There’s nothing quite like getting a message smashing into your window at 6 am to make one stand up and pay attention. The forest that surrounds my home is full of birds. Outside my living room, I have a couple of feeders, and I love to watch the black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, cardinals and others come and go all day while I sit and write and/or work. When my son Duncan was home from college for the holiday, he kept telling me that woodpeckers were visiting the feeders. While the woods are full of marvelous members of that bird Family, such as my favorite, the giant pileated woodpecker, I have yet to see any venture to the feeders close to the house. Could it have been a nuthatch instead that Duncan was seeing? Perhaps, he contended, and so I dismissed the notion with a twinge of disappointment.
|A Red-naped Sapsucker I Photographed at Jackson Hole, WY
Then a few days ago, a flash of red and knocking about of feeders renewed my optimism. I sat quietly on the sofa, and sure enough, a brilliant red-bellied woodpecker alighted onto the tray, grasped a kernel of corn and flew away, quick as a flash. So deft was he in his foraging, that had I blinked, I would have missed him. My pulse quickened, I held my breath and felt the faint burst of inexplicable joy that is known to birders but seems incomprehensible to others. The knowing that this red-bellied woodpecker shares my habitat makes me feel my life is just that much fuller. I accepted this blessing and thought nothing more of it until this morning.
At 6 am, I was awoken by the dull thunking noise that makes the heart of a bird lover jump into the throat with despair. I rushed into the living room to discover a tiny downy woodpecker lying on the ground under the window. Fortunately, she was just dazed, and as I approached her to check on her, she flew away.
Native Americans believe that animals are messengers and that they bring enlightenment to those willing to pay attention. Last year around this time, I was plagued by an onslaught of skunks. It wasn’t until I did some research on Native American skunk medicine that the skunks returned to a normal frequency of occurrence in my life. Perhaps the woodpeckers had a message for me too.
Interestingly, I discovered that according to Native American lore, I was born under the woodpecker totem, which corresponds to the astrological sign of Cancer. I have always believed that I was born under a lucky star or perhaps, guided by the principle that luck is the phenomenon where hard work meets opportunity, I have thus far led a relatively charmed existence. I have a wonderful family, my basic needs are adequately provided for, and I have work that I find satisfying, rewarding and challenging. I have no complaints and feel genuine gratitude for my good fortune.
In general, I have floated through life with the belief that everything will work out for the best if I just keep on plodding, that every cloud has a silver lining and that I can achieve whatever goals I set my sights upon. I maintained a steadfast belief that the universe is essentially a just place where what goes around comes around and that those who strive in a positive direction are eventually rewarded for their efforts. But lately, my trust in the reliability of the universe has been challenged.
A recent string of unfortunate events in my family has cast a shadow over my usually optimistic demeanor. While I personally have suffered no ill fortune, my precious loved ones seem to be besieged by negative turns of fate. Outside the chill and dull gray overcast sky of winter obfuscates the clarity of light and mirrors the opacity in my psyche. Thoughts are scattered. Truth seems hard to grasp. Nothing is certain anymore.
So what insight can be gleaned from a family of birds noted for drilling trees with their beaks? While it addles the mind to contemplate the realities of such species, their determination is to be admired. Hours of constant drumming yield small gratifications of an insect or two, yet the woodpecker persists undeterred. Many taps are required to uncover a single delicacy, yet the drumming continues with a reliable, rhythmic certainty.
I have been searching for truths, certainties, solutions of late, yet find them difficult to come by. A fleeting flash of insight flits through the recesses of my cloudy mind and then disappears again like a wisp of ether, like the flash of a red-bellied woodpecker that allows me a glimpse out of the corner of my eye, but not the full breadth of appreciation. I find the full light of truth obscured perhaps because I shade my own consciousness from the harshness of its veracity.
I have been bombarded lately with the same insistent question, from publishers, readers and friends. “You talk a lot about problems,” they say, “but what are the solutions?” I have thought long and hard on this topic and can honestly contend that the solutions required to save ourselves from ourselves are so dramatic that they will very likely be unrealized. The harshest reality is that planet Earth simply has too many Homo sapiens living upon its surface. We have breached the natural carrying capacity to such an extent that there is no conceivable way to maintain the human population with a reasonable quality of life at current levels and to maintain ecological integrity of the planet. Yet nobody speaks of this unspeakable truth in public discourse.
Another unspeakable truth is that the Western way of life, the American dream, is inherently inconsistent with the maintenance of Earth’s life-force. It is a culture of death and destruction, and we cannot simultaneously embrace the concepts of environmentalism and perpetual development and growth, which necessarily consume and devastate Earth’s living resources. The two realities are mutually incompatible.
Our culture is addicted to solutions and happy endings. We are told that we can carry on with our self-indulgence and that the same technology that created the global disaster will surely save it. The fallacious nature of such logic is self-evident. The reality of nature, minus its beauty, can be brutal. There are no guaranteed happy endings, just reliable rhythms to count on. Through no fault of their own, bad things happen to good people. Justice is frequently not served. Little birds dash their brains on the glass walls of human obliviousness. Predators prey upon the innocent. Disease ravages indiscriminately. The best solution for Earth is a stark one for Western civilization.
The woodpecker pecks, and specks of virgin wood come to light. I can grasp at them for a fleeting second but then realize that in the vastness of the infinite, I am incapable of understanding the synchronicities that bring skunks and woodpeckers to my doorstep. As I write, the little downy woodpecker that dashed herself on my window this morning is back, nibbling on the suet cake I just put out for her and her kin. The calories provided by the lard and seed will improve her chances of fledging her young in the spring. There are no happy endings but those we create for ourselves. A small bird flew into glass and by chance encountered a human with a peculiar fondness for her kind and provided her with the sustenance that may see her through the winter and ensure the survival of her progeny in the spring. In spite of adversity, the rhythm of life continues, and so it will once we have extinguished ourselves from the planet.