“When was the last time you laid your head in the lap of awe?” –From A Knock at the Door
This spring and summer has been a time of winged creatures for me. They have appeared in my life like apparitions of pure joy, sending me messages from the Otherworld and teaching me how to be more alive and aware in this world. Through them I have learned
new lessons about cycles, growth, and transformation. I’ve seen eagles and hummingbirds hatch from the egg and fledge from their nests, and I’ve been shown the secrets of the wild goose and the egret. I’ve kept watch on monarch butterflies in my garden, buying them milkweed, moving them from plant to plant when they’ve eaten all the leaves, helping caterpillars find a place to safely form their chrysalises, and even bringing them inside to place them on branches inside of a terrarium when I noticed that they’d been crawling around for days without finding their perfect spot. (Nothing funnier than a “worm on a
mission”—they seem to be crawling at about 80 miles per hour. Nothing sadder than one who gives up and latches itself onto something where there is not enough room for it to unfold its wings and dry them once it hatches.)
But it’s been the birds that have shown me the most magic this year, that have been my companions in awe.
In the evenings, I often walk along Los Rios Street, the oldest continuously inhabited street in CA, across the railroad tracks in San Juan Capistrano. There’s a park there filled with fragrant native plants like Cleveland sage, salvia, California fucia, and pink fairy duster.
I used to go and sit in that park when I was going through chemo and recovering from cancer. I couldn’t walk much back then because I was always out of breath, but I used to buy myself a large iced Starbuck’s latte and a rice crispy square and sit with a good book at my favorite park table next to the salvia. I’d watch the hummingbirds and big bumble bees go crazy for the purple flowers, and at times I’d catch glimpses of the caged parrot on the
porch of the house with the giant rosebushes, just over the wall.
A couple of months ago I walked by “my” table as I was passing through the park. One of the things I’ve been doing since I’ve been healthy is to send retroactive messages of comfort and reassurance to myself, I guess because I really don’t believe in linear time. I feel that we could touch every moment of our lives simultaneously, if only we hadn’t agreed to live them one at a time.
As I stood behind the bench where I used to sit, I sent my thoughts back through time and imagined putting my hands onto my own shoulders, reassuring myself that I was going to make it, that I was going to get completely well, and that everything was all right. As I stood there pouring love into the Joy who had once sat filling her tired self with sugar and
caffeine and reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia, I heard a sound off in the distance that was strangely familiar. I experienced a weird disjointed sensation, as if I were looking into the face of a loved one but couldn’t remember his name. Suddenly, I recognized this sound as the honking of wild geese.
The only time I had ever heard this cry was when listening to a CD called Simply Sent made by an 80-year-old flute player who had gone to the Canadian wilderness to improvise to the sounds of nature—night time crickets screaming “love, love, love,” morning birds singing hallelujah, and fish jumping out of the water of the lake. One moment he was playing counter-point to the waves lapping against his boat. The next, he went completely quiet as a group of geese approached and then passed by overhead, honking. Tell me, what human instrument could possibly top that? No wonder he fell into awestruck silence. It was as if the entire universe held its breath as those geese flew over.
This was the sound I was hearing now. I quickly looked up and, sure enough, there were two grey geese rowing through the sky above the park. My mouth fell open in absolute astonishment. I was so shocked it took me a full three seconds to register delight. I’ve lived in CA for 19 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen a goose fly overhead. Apparently, they live here all the time, but at that moment it seemed like a miracle.
The Little White Egret
There’s a River in the Los Rios District, at the end of Ramos Street. It’s been contained within concrete banks for flood control, but there’s always water flowing, even at the height of the dry season in summer. I’d often stood at the top of the concrete embankment, longing to reach the water, but unable to figure out a way to get down there. I had walked up toward the woodsy end of the river many times, searching for access, but to no avail.
One day, totally against all logic, I began to walk along the bank in the opposite direction, away from the woods. To my amazement, I found it, a concrete incline that led right down to the water. Feeling like an 8-year-old with a secret, I hurried down to the river and picked my way through the rocks toward the sound of a waterfall. As I got closer, I suddenly saw a white bird head…a long neck…a whole egret standing in the spray at the foot of the small falls, looking for fish.
Now, an egret’s not a bird you see every day. Maybe every three months if you’re lucky. There’s an egret that sometimes stands under the willow tree next to the La Paz freeway on-ramp, and occasionally I’ve seen one fly over the freeway as I’ve been driving home from teaching at UC Irvine. It’s a sight that always takes my breath away and makes me exclaim, “Did I really see that?!”
But there she was, my own private egret, albeit a skinny young one, standing in the falls just like a bird in a Japanese water color. She let me get really close to her too—about eight feet. I stood there for awhile, filled with total love, then quietly backed away from her, as if she were the Queen of England, and walked back up the riverbed.
