Paul Klee, Bird Garden (1924)
ABOUT A YEAR ago I was out with my editor and friend Tony. We were at the Brick Store, a pub in my hometown of Decatur, Georgia, for a brew and a discussion about my book. After a while our talk turned from publishing to life in general. Tony’s a duck hunter and he told me how he loves to get outdoors in the silence and darkness of the morning with his shotgun and Albert, his loyal Labrador retriever. At one point he used the word joy.
As he spoke I grew envious because I knew I had nothing comparable in my life. (Ha! Isn’t that how it is? You hear of someone else’s happiness and your first thought is, “What about me?”) I couldn’t think of any regular activity or place of my own that I could count on to settle my frenzied soul and reconnect me to God and the goodness of reality.
So I had no real answer when Tony asked me, “So how about you? What do you love doing? What’s your thing?”
I mumbled something about playing drums and bass guitar, which I do occasionally, but I knew it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t even close. I imagined Tony and Albert out on the prairie before sunup, their breath making little clouds, walking together in silence, and I knew exactly what he meant when he talked about joy. I have had moments of such joy under the stars. Instead of a 12-gauge and a dog I had a telescope and a thermos of coffee. But that was years ago, in another life. For more than a decade I have known nothing like it.
A few days ago I read this article Tony recently wrote about a happy confluence of hunting and preaching, another of his passions. “What moves me are the outdoors and the silences,” he writes about hunting. It’s the same thing he told me last year.
But as I read Tony’s article I noticed something: his words didn’t evoke envy this time. In fact, they made me glad. This isn’t because I’ve evolved to some higher spiritual plane where envy can’t reach me. It’s because, in this most unlikely of years, I have rediscovered my joy. Like all true joy, it was always there, ready and waiting to shine through ordinary things. Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know what that joy is: birds. Also woods. Any birds, any woods. A single finch in a tree will do.
Birds are ordinary, aren’t they? There is no wildlife more common or conspicuous than birds. Wherever you go, there they are. But if you take the time to stop and watch them you can discover a brand new world all around you. Brand new, yes, but it’s always been there, just waiting for you to notice.
A couple of weeks ago I was in Wisconsin on a work trip and had an afternoon off. I took my binoculars into the woods at Peninsula State Park, hoping to see something new.
As usual, I was not disappointed. Right at the trailhead I got an excellent look at two hairy woodpeckers (funny name, yes). Their longish beaks and size distinguish them — but not by much — from downy woodpeckers, two of which live in our backyard in Decatur. I had known about hairys for a long time but had never before seen one. So this was a lovely encounter. After watching them for a few minutes I walked on. The wind was gentle but steady. The ground was soft underfoot. I saw a few more birds. By the time I left the woods I felt as if I had taken a really excellent shower.
(Note for science nerds: hairy and downy woodpeckers are nearly indistinguishable but are not closely related. They are a fine example of convergent evolution.)
I am writing this in a hotel room in suburban Chicago. Out of my third-story window I can see a parking lot and a few nearly-leafless trees. Just beyond them is Interstate 90, loaded with traffic. Yesterday I woke up jittery and anxious about the day’s work. I didn’t want to leave my room and face it. As I paced nervously I glanced out the window and saw that the trees were heavy with red-winged blackbirds. This is a coast-to-coast species but I almost never see them when I’m close to home — not sure why — so it was pretty cool. They contrasted nicely with the freeway and allowed me to forget myself for a few minutes.
This joy feels new, as all joy does, but it is not. As a boy I spent a year or two in love with birds. I watched them, read about them, dreamed about them, and drew them incessantly. Mom and dad supported my obsession by giving me field guides and recordings of bird songs. But that season passed and I pretty much forgot about birds for nearly 40 years.
During those years I made it through high school, college, graduate school, early adulthood, and 25 years of marriage. My three children were born. I moved eight times. I traveled the world. I reached middle age. My dad died.
It was this last event that returned me to the birds. But they were there the whole time, patiently waiting for me to come back.
