(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2012)
“For man, as for flower and beast and bird, the supreme triumph is to be most vividly, most perfectly alive.” D.H. Lawrence
Three days ago I was settling down on the living room sofa for a much-anticipated afternoon nap, when a bird smacked into one of the seven big windows that make our living room feel so light and airy. Alas, this sickening thud usually presages a dead bird or one so stunned that our cat, if he can get outside in time, makes short work of. And so it was with some trepidation that I got up to look out the various windows to see what I could see.
To my surprise and chagrin, the bird in question had not smacked the outside of a window, but had flown through our open sliding glass door and struck the inside of a pane; and there she was, a little gray sparrow with pretty white markings, standing stock still on a window sill.
“Hello beautiful,” I said to the bird, hoping to catch and release her without hurting her and without causing so much commotion that our cat would come running to capture this high protein snack.
But how could I catch the bird without scaring her into frantic flight? I picked up the big straw basket I use for shopping and thought I’d somehow put the basket over the bird and then…then what? Wouldn’t the bird just fly out from under the basket and zoom around the room and smack into another window and break her neck or bring our cat running or…
Yet even as I was entertaining such unpleasant scenarios, I got closer and closer to the bird until I was right beside her and she remained standing absolutely still. So I slowly reached out and gently encircled her body with my fingers, carefully gripped her just tightly enough so she couldn’t escape, and carried her to the doorway where I opened my hand and she sprang into the air and winged her way across the meadow to the forest.
And two seconds after I released that little bird, our big gray bird-killing cat came sauntering into the living room and gave me a most disparaging look, or so it seemed.
Then this morning on my way to get the newspaper that magically appears at the mouth of our driveway every Sunday morning, a bird who was the spitting image of the bird I saved, accompanied me along the drive, flitting from branch to branch and staying close to me for the entire hundred yards, fluttering her wings and chirping away as if trying to communicate something to me, or so it seemed.
Was she the same bird I rescued? Was she thanking me? Or was she perhaps trying to repay me with information she thought I might find useful—truths about the universe we humans have overlooked or forgotten.
“Probably not,” says my logical mind, but “Maybe so,” says the part of me that believes Nature is far more fantastic than we can possibly imagine, so that a bird wanting to thank a person is every bit as likely as the evolution of a gigantic tortoise or elephant or human from a single-celled predecessor scrabbling around in the primordial soup. After all, if whales saved by people from entangling fishing nets frequently hang around after being rescued to express their gratitude, might not that little bird have been doing the same?
Indeed, I think animals and trees and insects must be hollering themselves hoarse trying to get through to us humans, hoping to set us straight about how to live on the earth without wrecking everything. The indigenous people of North America certainly believed animals and insects and birds and clouds and rivers and trees and stones were talking to them, teaching them the laws of nature, and that if a person listened and observed carefully enough, the animals and insects and fish and birds and clouds and rivers and trees and stones would reveal everything Great Spirit wanted us to know, Great Spirit being their name for God or Nature or Universe.
The funny thing to me about the idea of our existing within the body of a vastly intelligent universe, and by funny I mean both amusing and perplexing, is that so many people find the idea idiotic and even dangerous. Yet assuming we do actually exist, we do so within the body of the universe. Right? So the perceived idiocy of the idea must be about whether or not the universe is intelligent; and before we can answer that question we would have to agree on a definition of intelligence, and since we will never be able to agree about that, the discussion ends here.
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said. A.A. Milne
I was once saved by a bird, and for all I know I was saved again by that little sparrow I saved a few days ago, my saving of her being my salvation though I didn’t know it was my salvation at the time and don’t fully know it now, though I have an inkling. The bird I know that saved me was a ptarmigan, a large pigeon-like bird I encountered in the Canadian Rockies.
I was in my early twenties and living as a vagabond, running away from my parents and the material trappings of American society, living out of a backpack, working as a laborer and dishwasher and playing the guitar and singing on street corners. I was also running from a deep dark depression born of feeling like a worthless piece of shit for not bending to the will of my parents and succeeding on their terms rather than my own. However, I wasn’t keenly aware of harboring such depressive tendencies because I was always on the move, always trying to make enough money to get food, always searching for safe places to spend the night.
I had heard from others of my kind that the Canadian government (this was in the 1970’s) had set up a network of free hostels for transients all across their vast country, and so I spent the better part of a summer staying in those hostels and hitching west from eastern Canada to the charming hamlet of Jasper, Alberta on the banks of the mighty Athabasca River. I camped by the Athabasca, drank good cheap beer in the Athabasca Hotel, played volleyball in the little park in the center of town, saw an excellent performance of The Fantasticks, and spent my days fly fishing and climbing mountains alone and without rope or climbing equipment, bagging several peaks that rose from the valley in which Jasper lay.
I was foolish to hike alone, the wilderness there vast and unforgiving, but climbing mountains alone was truly idiotic, even suicidal, and I think I knew that on some level of my consciousness, for I was often afraid on my climbs, yet went on climbing nonetheless.
So at last there came a moment when I found myself balanced precariously on a tiny ledge on a cliff with nothing below me but air for thousands of feet down, with thirty feet of sheer cliff above me and no apparent way to go up. I was hot and tired and terribly thirsty, and I remember looking back the way I’d come and seeing no possible way to return. Then I looked the other way and saw that the ledge I was standing on came to abrupt end at a large nose of granite protruding into space.
I truly thought I was going to die. There was no way back, no way forward, now way down, no way up. And on the heels of the thought that I was going to die came another thought: Good riddance, you failure, you loser, you useless piece of shit. And as that deep dark depression I’d been running from finally caught up to me and grabbed hold of my spirit, I honestly think I was about to step off into space and end my life.
At which moment, on the aforementioned nose of granite at the dead end of the little ledge I was standing on, there appeared a large pigeon-like bird I would later identify as a ptarmigan. Now this bird did not fly out of the sky and land on the granite nose. No, she hopped up there from some place out of my view, and then she hopped down onto my ledge and waddled right up to me and pecked the toe of my boot. Then she looked up at me and said, “Oodle oodle. Oodle oodle,” which not only means “Hey, Buddy, you’re blocking my path,” but also turns out to be an incantation for dispelling suicidal tendencies in depressed people stuck on tiny ledges on cliffs.
I know this to be true because by the time she uttered her third oodle oodle I was laughing and climbing that last thirty feet to the top, finding handholds and footholds I’d never imagined could be there.
At the top of that cliff I crawled away from the edge into a gently sloping alpine meadow filled with wildflowers and transected by a burbling brook of the sweetest water I have ever tasted.
So maybe life is a random meaningless crapshoot, but I have my reasons for thinking otherwise.