Naturally enough, birds tend to attract human attention by their activities: flying, feeding, courting, fighting. A mockingbird singing at 4 a.m. will not be ignored. A blue jay, irritated by a squirrel’s antics, can be heard for blocks. Chattering sparrows, self-important grackles, and apparently demented woodpeckers all vie for their share of the spotlight.
Around the water, things are different. Rookeries are raucous, and the increasingly desperate cries of mallards in mating season can penetrate walls, but water birds generally tend to be quiet sorts: like children of an earlier time, cautioned by parents to be seen, but not heard.
A sure sign of winter, the arrival of coots and gallinules on the Texas coast is especially quiet. One day, there are none. The next day, flotillas of birds bob like decoys on the water: placidly drifting from place to place, picking their way through lily and lotus on elongated toes, quietly clacking and chirring to one another in clipped, metallic tones.
Apart from an occasional panic-stricken and highly amusing run across the water, coots and gallinules rarely are spotted taking off, landing, or flying from place to place. They simply cruise along, like so many wind-up toys set out and left to their own devices.
Even less obtrusive than coots, the ibis does much of its cruising on land. Stalking across freshly mown lawns in search of grasshoppers and grubs, or veering off into mud flats to probe for tiny crustaceans, its movements appear deliberate and disciplined, its steps measured: its call is quiet and reserved.
The only birds more silent and less obviously active than the ibis are egrets and herons. Wading the edges of marshes and bayous, fishing from dock lines, or scanning the water’s surface from rock-edged bulkheads, their patience seems infinite. When rain fills urban ditches, they appear even along the medians of highways, feasting on crawfish or frogs: utterly self-possessed, and apparently oblivious to the rush of traffic surrounding them.
Moving from water to woodlands reveals a different sort of activity. Clouds of fluttering goldfinches, among the last of our winter visitors to arrive, are neither patient nor shy. Flying in great, sweeping arcs, they congregate in Chinese tallow and delight in still-unpruned crepe myrtle, bending the heavy seed heads nearly to the ground as they feast.
Restless, ravenous, constantly on the move from sunflower to feeder to woods, they’re both everywhere and nowhere: easily seen as a group, but hard to bring into focus as individuals. If a feeder’s available, they swarm to the food, and seem to delight in posing for the camera. Otherwise, they’re more likely to remain a chorus of chirps, a chattering among the branches, a feathery cloud forming and re-forming against the sky.
And yet, not so many days ago, I happened upon a goldfinch high in the crown of a tree, resting on a sun-warmed branch. As I watched, he sat, and sat: until I wondered if he might be ill, or injured. Only the slightest, occasional movement of beak or wing suggested the presence of life.
Suddenly, he rose into the air, hanging there with a paroxysm of fluttering wings, then settled back down, onto the branch. As I watched, he repeated the manuever over and again: rising, fluttering, and perching, as though dancing among the branches.
The Dancing Goldfinch at Rest
Finally, he fluttered down for a last time, choosing to sit in perfect stillness in the waning afternoon light. Watching, I considered. Clearly, his stillness was not passivity. He hadn’t withdrawn from the world in which he lives; he only had paused. Alert, watchful, engaged, he seemed fully at ease. I imagined him happy — safe from predators, warmed by the sun — and remembered some of my favorite words from Thomas Merton’s book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander:
For the birds there is not a time that they tell, but only the point between darkness and light, between nonbeing and being. You can tell yourself the time by their waking, if you are experienced. But that is your folly, not theirs. Worse folly still if you think they are telling you something you might consider useful — that it is, for example, four o’clock.
So they wake: first the catbirds and cardinals and some that I do not know. Later the song sparrows and wrens. Last of all the doves and crows. The waking of crows is most like the waking of men: querulous, noisy, raw.
Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand. It is wide open. The sword is taken away, but we do not know it. We are off “one to his farm and another to his merchandise.” Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static. “Wisdom,” cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.
Impossible as it is to know what Merton would think of the current state of things, his emphasis on the importance of solitude, silence, and stillness surely would stand in stark contrast to our overwrought, overcommunicative, and narcissistic world. The contrast between the twittering of Merton’s birds and the life-eroding cacophony of social media postings is only one example. That there are consequences to our incessant chatter, not only for indivuduals but also for society, is becoming clear. The Psalmist’s words, “Be still, and know that I am God,” deserve a corollary: be still, and know that you are human.
And if we were to embrace occasional solitude, the resonance of silence, and a stilled heart? If we were to cease our constant fluttering in order to rest on a sunlit branch, embraced by the world’s warmth? What might be gained? What lost? Pablo Neruda imagines it. Perhaps we can, too.
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about.
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves,
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us:
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.