James Robert Wallace (1938-2016)
Many thanks to my dear friend Michael Bailey for sending this poem my way a few weeks ago. It has become such a part of my consciousness that I thought I’d share it here.
I’ve wasted my time this morning, and I’m deeply ashamed.
I went to bed last night thinking about my dad.
About that little river we used to fish — Butte Creek —
near Lake Almanor. Water lulled me to sleep.
In my dream, it was all I could do not to get up
and move around. But when I woke early this morning
I went to the telephone instead. Even though
the river was flowing down there in the valley,
in the meadows, moving through ditch clover.
Fir trees stood on both sides of the meadows. And I was there.
A kid sitting on a timber trestle, looking down.
Watching my dad drink from his cupped hands.
Then he said, “This water’s so good.
I wish I could give my mother some of this water.”
My father still loved her, though she was dead
and he’d been away from her for a long time.
He had to wait some more years
until he could go where she was. But he loved
this country where he found himself. The West.
For thirty years it had him around the heart,
and then it let him go. He went to sleep one night
in a town in northern California
and didn’t wake up. What could be simpler?
I wish my own life, and death, could be so simple.
So that when I woke on a fine morning like this,
after being somewhere I wanted to be all night,
somewhere important, I could move most naturally
and without thinking about it, to my desk.
Say I did that, in the simple way I’ve described.
From bed to desk back to childhood.
From there it’s not so far to the trestle.
And from the trestle I could look down
and see my dad when I needed to see him.
My dad drinking that cold water. My sweet father.
The river, its meadows, and firs, and the trestle.
That. Where I once stood.
I wish I could do that
without having to plead with myself for it.
And feel sick of myself
for getting involved in lesser things.
I know it’s time I changed my life.
This life — the one with its complications
and phone calls — is unbecoming,
and a waste of time.
I want to plunge my hands in clear water. The way
he did. Again and then again.
Steve Mandel, Proboscis Monkey
I had the pleasure of meeting with a bunch of scientists and theologians and biblical scholars in Washington DC last week. We were invited there by the Museum of the Bible and tasked with brainstorming a national traveling exhibit on science and the Bible. One of the recurring themes of our conversation was human distinctiveness. What is it exactly that makes us different from other animals?
It’s a fun topic, I guess, but upon coming home and getting back into the swing of things, it struck me that we work pretty hard to draw that line. Yes, there’s that whole divine image thing in Genesis, and I get that. But the way we go about this question seems a little feverish and worried. It’s like MAN WE HAD BETTER come up with some scientifically-verifiable trait that separates us from the general run of God’s critters.
Not that there’s no such trait. I’m not saying there is or there isn’t. I’m just asking: Why is the thought of including us among them so offensive and embarrassing?
“Ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you.” — Job 12.7-8
“There is not an animal that lives on the Earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but forms part of communities like you… they all shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.” — Quran 6.38
“Man, do not pride yourself on your superiority to the animals, for they are without sin, while you, with all your greatness, you defile the earth wherever you appear and leave an ignoble trail behind you.” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Artist’s conception of sunset on Proxima b. Its sun, Proxima Centauri, orbits the stars Alpha and Beta Centauri (the faint pair). Proxima Centauri is the closest star to us (after the Sun of course). Image credit: European Southern Observatory
Doug Pagitt has revived his podcast and given it a catchy new title: Tick Talk Take with Doug Pagitt. On Monday we had a conversation about two recent discoveries: the dark matter galaxy Dragonfly 44 and the exoplanet Proxima b. Dragonfly 44 is unusual in that it’s so large—about the size of the Milky Way—yet composed almost entirely of dark matter. Proxima b is a big deal not because it’s an earthlike planet orbiting another star—we already know of a number of these—but because it’s an earthlike planet orbiting THE STAR NEXT DOOR.
I had a lot of fun with this podcast. Doug is curious and quick and easy to talk to. We cover not only these cool space topics, but science itself: its conservatism, its amazing capacity to be right over time, and its perennial struggle for funding. Doug also asks: Do working scientists embrace their popularizers? And what do astrophysicists DO, anyway?
Here’s the podcast.