The Carolina Wren and Others

Running across the back of my house here in Manchester, Massachusetts, there is a narrow porch leading to a deck that looks out onto a lawn surrounded by hemlocks and rhododendron. My father was an amateur ornithologist — he thought of himself simply as a “bird-watcher” — so all six of us children, now in our 70s and 80s, have always loved the birds, particularly the songbirds and sea birds of the Northeastern forests, meadows, and beaches.
I have put up several contraptions for the birds and fastened these to the railing of the porch just outside the windows of my study. From one iron rod there dangles a little square cage for suet. The downy and hairy woodpeckers and the white-breasted nuthatches like this one. The woodpeckers sit bolt upright, clinging to the open work of the cage, and peck with serious vigor. The nuthatches like to feed upside down. Chickadees clutch the very bottom of the cage, craning their necks up to the side, and peck from there.
Next to this arrangement hangs a tray of safflower seeds. Tufted titmice, cardinals, and chickadees come here. The point of safflower is that the grey squirrels don’t like it. They are oafish and pushy and ruin things for everyone else.
Next to the tray I have one of these transparent plastic tubes for thistleseed. It comes from Ethiopia and attracts the goldfinches. As it happens, we have just now had a three-day blizzard, and the goldfinches, usually demure, have come in awkward numbers and spend as much time skirmishing as they do eating. Obviously they think that, what with all of this snow and one thing and another, food may turn out to be scanty. The holes in this tube are so tiny that it is hard to see how anyone at all can get his beak in there.
A few inches outside my windows I have hung another tube full of mixed seeds. Everyone likes these, even the juncos who, being ground feeders, usually don’t do much perching. They usually feed on the seeds that I scatter on the lawn or the porch floor.
About 20 feet out on the lawn a feeding house sits on a pole. Again, almost everyone feeds there, and on the ground around it — bluejays, mourning doves, white-throated sparrows, and even a mallard couple. The bluejays look like dragoons or condottieri in their snappy black, blue, and white uniforms, and the doves are like someone’s old aunties with their small heads bobbing over their plump grey bodies.
Once in a while an outsider shows up. The other day, a red-bellied woodpecker (who has no red belly) was in the tray. My favorite at the moment, mainly because he is so shy, is the Carolina wren, who, like his cousin the winter wren, has a loud, clear, crystalline song straight from the Garden of Eden. Flickers, chipping sparrows, cowbirds, catbirds, and even, alas, the crows, like great black clowns with their beady golden eyes — they all stop by.  
These birds interrupt my morning prayers. One’s eyes drift out there, and then it’s, What are these creatures? Or rather, Who are they? Arethey “who,” anyway? What is going on in their heads, if anything, besides instinct — a more or less pointless word, since it lets us all domesticate an opaque mystery that suffuses the whole of nature. And fancy God decking them all with these coral, vermilion, olive, gold, dun, cornflower blue, rust, and white feathers arranged in patterns of such final satisfaction. And crests, forsooth.
Gerard Manley Hopkins gave glory to God for dappled things — trout, for example. The ancient canticle in use in the Church for centuries, the so-called “Song of the Three Children” sung by Daniel’s friends in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace, calls upon omnes volucres caeli (all birds of heaven) to Bless the Lord, praise Him and magnify Him forever.
Two aspects of the thing become apparent here. First, we are invited to enter into the domain of praise and offer our songs to the Most High when we encounter the natural world. This is not difficult; it belongs to our creaturehood. Half the poetry of the world extols mountains, winds, clouds, sunshine, forget-me-nots, bluebells, heather, elms, oaks, beeches, the sea, and the meadows and forests. Anyone whose spirit has not been altogether debauched wants to laud it all, and something in him wants above all to offer his joy to something, rather than seeing it fray off into the ether. If he stands in the tradition of Enoch, Noah, Abraham, and all the saints, he will know to Whom to make his offering.
But secondly, if the psalms and that old canticle are not talking nonsense, it looks as though the Creation itself somehow praises God. What — alps and buttercups offering praise? They have no souls or brains or voices or even consciousness — at least in no manner discernible to our own species. So we can make it manageable by saying that just by being what they are — so mighty, so exquisite, so perfectly formed — they manifest God’s handiwork, and hence His glory. So far so good.
But surely anyone whose curiosity has ever been aroused by the sheer mystery rustling in things — not only what all poets have wondered about, but, say, the earth quaking and the sun darkening at the Crucifixion, plus all of those “thrones, dominations, princedoms, and powers” that seem to be in the cosmic cards — one would have to be a clod not to have his curiosity, not to say his terror, aroused in the face of such things. To be sure, it is the easiest thing in the world to lay it all to rest as “symbolic.” Mere fancy. Poetic hyperbole.
A man who is satisfied with that has never, perhaps, been thunderstruck by the sheer ineffability of things. And if he is a Christian, he, of all men, should know that the scrim that veils from us titanic mysteries that would destroy us if we were suddenly hailed with them is a most merciful scrim. “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” said T. S. Eliot. He was right.
The birds outside my study window seem to me to be cases in point, under the species of created familiarity, of Glory. George MacDonald said that dogs behold the face of the Father. Who will lay it down that the birds don’t?

Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.  


  • Tom Howard

    Tom Howard is retired from 40 years of teaching English in private schools, college, and seminary in England and America.

    Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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