June 17, 2016 Victoria, BC, Canada
Back home here I intend to listen for birds. Today, first morning, early, through the open window of the bedroom, I heard chickens. It was not a sound I expected.
When we attended the bird-watching walk last week at our high school 50th reunion, a moment of belonging surprised me.
Mr. Cone, from the forested edge of a sports field in Andover, Mass., pointed out a robin and three cowbirds poking in the grass for insects. I wanted to exhibit expertise, so I commented that we don’t see cowbirds here on Vancouver Island. It shows I don’t know much. Today, consulting my trusty Naturalists Guide to the Victoria Region (1986), I find Brown-headed cowbirds common here in summer. Embarrassing. I won’t persist in claiming much knowledge of birds.
Mr. Cone called the group’s attention to a phoebe repeating its own name in a tree. In that bird-watching group I felt somewhat comfortable. There were maybe a dozen of us. All ages. The youngest slept attached to her mom in a snuggly. For the mom, it was a 10th reunion. Girls go to Phillips Academy now, unlike in our day. Probably in that group, only the baby knew less about birds than I did. We all, however, had turned up first thing in the morning to wander the campus edges with binoculars. Just being there must confer some membership, I felt. We few, among the hundreds, had opted to stand and listen for a phoebe.
Mr. Cone was eldest in the group, the only person in all four days of the reunion who I called Mister. He started teaching Biology at Phillips the September after we graduated, 1966. Observing and assisting birdlife on campus clearly delights him. Mr. Cone brings to life Thomas Berry’s comment that real scientists develop “…that awareness, that intimacy with the world, that capacity for presence, that capacity for exultation….”
We recalled that our Biology teacher, Mr. Sanborn, was equally connected with birds. He sponsored the Natural History Club. My best memories of Sundays at Andover are from Mr. Sanborn’s back yard and porch, trapping and tagging birds. He and Mrs. Sanborn left home on Sunday afternoons, and students manned the bird-banding station. Fastening a metal ring on the leg of a tiny chickadee required delicacy; handling an angry grackle took nerve. Banding brings you physically into contact with those other beings. I remember also feeling surprised and impressed on a Natural History Club outing when one of the students identified some little hidden bird in the forest just from hearing its voice.
Listening for the phoebe in Mr. Cone’s group felt different from looking at the cowbirds. Looking was more active. Listening required allowing. It caused me to quiet and open my brain. It let the field and trees flow into me somehow, along with the bird sounds. I felt at-home. Tears came. The moment unified that reunion weekend, our student years and the fifty in between.
The weekend had begun with a rush of dread on the Thursday afternoon. I hid it from Sherryll I think, as we parked the rental car beside the old cemetery across the road from my 12th grade dorm. Lonely outsider memories took hold. Thursday evening and Friday, however, felt OK, friendly and conversational. I learned that other boys had struggled in their own ways; other men also evolve; old men cherish old moments of goodness. The band Thursday night played ‘60s and ‘70s songs that made me dance. Friday morning I ran the Cross-Country 5k circuit, having prepared for the past year. Gerry, 50 years ago, never could run the whole route. I had something to prove. Heartbreak Hill did not make me walk on Friday morning. Now, listening for the phoebe, a gift had returned.
Gerry, the boy at Andover, experienced nature’s energy or presence or spirit. The man, Gerald, has aspired for years to reconnect. Listening for birds, it now occurred to me, might be a key. I might carry home the key. I asked you how many species you know by ear. About sixty, you said. I doubt I will get that far.
Coming back to Victoria, I did recognize the first early morning bird sounds. The neighbours have kept hens in their back yard for years, but I didn’t expect to hear them. I never hear back yard sounds from bed in the morning. I hear front yard sounds.
Sherryll and I have slept at the front of the building, in the living-dining room for the past couple years. We open a window onto Fern Street. Sherryll’s mother Emma has had the bedroom. Upstairs are empty beds we could sleep in, but Emma might not be safe alone downstairs at night. She stayed in respite care during our trip to the east coast. Returning too late in the day to bring Emma home, we slept one night in the bedroom. Hence, chicken sounds through the window.
Chickens, why not – the bird sound to which our ancestors awakened over thousands of years. My mother, for example: Christie’s childhood included chickens in the yard and a chopping block. Returning from the Great War (1914-18) and buying a farm, my grandfather would not kill animals, so Mom learned to chop. Keeping hens for eggs dates back at least to the Roman Empire. Eggs appear on a shopping list clay tablet from Roman Britain. No bird is more domestic than Gallus gallus domesticus. No bird sound more cozy than hens. Ironically, Rome gave us also glass for our windows, with which we commonly shut out birdsong.
Hens crooning and clucking is the characteristic bird sound of our planet. Any visiting extra-terrestrial would report it so. A population of 20 billion makes the chicken the world’s most numerous bird. Its numbers also make it the world’s most successful modern dinosaur.
