Winter Waiting

The waiting, as Tom Petty knew, is the hardest part.  Along the slow turning of the wheel of the year it’s now light enough to go jogging before work.  That won’t last, however, because Daylight Saving Time is imminent and will set us back a month in the illumination department.  Also I haven’t been able to jog because the massive snowstorm we had a couple weeks back dumped over two feet of snow on the jogging trail and it hasn’t melted yet.  I miss it.  The jogging, I mean.  I’ve become one of those people who never the leave the house and I see how difficult it is just waiting.  Waiting for the snow to melt.  Waiting for the vaccine.  Waiting for the light.

I’m no psychologist, but I have to wonder if that isn’t one of the greatest stresses faced by the many stir-crazy people who’ve been shut-ins for pretty much a year now.  For us this snowstorm took away the little mobility we had.  Getting out daily for a constitutional put me in touch with nature, at least.  Now nature is under a thick, crusty white blanket, slumbering away.  But the birds have begun to return.  With their avian wisdom they’ve seen the end of winter.  Suddenly this past Wednesday they were here, bringing hope in their wings.  Birds have long been symbols of freedom—we’ve got a couple bald eagles in the neighborhood, reminding me of that.  A far more ancient association was that between the bird and the human soul.  The ability to soar.

We may still be mired in winter, but time is inexorable.  Relentless.  As the globe wobbles recklessly back toward the warmer seasons we need to take responsibility for our part in global warming.  Ironically these freak storms are the result of an overall warming trend.  The weakening of the jet stream that allows cold northern air to drop snow in Texas and storms to cover much of the rest of us all at the same time.  The pandemic has helped clear the air a bit.  At least we’ve rejoined the Paris Climate Accord, and we’ll try to begin undoing the damage to our planet that the last four years introduced.  It will take some time, of course.  By now we should be experts in biding our time.  The snow will melt.  The light will continue to grow.  I will get back out on that jogging path again.  But for now we wait.


Unnatural Nature

It began as an odd sort of noise.  I had the study windows open during the morning of a heat wave and I heard a small, but metallic noise coming from the roof outside.  My study overlooks part of the first floor roof and slinking to the window I saw a sparrow trying to pick up a roofing nail.  We’ve had the roofers over twice already since we moved in a couple years back (and will have them again), and some of the nails from their work on the second-story roof landed here.  I’ve noticed sparrows pecking at them before.  Instead of skittishly flying away when I came up—I was only about a yard away—she still tried to lift the nail without success.  She then flew even closer to me, snatched up a different nail, and flew off with it.  Sparrows have, of course, adapted well to human dwellings, but what would a bird be wanting with a nail?  Surely not to make a nest?  It wasn’t even shiny—it was a rusty old one from the shingles replaced—since everyone knows birds are attracted to bright objects.

I’ve been a close watcher of nature my entire life.  This isn’t the same as being an outdoorsman, but when I can see outside, or when I do spend valued time outdoors, I look closely.  I always keep an eye out for animals on my daily jogs.  And I watch animal behavior through the window when work isn’t too pressing.  Still, I wonder about what a sparrow could want with a nail.  The next-door neighbors moved out a couple of months ago, and I watch the sparrows on their porch roof.  With no human activity nearby, they frequently gather there.  They seem to be picking up bits of human detritus—even pulling at, it looks from here, nails.  Now this behavior has me a little worried.  I’ve read about sparrows before and despite their innocent looks, they can be very aggressive birds, even attacking and sometimes killing larger perching fowl.  The idea of them weaponizing themselves is disconcerting.

Intelligence in nature is one of the last features many scientists want to admit to the the discussion.  There seems to be too strong a supposed correlation with shape of the physical brain and the ability to “think,” it seems to me.  I don’t know what the sparrows are planning, but clearly it involves gathering rusty old nails.  Even as I was writing this I noticed sparrows chirping aggressively.  Looking out my window across the street, I saw that a squirrel had crawled across an electric cable into a bushy roost where there must’ve been a sparrow nest.  Sparrows began flying into the fracas from all over the place, loudly chirping.  I couldn’t see what what happening because of the leaves, but the squirrel soon rushed out with a whole flutter of sparrows in pursuit.  Perhaps he’d discovered their plan with the nails.

