Tuesday, April 10, 2018

an ornithological moment

This is where the pileated woodpecker gets its name—the "pileus" or cap of the freed slave. 


I didn't come to theology grad school to untangle the mysteries of my childhood breakfast table, but the professor’s brief aside illuminates the Saturday ritual of standing at the kitchen sink, filling a plastic tumbler from an old Carolina Mudcats baseball game with tap water for myself as my dad whips up pancakes and sausage on the stove top.

Outside the window above the sink, where my gaze fixes as the faucet runs, hangs a suet feeder my father fills faithfully to lure the woodpeckers who live in the woods behind our house into close viewing range. He teaches me, as does my grandmother’s Audubon guide to birds, to identify the nuthatch and the chickadee, and to distinguish between the downy and hairy woodpeckers. He models for me the patience of waiting for the birds to arrive and the askesis of dropping whatever else you are doing at a moment’s notice when the rare, reclusive pileated woodpecker makes a cameo.

Bird-watching is lauded for the practice of patience it demands. But I think what I learned from nature is not so much the practice of attentiveness, but rather the call of the immediate.

If you keep your nose stuck in school books, under the pressure of a deadline, you will miss the woodpecker. Statistically, certainly, a pileated woodpecker will return. You could, probably, keep reading and still get to see one eventually, later. But that is not certain.

I wonder if my father knew what he was teaching me, when he called me from piano practice, computer game-playing, reading, or chores to behold the prized birds that appeared at his suet feeder. Did he realize he was teaching me to heed when beauty interrupts me?

Nothing reveals the arbitrariness of a deadline than an epiphany of nature. The interruption of the natural into our constructed world offers an invitation to the immediate moment. Perhaps this is a gentle version of “the experience of the world as utterly resistant to the self,” which Rowan Williams cites as the condition of the possibility of honest poetry, honest encounter with the universe.

The pileated woodpecker, like the spirit, blows where she wills. He will arrive when he pleases, and disappear when he desires, and will not abide by human structures. He offers the opportunity for an encounter, and you can decide whether or not to heed when your mother or father shouts, excitedly: “Renée, come!” and pound up the stairs, down the hall, tip-toe quietly into the kitchen and stare out your window at a creature who offers wonder. David Kelsey says that it is not an essential aspect of animals’ nature to offer blessing to humans. Perhaps not. But it seems essential to ours to find blessing in them.

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