Prayer is good, as is meditation–but we also need prompt action!
~the Dali Lama
In the coming few weeks ExxonMobil hopes to parade its monstrous modules past my home. If the Idaho resistance weren't battling so bravely they would already be passing. Our home is passive solar. The south-facing livingroom wall is double-paned glass from floor to ceiling. A wide eave keeps sunlinght out in the summer, when the angle of the sun is high; but lets sunlight all the way through to the interior north wall in winter. The design serves us well—but we've had to learn to close the Venetian blinds in some seasons, to keep birds from flying into the glass. In mating season, when males are setting up territories and chasing each other around in a blind passion, we still have a few collisions.
When my daughter Celia was eleven, a pine siskin flew into the window, then hung upside down in the bushes below, looking dead. She ran out and fetched it. The bird was still breathing. I sat down and showed her a sort of "procedure" I've learned from a life of bird-worship. My Warm Springs Indian friend, Liz Woody, discovered the same procedure, and had recently described it to me: when a bird hits a window and is knocked unconscious, you improve it chances if you hold it to your heart. Right up against the beating of it. (That's right, Syncrude; this is what it takes to actually serve a living bird.)
You hold it against your chest (I showed my daughter where, and she sheltered the little siskin). Then you promise the bird–silently or aloud: I prefer aloud—to be its steadfast guardian. And you have to mean it. You vow to sit still for as long as it takes, no time limit, letting the unconscious bird feel your pulse, your determination, your solid protection. You wish the little bird soul well no matter which world it decides to enter, ours or the other.
As Celia held the siskin I emphasized that it doesn't matter how busy you think you are. The bird's helplessness changes that. Unless someone is going to die while you're guarding it, don't worry. Give yourself completely to that bird. If we claim to 'love nature,' anything less is hypocrisy, because anything less is not love. I have been such a hypocrite, I told my daughter, and I have also been faithful. Faithful to me means: you sit with the bird in a gateway that leads beyond time and let the Unseen decide which way it will fly.
Last spring I held a male Downy woodpecker I felt sure would die. It smashed the window so hard I checked the glass for breakage. I went out, gathered it up, cradled it, then sat in a chair on the back deck—in bright early spring sunlight—holding it to my heart. I began breathing my favorite prayer word onto the bird. Murmured spontaneous stuff, too. I told it was okay to die, if that's what needed to happen, but that it's also beautiful to be a woodpecker. As I spoke, its tongue was lolling—and a Downy's tongue is a marvel. It is striped, black and off-white, and nearly three inches long though the entire bird is only seven inches long. What a tool, you realize as you gawk at the thing. No grub or beetle stands a chance.
The Downy's eyes stayed shut for close to an hour. Its neck looked ruined the whole time. But as it lay up close to my heart, warm in my hand, it kept breathing. So I worked with it, said my prayer word, held steady in the gate.
Then felt something. A slight quickening. The bird's being arrived from who knows where. It happened so fast. The limp body turned electric, the brid sprang back to consciousness, and its ruined neck—suddenly, impossibly—was fine.
I didn't even have time to stand. I just opened my hands. The Downy took one look at me—totem red, black and white, obsidian eye, a lightning look—then was off like a shot.
My daughter, too, held steady in the gate that day. And after a quarter hour her pine siskin filler her hands with the quikening. Opened its eyes.
Celia opened her hands. Received the lightning look. Away the siskin flew.
And my daughter's face as it winged away! When a bird falls into the unknown, lies against your heart, wakes and returns, flies from your hands, something in you quickens, awakens, and knows it too can fly.
~The Heart of the Monster David James Duncan (61-63)