SOUNDING THE WISDOM OF BIRDS
In recent years, the sound of birdsong has seemed to me increasingly full of meaning – a clear note of common sense in an increasingly shrill and discordant world. I don’t know if the world is any less sane than it used to be, or if it just seems that way as you get older. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Regardless, there is something about birdsong that cuts through the nonsense, registering, to my ear at least, as a sane reminder of God’s goodness, and as a call to practice a certain detachment from worldly priorities and concerns.
Where I live, in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia, birdlife abounds. With it comes a dazzling variety of birdsong: the nattering of rainbow lorikeets, the carolling of magpies, the world-weary croak of ravens, the sonar ping of bellbirds, the raucous shriek of cockatoos, or the hilarious outburst of a kookaburra, amused beyond all reason by the fact I’ve been lying awake since 4am, fretting about the sorry state of the world instead of heralding the new day together with him and his various feathered companions. While the Australian bush provides many and varied examples of what I’m talking about, even in the city – if you lend an ear – you might still encounter the wisdom of birdsong, riding weightless over the restless hubbub of the streets.
Of course, practically every wisdom tradition holds that there’s something to be learned from the way of birds, and the Christian Bible is no exception:
Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
Jesus’ entreaty for us to consider the birds of the air as a suitable pattern for our trust in God is perhaps one of the most well-known examples. Later on in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus returns our attention to the birds to remind us of the intimate relationship with God for which we are made, and of God’s special concern for us among all his creatures:
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care… So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
In a wonderful commentary on this passage, Martin Luther was likewise struck by the powerful significance of Jesus’ use of birds as an illustration of certain spiritual truths, noting how the comparison itself invites an attitude of humility that is itself a precondition for spiritual discernment:
It is a great and abiding disgrace to us that in the Gospels a helpless sparrow should become a theologian and a preacher to the wisest of men. We have as many teachers and preachers as there are little birds in the air. Their living example is an embarrassment to us… Whenever you listen to a nightingale, therefore, you are listening to an excellent preacher… It is as if he were saying, ‘I prefer to be in the Lord’s kitchen. He has made heaven and earth, and he himself is the cook and the host. Every day he feeds and nourishes innumerable little birds out of his hand.’
Martin Luther, The Sermon on the Mount (1521)
Luther’s comments here remind me of a line from Wendell Berry’s prose poem What are People For? in which the author opines: ‘The teachers are everywhere. What is wanted is a learner.’ This in turn reminds me of one of my favourite poems, also by Berry, inspired by the humble sparrow to which Christ repeatedly refers. The poem is simply titled, Sparrow, and this is how it reads:
A sparrow is
His hunger organized.
Filled, he flies
before he knows he’s going to.
And he dies by the
same movement: filled
with himself, he goes
by the eye-quick
reflex of his flesh
out of sight,
leaving his perfect
absence without a thought.
I sometimes refer to this poem in my Introduction to Creative Writing class, as a way of demonstrating the intricacies of ‘free verse’ poetry, and as an example of how poems of great spiritual resonance often succeed by focussing on subject matter that is decidedly ‘down-to-earth’. To round out my present discussion of how the wisdom of birdsong might inspire an imaginative response, I offer a short commentary on Berry’s poem, followed by a somewhat longer poem of my own, inspired by quite a different bird.
Despite appearances, there’s a lot going on in Berry’s small poem. For a start, the length is ideally suited to the subject matter – short and sweet. (Can you imagine a long-winded ode to something as humble and fleeting as a sparrow?). The language is likewise sparse and simple and down to earth, just like a sparrow, while the use of consonance (‘eye-quick reflex of his flesh’) helps convey the very movements being described.
No line lingers too long or falls too short – keeping the entire poem neat and compact, also like its subject. Berry’s playful use of line breaks also helps draw attention to key ideas and images, opening up the possibility of multiple readings. Consider the straightforward declarative statement of the opening line: ‘A sparrow is’. This simple statement of fact – that the sparrow simply exists – speaks volumes. The sparrow is what it is, and does what it does, as a matter of course, thereby fulfilling its purpose. His entire way of life is organised around his most essential need – his hunger – which is far from complicated. And therein lies the miracle (and the great spiritual truth) at the heart of the poem. All of Berry’s poetic technique, therefore, lends force to the impression of the sparrow as a solitary creature, simple and fleeting, yet beautiful in its habits and patterns of behaviour. Here one second and gone the next, ‘leaving his perfect absence without a thought’.
The ending here is ironic, alluding to our typical indifference towards such a humble creature, while at the same time inviting us to stop and think again. There’s a hint that Berry sees in the sparrow a metaphor for our own fleeting existence, and yet the infinite worth in a life lived so simply and so faithfully – a thought that derives further power from the implied reference to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Of course, birds have long proved a powerful poetic symbol – consider Keats’ immortal nightingale, Hopkins’ dapple-drawn falcon, Poe’s ominous raven, or Dickinson’s identification of hope as ‘a thing with feathers’. The list is endless. Indeed, the place of birds in human experience is as rich and varied as the 10,000 plus species that grace our wonderful planet. The presence and habits of birds help define our sense of place, the movement of the seasons, even the time of day. It should hardly come as a surprise, therefore, that birds should figure prominently in mythology, in folklore, in story, song, and religious symbolism. I probably also shouldn’t be surprised that, as I’ve gotten older, birds and birdsong have taken on a heightened significance, working their way into at least a handful of poems.
