Annunciations, art, birds, birdwatching, death, Gadamer, philosophy, poetry, St Cecilia, Summer Lee, WS Merwin
The birds come and go here just as Fox Sparrow does in his homecomings and disappearances back on the West coast. Just as truth and beauty migrate out onto another unreachable continent when trying to reason with them. Why can’t you stay here to remind me, I ask through my binoculars. Just once. Their wondrous plumage and secretive calls draw us out from the smallness of our shelters, out into the rainy forests and sometimes in communion with each other, the alive and lonely. This year all the rarest of ones flickered across my field, even a tiny, crystal-blue Cerulean Warbler that spends most of his time too high for anybody to see. A Hooded Warbler touched down too, in a darkly flooded forest where he normally does not, just for two days. Then they leave and we are alone again. Maybe that’s why I told a beautiful woman birder that I saw the rarest bird, when in fact I hadn’t seen it at all. Something about the mix of her beauty and shyness, and something about me being mistaken and humbled. But maybe that bird is still there in our minds, more glorious and hopeful than if we had even seen it.
(Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia of Music. Sculpture by Stefano Maderno, 1599.)
What if this wave of unrelenting and invisible death was actually a grace. Except of course for the poor and vulnerable who always die for our sins. All while I suffocate in the safety around me in the anxiety that it’s never enough. Like when I impatiently told her she just needed exercise when in fact she was just about to die, swollen with failed organs, failed also by my insulated stupidity born of fear.
One time out in the twilight of a chaparral migration, stranger birds gathered in a circle. And even more strangely invited me. They had gathered in order to die. But being birds, they had to first learn how to die through song.
I listened. And of course cried too, as one does even at a stranger’s funeral. One sang of her young daughter who died suddenly. And when the mother’s song entered the abyss of dark and permanent grief, her daughter would come sing to her, to the point where I could almost hear it too. I still don’t want to know if it was an apparition of the psyche or from the other side, because it’s the same place where my own grandmother speaks to me.
This mother had brought with her the chaplain she had met in the hospital. Yes, there is always a bird there, even if we don’t believe, and here she was in the body of a middle-aged, white woman wearing a collar. The chaplain sang to me too, as I worried about my own son treading a difficult path through life. As she warbled, we all sat crying for ourselves and for that mother. Her song was about just being there at the right time, reminding us that our bodies know how to die when it is time.
But the timing of the young daughter’s song, as well as this chaplain, was uncanny. Like the little 9th century bell in Rocamadour that rings when there is an incontestable miracle. Not all pilgrims who have climbed on their bloody, tired knees to that church will hear it. But I can hear that birdsong from that circle of death, even if they are on the other side of the earth now.
Through all the hatred to be had of insufferable humanity, its never-ending range of evils, these migratory birds continue to love me well through certain people, strangers even. Just through their words. Through the poetic words they send me, calls to the heart that rain down on me in dark, muddy forests. In poetic words, there lies the impossibility of their birdsong — as impossible as it is to hold truth and beauty too — that living is through learning how to die. One word at a time, one song, risking itself into unreachable silence.
“The greater miracle of language lies not in the fact that the Word becomes flesh and emerges in external being, but that that which emerges and externalizes itself in utterance is always already a word.” Gadamer, Truth and Method.