“Birds that live on the forest floor evolved lower-pitched calls so they don’t bounce or become distorted by the ground as higher-pitched sounds might. Water birds have calls that, unsurprisingly, cut through the ambient sounds of water, and birds that live in the plains and grasslands, like the Savannah Sparrow, have buzzing calls that can traverse long distances. And birds of the same species adjust their singing as their habitat changes, too. Birds in San Francisco were found to have raised the pitch of their songs over forty years in order to be better heard above the noises of the increased traffic.”
—David Byrne, in How Music Works
Just as birds sing differently because you are there, you live differently for the presence of birds. That’s not a poetic notion, but an ecological fact.
I live in a rust-colored landscape of low hills and thin creeks, teeming with the creatures of Appalachia and coursing with the rhythms of how life is here. Your landscape may be different. How we live plays a part in what happens out there. And what happens out there plays a part in our lives.
But landscape isn’t sewn only from the fabric of space. We also inhabit a landscape of time: the grassy patch of a day; the rough meadow of a year; the old-growth forest of a decade, with the light pouring in.
When the pandemic hit, my calendar dissolved just like sugar in water. Days and weeks ran together. I stopped changing my clothes. For a while, I’m told, my hygiene could have been better.
In October, a friend of mine died. I wanted to rewind the tape, to get to say all the things I’d been meaning to say. But then someone said he was in the arms of the Eternal. And that made me think. Because “eternity” is a word that can mean different things.
It can be an endless duration: the train on its tracks, chugging ineluctably forth, with no stations ahead.
But it can also be the expanse to either side of those tracks. The wilderness there. And the ocean beyond.
It’s this second, ever-present Eternal—the wilderness and the ocean—I am learning to visit. Prayer makes a trail to it. So can a dream. Or sweeping the kitchen if it’s mindfully done. All our beloved dead are there, as is that within us and the world which we’d counted as lost. And all of that yet to be.
Who can say how you’ve been hurtling through all these days, flung from morning to night, all of it such a far cry from what you had planned? All I know is that the wilderness alongside every moment, sprawling in each direction, holds more than the silence that theologians imagine of God. Listen. There is something like birdsong, sweeter for the simple, holy fact of your life. It calls even now from the forested edge of the day, to awaken that within you which has always been there, so you know what to follow as you make your way home.
Holy One, lead us into green pastures by still waters where we will know peace and the kinship of all souls, and will at last be about the work of mercy and justice for as long as we live. Amen.