One such poem began some years ago when I woke in the night to the sound of magpies singing. At the time we lived in a house surround by farmland – large paddocks populated mainly by cattle and studded with enormous river red gums. It must have been around 2am when I woke, though through the gap below the bedroom blind I could tell there was a bright moon shining. Still, dawn was still a long way off, and so the sound of any bird carrying on so enthusiastically seemed quite absurd. I remember listening and almost laughing out loud at the thought of it. Why on earth were they singing at this hour? Weren’t all good birds sound asleep in their nests? Had they mistaken the bright moon for the light of dawn, perhaps? That seemed a fascinating and plausible idea, since the light from the moon is indeed reflected sunlight. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t escape the feeling that there was some profound meaning in what I was hearing.
While the sound of the magpies carolling kept me from sleep, I found myself oddly mesmerised. I’d never noticed how beautiful magpie song can be – how acrobatic in tone and pitch. The way they sing in phrases, each line resembling the last but never quite the same – it reminded me of the plainsong chant of the medieval Church. I spent a long while wondering about all this before finally drifting back to sleep, and when I woke again to the usual dawn chorus, I could still hear the magpies carrying on with the other birds. Again, I had to laugh. What was it they were saying?
The whole experience planted itself in my imagination that night, so that I knew I would eventually write about it. Weeks later, as part of my study of writing at the time, I encountered the poetic form known as a pantoum – an exotic form of Malay origin. A pantoum is similar to a villanelle, in that certain lines are repeated throughout the poem. It is composed of a series of quatrains, with the second and fourth lines of each stanza being repeated as the first and third lines of the next. The entire poem typically concludes by returning to the theme of the opening stanza, with the first line of the poem serving also as the last. This recycling of lines struck me as an ideal form for trying to capture the hypnotic, almost liturgical repetition of the magpie singing I had heard. Thus, armed with a compelling idea and a suitable form, I spent a week or more crafting the following poem:
Into a Pied Night Sky
J. A. Cooper
Into a pied night sky I heard
full-throttle-throatal madness – song
of magpie, strange religious bird,
a nocturn chant sung soft and long.
Full-throttle-throatal madness – song
of magpie, worship in the night.
At nocturn chant sung soft and long,
full-faced the moon beamed down. In spite
of magpie worship in the night,
none-else would heed his long appeal.
Full-faced the moon beamed down despite
the faithless silence of the fields.
None-else would heed the long appeal –
he chortled bright and babbled on.
The faithless silence of the fields
gave way to plaintive evensong.
He chortled bright and babbled on –
the dark, unwilling to compete,
gave way. To plaintive evensong
I drifted, in and out of sleep.
The dark, unable to compete,
dissolved to luminescent shade.
I drifted in and out of sleep
on tides of pious warbling. Day
dissolved to luminescent shade
cast by the moon’s world-weary arc;
on tides of pious warbling day-
light lapped the shores of heathen dark.
Beneath the moon’s world-weary arc,
in priestly black, the chant was led.
From light-lapped shores of heathen dark
I wondered at the sounds he said.
In priestly black the chant was led
all night – it seemed quite mad. But still
I wondered if the sounds he said
were meant some high truth to reveal.
All night it seemed quite mad, yet still
he had in mind to sing, forlorn.
Were it some high truth once revealed,
forgotten dusk or coming dawn,
he had in mind to sing? Forlorn,
to those who’d hear, he railed:
Forgotten dusk! A coming dawn!
In garbled gobbled strains he hailed
to all who’d hear. He railed
against the solace of all sleep
in garbled, gobbled strains. He hailed
his sermon: by all means, compete
against the solace of your sleep,
now that the moon grows low and pale.
His sermon, by no means complete,
was barely altered, did not fail.
And as the moon grew low and pale,
the stifling dark – offset by light
that, though it faltered, wouldn’t fail –
was pierced by his disturbing rite.
The darkest hour, offset by light
of dawn, at rising of the sun,
was pierced by the disturbing rite
of warblers’ birdsong freely flung.
At dawn and rising of the sun,
a host of songsters joined the pie-
bald warbler. Birdsong freely flung
declared his madness justified.
More rousing songsters joined the pie-
bird’s carolled chorus at the sun –
declared his madness justified
with black-white certainty. As one,
birds carolled, chorused at the sun,
in thanks for promised day that shone
with black-white certainty. Still one
lone curdled descant carried on –
in thanks for promised day: that song
of magpie, strange religious bird,
whose curdled descant carry-on
into a pied night sky, I heard.
James Cooper is Senior Editor of inScribe Journal and teaches creative writing at Adelaide’s Tabor College. His work has appeared in numerous journals including Dappled Things, Light Quarterly, and Quadrant. In September 2022 he published his first novel for young adults, Something About Alaska, through MidnightSun Publishing. You can find him on Facebook.
Thumbnail image adapted with permission from an original photograph by Chris Walker.