Theology of Birds

Illustration by Lauren Di Biccari.

It is difficult to describe the Theology of Birds to which I am devoted, except to compare it to what Emerson said of his own spiritual condition: “It is always fully felt but ever only half thought out.” This summer, when I heard the voice of a black-billed cuckoo, it did not, to my ear, belie any spiritual emptiness. On the contrary, I was reminded of eighteenth-century bird artist Mark Catesby, who heard in the cuckoo’s haunting cry message after message from eternity. Anyway, if I had the black-billed cuckoo’s experiences, abilities, and timeless dignity, let alone its voice, I would feel whole. Not to mention its ethereal beauty. This admits to the lofty aspiration to be other than human.  And therefore, in part, it is what I mean by theology.

In my Vermont diaries of some thirty years, I’ve named every summer after a bird. The older I get, the more I see this as a kind of archival defense against fading memory; in the future I can page through and say, oh, yes, that was The Summer of the Kestrel, or, The Summer of the Eastern Phoebe. You get the idea. During a given summer, one bird always seems to be on higher exhibit than another. I cannot always say why. I suppose it depends on what naturally falls into one’s attentions. I suppose it also depends on what is otherwise going on in quotidian life. The summer of 2012, for example, seemed almost sponsored by a relentless insomnia. Because of this, I witnessed, on nine different moonlit nights, a barred owl lift from the butternut tree and, in a blur and stretch of talons, sweep up a fat toad from the dirt road in front of my house. Each time I had been sitting on the front stoop without a thought in my head, more or less just waiting for the BBC to come on the radio. So naturally, that summer was The Summer of The Barred Owl. This past summer was The Summer of the Black-Billed Cuckoo.

My wife Jane and I did not arrive in Vermont until late July this year. On our first morning at home, walking in the rain, I heard a strange, wild voice I could not identify. Admittedly, my skill at identifying birds through their voices is at best dilapidated. But this voice didn’t lend itself to the least familiarity. What is that? Not a clue.

I brought it up later at our annual neighborhood potluck, held at Scott and Charlotte Bassage’s house. Lobster salad. Potato salad. Bread. Wine. The works. All set out on a picnic table. An exquisite late summer evening, rain in the offing, but holding off. As is customary at such gatherings – may I suggest, even expected – a kind of zoological gossip is exchanged. Kathy knew a bear had been at her blueberry bushes. An eagle, a kestrel, a fisher, a skunk ventured into someone’s mud room. This sort of informal reportage is altruistic. There is a mutual solace in hearing that the world is still in good order. And there is a humbling recognition that the creatures we talk about don’t need us. They only need to be left alone. Blessing for us, each time they allow us to see them.

However, before dinner, as we sat around a table in the house, the main topic of conversation was The Mysterious Voice. Eric Sorenson, co-author of Wetland, Woodland, Wildland, A Guide to the Natural Communities of Vermont, sat patiently listening to my hapless, if heartfelt, attempts to recreate the sound. He refrained from comment, no sudden burst of bragging erudition, unlike shouting an answer in a game of Charades. Finally, he said, “Oh, that’s a black-billed cuckoo. Probably it’s following the caterpillars around.” Almost immediately, Scott looked up the black-billed cuckoo on his ipad and played its call. The recording had a little static, but there it definitely was, the voice we’d all been hearing out in the sloping fields, or edge of the woods, from some hidden place in the neighborhood of birds. Eric was showered with well-deserved gratitude and admiration, which he deflected by saying, “You would have probably found this out yourselves.” Still, I experienced this whole incident as if an urgent Morse code message from the natural world had been interpreted and its good news read aloud, a miraculous reprieve from ignorance, a lovely clarification, a purchase on reality, a gift.

Early the next morning, along the brief walk to my writing cabin, I again heard the voice. Looking in The Sibley Guide to Birds, I found this Cuckoo’s voice described as “a hollow whistled po po po repeated; sometimes a long, rapid series gradually falling into triplet patterns.” The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds of Vermont verifies Eric’s theory: “The species is usually most numerous in areas experiencing outbreaks of caterpillars, particularly the hairy varieties that most other bird species avoid.” Reading this, I recalled that during the potluck Kathy remarked on her recent sightings of such caterpillars. “It seems there are more around than this time last year,” she said.

A morning’s search in my library of natural history art revealed no depictions of a black-billed cuckoo from antiquity, but did offer a watercolor of a black-faced cuckoo, done by William Ellis in 1785 while accompanying James Cook on an expedition to the Kingdom of Tonga and other far-flung islands. Ellis wrote of the black-faced cuckoo, “In its few simple precincts of subdued color, its regal posture, its plaintive soundings, I’m told it resembles the black-billed cuckoo of the North American continent. Again, witness the disparate outposts of the world connected by birdsong. It is a mystery and an orchestration of existence that fairly brings on deep religious feelings.”

I cannot help but feel that this sentiment suggests that Ellis, who died after he fell from the mainmast of a ship at Ostend, may have developed his own Theology of Birds.

A Theology of Birds is a private matter. When someone remarks in passing, “I saw that pileated woodpecker again today,” there’s no reason to feel that the encounter with a woodpecker struck deep spiritual chords. It’s just the imparting of information. It’s just daily talk.

Still, on some basic level, I consider each and every mention of birds an acknowledgement of the ancient spirits that we live among. Abenaki folktales – from the Vermont region – are astonishingly rich in ornithological observation. In these stories, birds gossip about other birds. Sometimes birds and people talk with each other. Reading these folktales often intensifies in me a nostalgia – or longing – for a time I never lived in. Who in their right mind would not like to speak with birds? (I need help in living this life. I have questions to ask birds.)

In a treatise on Native American folktales, linguist Jaime de Angulo wrote, in 1927, “It’s quite the shock, isn’t it, when you read these folktales and discover that a grey jay, raven, or hawk is arguably capable of a deeper comprehension of life than us humans, capable of feeling things more deeply, far more assured and humorous in their philosophies, and needing far fewer words to put those philosophies across. And the only piousness they find necessary is demonstrated in their natural interactions with mountains, rivers, sea, and sky above. They don’t need to petition a higher entity in order to obtain guidance as to how to act properly. In this regard, it is my contention that no birdsong should be considered prayer.”

Entry in Theology of Birds notebook (August 2, 2013): Late in the afternoon, the voice of a black-billed cuckoo in the rain.

Howard Norman’s most recent book is the memoir, I Hate To Leave This Beautiful Place. His novel, Next Life Might Be Kinder, will be published in 2014. He is also working on a memoir, Will You Be With Me In The Late Hour, which is mostly about birds.


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