The next day, as soon as I was finished teaching, I rushed back to Los Rios and to the river. To my amazement, the egret was there fishing again at the base of the waterfall. This time, however, when I tried to get closer, she flew away down the river. When I climbed back up onto the concrete bank and walked closer to where I could see her standing in the water below, she flew away again, into the trees.
The next day and the next when I returned, she wasn’t at the falls. Apparently, I love her, but she doesn’t love me. I realized that the one visitation was a gift, not to be repeated every day. So I made a conscious decision to not go down to the falls anymore, to leave her in peace and hope that she would eventually feel safe enough to come back to her waterfall. She did return eventually, but I don’t try to approach her anymore. When I even look at her for more than a few seconds from the bank above, she starts to shift her weight nervously, so I only sneak glances at her from the corners of my eye, and continue walking. It keeps the egret happy. Two weeks ago, I took my close friend Felis and her daughter Frances for a walk along the embankment and explained the “rules” to them so that they too could enjoy the egret out of the corners of their eyes as we strolled past. Frances
explained to me that it was like the way you were supposed to behave around a strange dog, “Don’t touch. Don’t look her in the eyes.”
Hummer Children, Flossie and Tiny
After my favorite eagle, Solitaire, fledged from her nest at Two Harbors on Catalina Island, and after Prince Henry at the West End nest took off as well, I felt lonely because there weren’t any more young eagles to watch all day as I sat at my computer working. So, on an impulse, and even though it was July, I got online and typed in the words “Live cam, hummingbird nest.” To my amazement, I found a site called “Hummingbirds Up Close” in
Vancouver where Fluff, a veritable teensy-weensy fem fatale, was sitting on her third brood of the season.
I’m insanely in love with hummingbirds—who isn’t?—and watch them all the time at the feeders around my home. They have come to recognize me as the Almighty Bringer of Nectar and hover in front of my study window or rudely buzz me when I go outside if I let the sugar water levels get too low. They are masters of their universe.
I was thrilled to watch Flossie and Tiny, named by Eric Pittman the cam operator, hatch from their eggs looking like little bulgy-eyed bugs and growing into two fat baby hummers who crowded each other in the nest like miniature elephants, whacking each other on the head “wingzersizing” in preparation for their first flight.
One evening when I was saying goodnight to Flossie and Tiny, I was thinking about how nature was something that is so easy for us to love. And I was remembering Baba Yaga, whom many fairy tales depict as an unpredictable and frightening old woman who rides through the woods during the day, standing in her mortar and rowing with her pestle, and who returns at night to her house where glowing human skulls sit atop her walls keeping watch. If you get lost in the forest and stumble into her yard, if you don’t behave politely, she’ll bake you into a pie and have you for dinner. If you treat her with respect, she’ll give you the answer to the one question you can’t go on without.
But Baba Yaga is much more than a flattener of forest paths and an eater of human pies. She has a side that cares for and nurtures all wild living things. She is, in fact, the force in nature that causes the seed to sprout into the plant, the bees to pollinate the blossoms, the trees to bear fruit, and the baby animals and birds to quicken in their mothers’ wombs. She is the heart of the wild, the great lover of the world.
For just a moment, as I overflowed with adoration for the baby hummers, I wondered what it would be like to be a divine being filled with love for everything alive, what it would be like to experience such an immensity of passion, for the love of God, the love of the Goddess can only be pure passion for us, for everything. The vision of such love was amazing. It filled my heart, my entire being. All was well, all was watched over and
guarded. I was a beloved reflection in the Divine eye. Every feathered wing of every baby bird that was about to fledge was strengthened. All natural intelligence was awakened to fulfill the destiny of flight, be it an eaglet or a tiny hummer.
When the first baby hummingbird left the nest I missed it by five minutes—first it was there, then when I checked back it was gone. But I watched the video of its fledging after Eric posted it on Facebook. The Catalina Island eaglets really worked up to the great event—baby eagles stay in the next for about nine weeks, practicing and practicing before they take the plunge. But hummers grow from egg to fledgling in just three short weeks. Flossie was sitting in her nest one minute, then suddenly she just shot sideways—heigh-ho silver!—and was off to the flower world at fifty-three wingbeats/second.
The natural intelligence in nature takes my breath away. My mother always feared that when I took an anthropology course in college and studied evolution that I would “lose my faith,” whatever that means. Instead, I was utterly bowled over at the intricate and brilliant plan of nature. I felt the way Jody Foster did in Contact when she was hurled through the wormhole, found herself in the presence of Universal Intelligence and could only gasp, “I had no idea.”
Wild geese fly overhead in California, a young egret fishes at the base of the falls of the river, and I watched a baby hummingbird take her first flight. Two days ago four monarch butterflies arrived in my garden simultaneously and danced among the milkweed laying their eggs. What more can I do in the presence of such glory but to lay my head in Baba Yaga’s lap, blissful and awed?