Now, the next order of business…


Thoughts While Flying

Uh-oh!  I seem to be airborne.  All that’s in front of me is concrete.  If I don’t do something, my exposed hands will hit first.  Tuck, and try not to hit your head.  Still, on impact the first thing I do is look around to see if anyone saw that.  It’s embarrassing to trip and fall, especially when you’re old enough to be avoiding that sort of thing.  I jog before it’s fully light out, however, and the sidewalks can be uneven.  Just in case anyone’s watching my Superman impression, I immediately climb to my feet and resume my pace.  I’ll be sore tomorrow.  As a jogger since high school you’d think I’d have this worked out by now, but you’re never too old to learn, I guess.

The amazing thing to me is just how much you can think in those fleet seconds that you’re actually in the air, about to hit the ground like a sack of old man.  That’s exactly what happened, though, from the split second I felt my toe catch in an unseen crack and felt my balance give way.  Taking additional steps while trying to straighten back up sometimes works, but my top-heavy head was too far out of sync and my feet were sure to follow.  Your memory of such things goes out of body and you watch yourself comically flying, without the grace of a bird, toward an unforgiving substrate.  Such is the fate of the early morning runner.  I don’t have time to do it during the day.  What if someone emails and I don’t answer?  They’ll think I’m slacking off.  Remote workers!

Despite the occasional spills, I’ve always enjoyed this form of exercise.  In the post-Nashotah House days while still in Wisconsin I’d sometimes do nine miles at a time.  Whenever I’ve moved to a new place I’ve gotten to know the neighborhood by jogging around.  Even if it’s not fully light you can see plenty.  (Although the cracks in the sidewalk aren’t always obvious.)  I tend to think about these things as life lessons.  Parables, if you will.  One of the deep-seated human dreams is that of flying.  Birds make it look so easy, and fun.  A human body feels so heavy when it impacts the ground.  I suspect that’s why we find gymnasts so fascinating to watch.  As for me, I’m just a middle-aged guy in sweats and wearing glasses.  And even as I head home I’m already thinking how remarkable the number of thoughts are in the few seconds while in flight, somewhere over the concrete.


The Birds

While waiting for the bus, now that it’s light out that early, I like watching the birds. They have complex interactions and so many different styles of flying. They have ways that are a closed book to our species. From human eyes they seem so playful that it’s difficult to believe they participate in a struggle for survival. Evolution tells a different story, of course. Living not far from the great human nest of Newark’s Liberty Airport, it’s not unusual to see an engineered flying machine soaring high over their avian heads. Which, I wonder, are the better fliers? Birds, after all, evolved. Flying wasn’t planned, as far as we can tell. Although not so much around here, some birds don’t even fly.

I once read—many years ago and I can’t recall where—that if a person were to fly they would need an enormous chest to beat the very large wings they’d need for lift-off. Birds, apart from being naturally aerodynamic, have hollow bones which make them a touch fragile, but less tied to gravity. Our planes and jets, unlike the escape vehicle in Chicken Run, don’t flap. Bernoulli’s law keeps them aloft, along with some meticulous engineering and heavy fuel consumption. Humans may imitate nature, but they supersede it when they can. Still, I have to wonder why, if birds were a special creation as our literalist friends claim, God didn’t make them more like a plane.

Holding your wings out stiff all day, I’ll allow, would get pretty tiresome. Still, if you’re designing a critter to fly you might as well go with the best parts available, right? If not, I’m going to have a talk with my mechanic and ask for some of my money back. Birds, for all their charm, are very good illustrations of evolution at work. Dinosaurs taking to the air is so poetic that it has an organic feel. Flying is a great way to escape your land-bound predators. That step from long leaping to flying may be a doozie, but it seems to explain the shape of birds better than any intelligent design. Among bipeds, though, only one claims the place of being god-like in shape. Having said that, there are some flaws that a good biomechanical engineer might address. But then, who said God majored in engineering? When I went to college I was firmly under the impression that he’d majored in religion. And that, as many engineers might suppose, is for the birds.


