, preventing pollution-caused illnesses, and bringing wild creatures out of their dens into the garden. This swift and astonishing resilience tells us that Earth will give us a second chance to start our culture over and get it right this time. We must seize that chance with courage and conscience.

And those little tree swallows who make love in midair:  Right now, two of them, barely bigger than butterflies, are driving away a red-tailed hawk that threatens their nest. The hawk is protesting, crying hooah hooah. The swallows strike him with their wings and harass him with tiny claws. They pepper him with high-pitched chirps. They know without knowing that love of life is not only a comfort, but a call to brash acts of courage and common cause.