When we were learning about evolution from Mr. Sanborn, science believed, I think, that dinosaurs all faded into extinction around 66 million years ago. Their whole fabulous planetary Era, the Mesozoic with its giant-fern jungles, drifted away. Earth awoke to the Cenozoic, our Era of birds and flowers, bees and butterflies, mammals. We supposed that the passage from Mesozoic to Cenozoic had been gradual. We didn’t know about our asteroid collision disaster in the Yucatan. It blasted the planet, we believe now, out of an old Era of Earth’s life, into a new.
We now believe also that various feathered dinosaur species survived the mass extinction. This comes as news to me; I had no idea that birds bloom on life’s dinosaur branch. In fact, bird evolution was well progressed by the time the asteroid hit. The ancestor of ducks and chickens had already separated from forerunners of ostriches, and of other modern birds.
In our Cenozoic, birds have proliferated gloriously. Now humans wrap up the Era with bird decimation: another Roman concept – putting to death one in every ten. Applied to bird species, that prediction would be conservative. Chickens however, should thrive. Their domestic status protects them. As we degrade planetary life, even the most ignorant human knows we still need chickens. Gallus gallus domesticus, our dinosaurs in the yard, peck and scratch into yet another Era. Billions, we must admit, sit crammed into tiny cages stuffing themselves on pellets and drugs. Beyond the neighbours’ laurel hedge though, chickens peck and scratch the soil.
Bird colour and song have typified the brilliant Cenozoic. Theologian, Thomas Berry (The Dream of the Earth, 1988 & 2015) called these 66 million years the lyric period of our planet. Recently, he notes, in the full flowering of Earth’s most lively Era, evolution has brought forth human mind. Earth has gained new capacity. In human mind, Berry asserts, the planet now reflects upon itself. Human mind lets Earth observe its own processes, learn its own mechanisms. Its new level of consciousness shoves life beyond the style of evolution that has developed it thus far. Earth may consciously create new creatures now, and destroy them. Genetic engineering takes over genesis.
Classic evolution no longer determines life’s becoming. Its expanded consciousness does. Us. The thought might sober. Our science, technology, economy, laws, wisdom or lack thereof, love of being or lack thereof, will determine the future of planetary existence. Which living things we eliminate, which new beings we create, depends on human choices. Classic evolution has developed life so amazingly in its first three or four billion years. Now we carry the ball. So new and so vast Earth’s investment in our frail selves, we can scarcely register our moral challenge. A brave new Era, for sure.
Thomas Berry has named it the Ecozoic. I love his hopeful choice in the term “Ecozoic Era”, “the era of the house of living beings”. “Ecozoic” expresses Berry’s intention that we humans find our at-homeness here. My own problem with habitual disconnection from nature is not solely personal. We have worked thousands of years for our perceived separateness.
Now science disturbs that perception. Science sends Earth selfies from space. We gaze down into still water and see, looking back into our eyes, a living whole planet. Absorbed always in our own reflection, “You beauty,” we say, “Who are you?” Earth’s awareness of self awakens in us. We are the planet, conscious. Separate? Hardly. Life cycles every moment its earth, air, fire and water through me. I breathe Earth’s breath and pump life’s salty blood. A whale in distant ocean slaps its fin and splashes me. I cannot exist separate from life systems, from communities within communities within communities. I live, science reveals, as a leaf of a tree. Lay axe to the tree, and I wither.
I have cut quite a few trees recently, and planted many. I have lopped, sawn and uprooted young Golden willow, Horse-chestnut, laburnum and holly trees, invaders in areas of native plant habitat that I protect and restore. I have planted Garry oak, Black hawthorne, Red alder, Pacific crab apple and others native to this valley where I live. Conflict among humans sometimes has arisen. Those gentle hen voices through the laurel hedge bring the conflict back into my mind, into my breathing, muscles and pulse.
A few years ago I planted trees in the park behind our back yards. Not just me – a community project developed beds of local native plants at three corners of the grassy field. We raised funds, found institutional partners, involved the Neighbourhood Association and the Parks Department. But we gravely offended some households around the park who didn’t want planted beds. Scars on relationships persist.
In restoration gardening, working with friends to enliven bits of habitat, I have found my retirement vocation. But it’s also political. Choices about public spaces get personal. I persist because I love working with my fellow gardeners and because the stakes are my self-respect. Will I take some part, however little or local, in reconciling us with nature, or will I play dead and grow old sour?
Natural habitat, the woods at the edge of the Andover campus were, Gerald, your Eden, where energy presence of night forest still could make your hair stand on end, where God might still speak to you on the pond at night in the voices of ducks. Turn your back on that garden. Walk out as far as you can go into the civilization that surrounds it. But you walk on a globe. Listen, you’re back again, fifty years or ten thousand later. Hear, through this garden gate, June birdsong glory in there. This gate has no lock. Lift the latch; pull; one step and you’re in. That heavy thing you pack, that self, yes. It’s good; bring it in; plant it. Birds may sing in the tree that grows from it.