His is the first accentuated cry I recognize when I arrive at the guesthouse aptly named “Little Dryad.” There must be water close by, I idly think to myself. Soon I find a small creek edged with reeds and bush and understand the Red-Winged Black Bird’s presence. (“Birds as Oracles” is a Seven-Minute Read)
Upon arising the next morning, the very first thing I see as I just begin to open my eyes and reengage with consciousness is a Red-Winged Black Bird grasping the window casing, seeming to peer in at me. He is suspended there for what seems an awfully long time and then, suddenly, he emits a crisp, shrill, piercing call. What? I half consciously ask him. He lets go of the window and just as quickly I let go of the question, and we both move forward with our day.
The night before, reading a book purchased impulsively; picked up off my shelf and dropped into my bag serendipitously in hasty preparation for this long weekend, I read of “augury”—bird oracles. The memory of this reading flies back to me as I prepare a simple breakfast, stirred by Red-Winged Black Bird’s call. I sip my tea and begin to muse.
I recall a period where I felt guided by birds—Hawks, Swans, Herons, Chickadees, Red-Winged Black Birds. Not very long ago I counted on them to punctuate my deepest processes. What happened to that tie? Where did it go? How have I become disconnected?
My mind begins a dreamy meander back to my first experiences with birds. I fondly stumble on long-forgotten memories of nose-to-beak connections with city pigeons through dirty single-pane windows at my favorite sooty sill as a preschooler.
Then I recall being about nine-years old and my mother gifting me a parakeet. He was proclaimed to be the peppiest one in the pet department cage, so was dubbed “Peppy.” He was pale blue and too young to reveal his sex as by the color of the bridge of his beak. I delighted in putting toys in Peppy’s cage: mirrors, a little yellow and blue plastic Ferris wheel, bells. He particularly liked to poke and play with bells, so I put a special one on a small rubber band, suspending it in his cage at just the right height. He seemed to enjoy pulling at it and making it clang against the rungs.
After coming home from school a few days later, I found Peppy had hung himself on the rubber band holding the little bell. I was devastated…but, looking back forty-plus years, was his death a foretelling that my days of innocent play would be over? Within months, I was as entangled in my mother’s paranoia, her conspiracy theories, her delusions as Peppy was in the rubber band. Not only was I no longer an innocent, playful child—but like Peppy’s young life, my childhood had also perished. I would be, for the next few years, the sole sentinel for a rapidly emerging schizophrenic.
Years later birds served as the punctuation for my less-than-consciously willed thoughts. Whether sleeping in on a Saturday morning as a teenager, or rocking my last baby to sleep on our deck as a young mother, when I was quiet and deep in my own solace, allowing my unconscious to have its way with me, bird calls punctuated my inner conversations. Mourning Doves, Starlings, Sparrows didn’t just speak to me, they assisted in coagulating my thoughts and feelings.
As a more mature adult, walks in wetlands and nature preserves provided the slowed-down solitude I needed to mull over what seemed to be important life decisions—romantic episodes, my barely below the surface mother/daughter confusion, and my deepest internal mutterings on life and its meaning. Along the way, Raven’s call would strike an exclamation point; Chickadee’s an ellipse, Red-Winged Black Bird’s a period. “That’s it, you’ve got it,” he would say to me as he darted among the reeds and willows, seeming to know which of the tentative answers I presented to my own questions about life were on the mark. He would seem to know when I’d finally hit pay dirt.
The way my ego carried out some of my conclusions to life’s dilemmas, as I perceived they were punctuated by my feathered friends, resulted in some wonderful and in-touch outcomes, as well as a fair share of disastrous situations. Regardless, I would leave those walks tranquil and assured that I was not alone and that I could count on guidance from a level of consciousness that was not only outside of myself, but in a primitive way, somehow much more informed.
As I write I am probably three years removed from my last real interaction with the birds, now at my friend’s ranch sitting sheltered by a great oak three that is sanctuary for what seems hundreds of birds. The window-frame clutching episode makes me feel as though Red-Winged Black Bird wants to connect with me again. Am I ready? Have I put on the proper psychological attire as befits this precious and long overdue reunion? How do I respect Red-Winged Black Bird now in any way that is different from my admiration and need for him in the past? What makes me a worthy companion?
As a child I was innocent—as was my little bird, Peppy—but for me he was a pet, a plaything, a caged messenger that was not listened to, except in retrospection over four decades later. As a teenager, I was gaining momentum in my drive for individuation and isolation from a mother-daughter relationship which was more-than-painful, and birds provided mournful songs that were in sync with my own melody in early-morning moments between sleep and wakefulness. As a young mother, birds sang me lullabies while I sang them to my baby, telling myself that life would get easier, mend itself, and everything would be all right, in time. As a more mature adult, I began to recognize that birds, in particular, seemed entrained with my psyche. I looked at them as a valuable resource. They were there to “serve” me. I was the “more conscious” therefor “more civilized,” and they were more “primitive,” although more connected to intuition and instinct—as sixth-sense I wanted from them—desperately.
Now dear Red-Winged Black Bird, you are inviting me to re-enter, but I must first offer my deepest and most heart-felt apology. Forgive me for ever considering you as something less intelligent than me; for taking your assistance for granted, as though I was entitled to your wisdom; for not listening more closely, for not attuning myself to your vibration, your instinctual resonance with the world in a way that served us both. Forgive me for turning my back on your dilemmas, your need for me to intervene and do what I could to assist you. Forgive me for taking from you rather than dancing with you. Saying sorry isn’t enough, I know, yet I humbly ask to reenter our relationship, promising to recognize you as an equal other, deserving your respect and commitment to staying in the dance. Thank you, Red-Winged Black Bird, for your return.
Written Spring 2002 and inspired by Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” James Hillman’s “The Animal Kingdom and the Human Dream,” David Kidner’s “Nature and Psyche: Radical Environmentalism and the Politics of Subjectivity,” and Belden Lane’s “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality.” Birds as Oracles