Birds and Contemplation

I believe in the power of contemplation, that it can enlighten a mind and put a troubled soul at rest.  My original intent with this blog was to reflect on one of my favorite passages by Thomas Merton:

“When no one listens to the quiet trees,

When no one notices the sun in the pool

When no one feels the first drop of rain

Or sees the last star

Or hails the first morning of a giant world

Where peace begins and rages end:

One bird sits still watching the work of God …”

I read those words every Tuesday morning in Thomas Merton’s A Book of Hours assembled and edited by Kathleen Deignan.  Each time I read it, I listen.  Those words have inspired me to renounce television for all practical purposes.  Each evening, my wife and I sit outside and wait for the first star, then the second and the third … such beauty and grandeur, and we are actually a part of it.

I am lucky:  I have always lived in places where birds announce the beginning of each day and where the conscious listener can hear it without effort …

Charles Lindbergh is best known as the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris in a single-engine airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, flying solo, alone.  That is a fact that every kid knew growing up in the 50’s and 60’s but that – sadly – few know or care to know today.

Looking back on his accomplishment, Lindbergh commented, “I was astonished at the effect my successful landing in France had on the nations of the world. To me, it was like a match lighting a bonfire.” Nearly 40 years later, the aging hero went on a safari in Kenya with Ian Grimwood, the country’s chief game warden.  The time in Africa gave Lindbergh pause to look back on his life.  When he reflected on the Kenya experience, Lindbergh remarked, “Lying under an acacia tree with the sounds of the dawn around me, I realized more clearly facts that man should never overlook: that the construction of an airplane, for instance, is simple when compared to the evolutionary achievement of a bird; that airplanes depend upon an advanced civilization, and that where civilization is most advanced, few birds exist.  I realized that if I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes.”

Quite a powerful and revealing statement from a man whose 33 ½-hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean in May 1927 accelerated the development of aviation around the globe.  Read that again:

“… if I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes.”

Those words are prominently displayed near the end of the magnificent Lindbergh exhibition at the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis’s Forest Park.

But as I think on those word from two very diverse individuals – one a religious and the other an aviator – I ponder what a person who lives in New York City hears in that magical moment when dark turns to light …  I believe the person in the heavily populated metropolitan area hears ‘advanced civilization,’ and because of it, he hears no birds even if they are there.  I do agree with Lindbergh; you may not …  I would rather have birds.

In our fast-paced lives, we are far more touched by advanced civilization than the natural wonders it has replaced.  Just consider how many people, particularly young people feel lost unless their arms are attached to their ears with cell phones; or who can’t sit still without staring at a small screen to text message, or maybe watch a movie or play a game.  There are three ‘bird days’ that I am aware of, and they have all occurred in 2011, two in May and one in January (National Bird Day).  To me, every day is bird day, and I will sit with the one and watch the work of God.  Please join me.


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  1. This is powerful–a good friend of mine introduced me to minimalism and there is a blog I follow by Leo Babauta called Zen Habits that I read regularly. Often times I find myself in a bit of a conundrum; while I want to live with less and rely on technology less, as a married man with small children, some decisions, for example removing television from my life, seem impossible. I will watch cartoons with my kids in the evening to settle them down before bedtime, but unless there is a sporting event I want to watch, I take the time once a month to watch a movie for myself. Typically, it’s a documentary. I’m working on developing the habit of meditating on a daily basis. While there is a learning curve and it takes discipline to form the habit, I want to spend time outside, sitting, doing nothing. Just be. I don’t want to think during the time, I don’t want to do yardwork during the time, I don’t want to listen to music during the time. I’d be thrilled if my wife was there beside me while the kids sleep, but I wouldn’t want to talk during this time.

    Technology, for all of the benefits, can be a poison if you allow it to be. Most people do. I bought an iPhone and had it for almost 6 months before I realized how much I despised being reachable by phone/email/facebook in my pocket all day, so I sold it. I still have the cell phone, but there is no internet access. If it wasn’t for having kids, I’d consider getting rid of that as well.

    1. The meditation part seems out of place without filling in the “why?” Basically our lives are inundated with technology. TV, the internet, cell phones, everything seems to be plugged into an outlet. By stepping outside into my backyard, I can at least escape that for a small amount of time.

      1. Thomas Merton was referenced frequently in “After the Ecstasy, Laundry” that my friend, Greg recommended to me.