Only a bird


Today while waiting for my tea to brew, I saw a crow flying.

It struggled against the wind. It’s tawny body looked very black silhouetted against the sputtering snowy sky. The little wood outside my kitchen window was monochrome, and the sky gave neither a noon day brightness nor evening glow, instead resting in the sort of timelessness a snow filled sky allows. The crow rose and fell, tossed about by the currents of wind until it passed over my roof and I could see it no more.

I felt quite keenly that the crow and its shadowy struggle meant something.

For millennia past, people have thought, have felt, have believed that birds mean something.

The albatross means a heavy, cursed burden of guilt on the human soul.

Owls, in their stately disinterest, represent wisdom.

Kingfishers beauty and grace.

Robin Redbreasts bring with them the thawing power of spring.

Doves with their olive branch say peace on earth good will toward men.

The chicken with her brood reminds us of the loving care of God towards us humans.

The sparrow reminds us that God sees all and that we are valuable.

Attributing meaning to things of nature seems to be something as common to mankind as mortality itself.

We can’t help but see the world as “charged with the grandeur of God” as Gerard Manly Hopkins puts it. This propensity can lead toward the pagan: worship of the creation instead of the creator. But overall, I think our desire and need to find meaning in nature is due to our feeling that perhaps this world, in all of its color and loveliness and brutality, means something. Look no further than the Christians scriptures to find birds and beasts and stars and grains of wheat speaking to us of the infinite.

But, it seems the general cultural attitude towards such things is indifferent. It is just a bird. It does ordinary bird things and dies at the slightest provocation. It is such and such a class, and such and such a phylum, and the scientific process has taught us to know the true nature of the albatrosses, owls, kingfishers, robin redbreasts, doves, chickens, and crows: They are just birds.

The funny thing about the mediaevals is that when they saw a bird, they saw it as a harbinger, an omen, a blessing.

The funny thing about moderns is that when they see a bird, they say “it is only a bird.”

The culture of scientific naturalism has taught us to see the world in terms of descriptions. It is a bird. It squawks. It has feathers. But there is no space for what the bird-- its feathers, squawks, and struggling flight pattern-- might mean. As one of my philosophy professors would say, we see the kettle, we say it is red, it is perched upon a flame, the water within it is boiling, and it is whistling. But we daren’t have the audacity to say it is a cog in the preparations of tea for two.

My mother often tells a story of when she was pregnant with my sister Sarah. She was living in Austria with my father, and my grandmother had come to visit. One day, she stayed home while my father and grandmother went out for coffee. Not feeling well, she curled up by the open window with a cup of tea and felt the gentle autumn breeze through the open window. Holding her stomach, she felt ill. And old familiar sickness. She began to cry and to pray; she had already lost one baby.

“God please let me keep this baby.”

As tear fell unceremoniously off her nose, a wonderful thing happened: a sparrow perched on sill. It looked at her, it tilted its tiny head. It flew away.

What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31, NLT)

My sister is now 31.

And perhaps a sparrow is more than just a sparrow.

Perhaps a crow is not only a bird.