Weather for the Birds

As Christmas nears so does a warm front, dashing hopes of a white Christmas in New Jersey. Well, at least there are no tornadoes coming. The weather, as my readers know, has long been perceived as a divine barometer. In a time when patience is wearing thin with religion, and weary headlines ask if it will ever finally disappear, our animal cousins seem, as usual, to pick up on clues more readily than we. An article on the BBC science page describes how a set of tagged golden-winged warblers vacated their nest a day before a tornado struck. Scientists suspect that the birds—and likely other species of birds as well—picked up the infrasound of the tornadoes that is well below human hearing range. Sensing the danger, they flew nearly a thousand miles, stopping just south of the storm’s track.

1957_Dallas_multi-vortex_1_edited

Of course, tornadoes don’t last an entire day. If the birds fled that long in advance, they couldn’t, I suspect, have heard a tornado that hadn’t formed yet. Since I’m no scientist, I’m not really qualified to offer an explanation, but I do wonder if such behavior isn’t related to consciousness. Several books that I’ve read recently have explored the concept of animal consciousness, and although we are reluctant to admit them to the realm of the self-aware, I wonder how long we can deny it. No doubt, if the birds fled (and returned after the danger had passed) there was an intentionality to their actions. Jealous of our intelligence, we must find a way to explain that animals can predict natural disasters of many kinds long before humans detect their more obvious traits. Our technology gives us seconds, or minutes, of warning. Dogs, cats, and birds know well in advance. But we are the superior beings here.

One of the problems with consciousness is that we can never get outside our own. Other people act in ways similar to us, and describe similar mental states, so we assign them the same kind of consciousness we have. Animals, not using human language, also act in similar ways to us. We call it “instinct” and continue on to the truly important stuff. I have no idea if birds can detect infrasound; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they could. Without the ability to place it in the context of danger, however, I doubt they would take a thousand mile vacation just after their annual migration. We could learn a lot from our fellow creatures, if only we’d admit them to the conscious club and not the food club. And perhaps they might be able to explain to us why, despite all we know, religion never seems to go away.


Two Sparrows

Once I found a baby bird blown from its nest. Many future priests had walked by already that morning, not even noticing. At first I thought it was dead, but then it lifted its head weakly and opened its beak in a soundless cry for its mother. Afraid to touch it, I pulled on some gloves, took it home and called the local animal rescue center. With my daughter keeping the chick warm in the backseat, we drove down the country roads hoping the little thing would survive at least long enough to get professional help. When the trees leafed out and the air warmed up that summer, I received a call from Animals in Need. The bird had survived and was ready for release—would I like to let it go near where I found it? They had worked hard to prevent habituation, and I brought the bird home in a paper grocery bag that it occasionally tested to see if it could find its way out. With my daughter, I opened the bag in the woods and the bird was gone in a flash. We barely saw it as it flew to freedom.

If I were a rich man, well, I guess I would run for president. Perhaps it was being overseas for a week, but the presidential race seemed to fall from the news with Santorum’s demise (if ever I believed in divine intervention, it was on the day he dropped out of the race). Of course, those in Britain who knew me wondered about the carnival characters running for the “most powerful man” job. So we’re now left with a very wealthy man who’s just like the rest of us. Ironically, I’ve been thinking about the Bible—an occupational hazard—and wondering when the ideal of Jesus’ teaching was forgotten in the haste to become the richest Christian on the block (or empire, as the case may be). The disconnect couldn’t be sharper between the man who said that if you wanted to please God you had to give all your material goods away and a man running for public servant has more money than the last eight presidents combined. And Reagan was no slouch on the financial end. Where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.

I can’t remember the last time I felt valued by a politician. At least the Democratic candidates attempt the lessen the suffering of the poor a little bit, but I still see people sleeping in the streets. The roller coaster that is the economy demonstrates its unfeeling course as some get rich then plunge to the depths only to soar out of them again into sunny spaces. According to the Gospels, Jesus said not a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing it. Apparently that little bird I was privileged to rescue was part of the divine plan. That guy sleeping on the subway grate over there trying to keep warm? Well, the politicians apparently can’t see him, and I wonder if the God who watches the sparrows has noticed either.

Not a sparrow (golden pheasant)