The outskirts of Tahoe National Forest. I followed the early morning mists of little winged bugs along the edge of a forested reservoir, a small cohort of Audubon’s Warblers chasing them also. With a mind galloping through what if’s and what-nots, I sat next to their cathedral, a half-dead tree once under the water line. Its branches stretched arthritically out towards that which feeds it but also puts it asunder. One by one every species of woodland bird worked its way out of the dense pine forest to that diminuitive tree. They would land with a pause, flit a little, perhaps taking a careless bug in this gathering place, then sail down below to the stony water edge. They were singing me stories of wretchedness, of betrayal and harshness from those who didn’t believe they know better. They described predators with only few survival skills who violate their homes, even when their bellies are far from empty. But they also sung of the little joys of sunlight, improbable births, childlike pauses, and cool reservoir water. Fiercely aching nights and warm morning updrafts. And times when every species and variety of plant and bug is available, and times when their children grew silent in the cold. Warblers, nuthatches, wrentits, chickadees, flycatchers, a few I didn’t know, and a rufous sided towhee — the little delicate species, the singers. My favorites. For years this lasted. I have been devoted to them.
Someone once said that birds remind him of an existence before human civilization, of times outside of wars, laws, buildings. Before human suffering and its impulsive response of further suffering. But these birds were not solely of the sweetness of summer, though they had the resilience and the evolutionary wisdom to live as if that was all they knew. Because today it was summer.
(A photo from my studio, by Shae Rocco).
It seemed my birthright to make an offering. Give something, though those little birds of course needed nothing. Steiner reminds that art is free, gratuitous, not for anything, so much so that every artful creation calls forth an awareness that it might not have been. So somehow turning this moment into a drawing or even writing seemed superfluous, like a scarf around Rilke’s torso. And it is.
Because in this moment I also felt like I might not have been, that everything I’ve done and made might have been otherwise. I felt humble, like the chanters of holy songs, whose talents are free and freely given. So, for whatever reason, because I was perfectly alone, I began to sing. My mom would be excited to know I quietly sang songs from her faith, maybe because that foreign language seemed as intimate and yet dispossessed as the birdsong around me — it contains a hint of something inextricable even as it is unknown. And despite my usual anxiety of needing more, I had a moment of needing nothing, a necessary condition for gift-giving, even if it is song-giving. Towards everything surrounding the birds and all the radiating objects and memories and people I know and knew. And as the scene pulsated, the birds neared me one by one as part of their ritual, into otherwise lethal distances. A Townsend Warbler landed a few inches above my head. After that a Kinglet slid down to the frayed end of a branch four inches from my eyes. Another Audubon’s Warbler almost upon my shoulder. They exerted themselves to me. And so I cease to sing.
” — for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” Rilke