Friday, 10 November 2017

Novena for the Fallen Through ~ our seventh prayer for our wild kin


Here is the seventh of our November Novenas for the Fallen Through, which for this month are devoted to Saint Cuthbert and to a call for protection for our wild kinfolk. If you would like to read more about this month’s novena you can read our first prayer here.

We have already lifted prayers for our badgers, our hedgehogs, and for the street trees of Sheffield, for otter, cormorant, and seal, and for sharks and orcas, and for stag beetles. Today, as yesterday, we will weave prayer around another being who we can support with our gardens, the starling.

Living a life of quiet contemplation in the wild landscape of Inner Farne, St Cuthbert shared many intimate moments with birds. I written before about his great love for eider ducks, who inspired him to introduce perhaps the world’s first bird conservation laws in 676, and who are now known as ‘Cuddy ducks’ in the local area. In one story about him told by Bede, he was said to have set out on one of his long journeys and took a young boy with him for company. It was a long day of walking in a difficult terrain and the boy became tired and hungry, worrying that they had nothing to eat. Cuddy told him not to be concerned and that God would provide. Soon afterwards they saw an eagle flying overheard and Cuddy said that food would be brought to them by the wild bird. After a while they saw the eagle settled by a riverbank. Cuddy instructed the boy to run over to see what had been brought for them and, when he did so, he found a large fish left on a rock. When he saw what the boy had brought back, Cuthbert admonished him for not leaving any food for the eagle and instructed him to cut the fish in half and return part of it to their helper.


On another occasion, a group of ravens flew down and began to gather straw from the thatch of Cuddy’s roof. He chased them away but three days later one returned as he dug his garden and bowed its head to him with wings outspread. Cuthbert told the raven that they were welcome to return and on their next visit they brought with them the gift of a lump of lard, which Cuddy kept and encouraged visitors to use for the purpose of waterproofing their shoes. There have been many reports of corvids bringing gifts to people who have woven right relationship with them and so this story feels to hold many layers of beautiful truth. I also love the stories of our wild edge early Christian saints, so many of which are grounded in respect and sharing with non-human family. Truly a woven sacred.

Starling, Wiki Commons

Starry-winged starlings, so beautiful of feather and bright of spirit, are one of our most familiar, and seemingly abundant, garden birds. It might then shock many of us to know that their numbers dwindled by 80% in the British Isles between 1966 and 2004 , with a 92% drop in woodland populations, and that they are now on the Red List for Birds of Conservation Concern. I was born in 1966 and so writing this I feel that I have spent my whole life in the presence of a dying star.

Starlings truly are the most beautiful of birds; the juveniles have grey~brown plumage, with large white speckles on their chests and creamy throats. In the autumn they moult completely and take in the adults’ stunning colours; black twinkling with snowflake white in the winter and, as the year turns to spring, becoming iridescent green and purple. Even their beaks change colour, from dark brown in winter to yellow in the spring and summer, with a blue base for males and pink for females. They will feed on almost anything; insects, worms, fruits, berries, scraps, and suet, although they will feed only invertebrates to their young. Bringing them up proper!

Starling and fledgling, Ian Dunster, Wiki Commons

They also have a beautiful sense of the division of labour, with the unpaired males building a nest base from grass in cavities in walls, trees, or buildings, which they may then decorate with leaves and petals in order to deter parasites and improve their chances of attracting a mate. Once prepared, they will sing from a perch close to the nest entrance hoping to open the heart of a female. Once entranced and enamoured, the female will complete their home by creating a nest cup, which she then lines with feathers, wool, and moss. In April they will lay 4 to 6 eggs, which will be almost exclusively incubated and brooded by the female, with the fledglings being fed by both parents. Which is just as well as I have seen how demanding the babies can be!

Jason Spinks, Wiki Commons

Despite their intricate nest-building they are born wanderers and, once the juveniles have become independent, they will disperse in large flocks, probably to farmland or woodland. We have seen this in our own garden, where summer days are filled with a noisy cacophony of starlings, only to suddenly fall silent at the turning to autumn. That is always a sad day, although they aren’t gone for long. As autumn goes on they, together with overwintering migrants from Scandinavia, Finland, and Poland, return to begin their wild song once more, a song whose gift for mimicry has been noted by Pliny the Elder, William Shakespeare, and in the earliest recorded prose stories in the literature of Britain, The Mabinogian.

During the winter, these birds gather in buildings, trees, or reed beds to create roosts, often several thousand birds strong. The reed bed roosts though can comprise several million birds, which provide individuals with protection from predators, and it’s these which create the wonderful spectacle of murmurations as they return to settle for the night. I remember seeing a tiny murmuration of starlings flying above a shopping centre in Thamesmead, South London, which I rejoiced in until I realised that they were there because the land had once been a wetland of reeds and that they continued to return to that place turned to concrete and desolate-dry. I couldn’t quite bare to look at them after that. I did though love to spend time with the cheeky little starlings of Woolwich, who would splash about in the water feature there and fearlessly run between people’s legs on the busy pavement seeking out crumbs. I’m not sure that many people bothered even to glance at them, so familiar are they. Often I felt that, even in that most manic of places, the starlings and I had shared a moment that was ours alone. They helped me keep going on many dark days. I was a little afraid of them when I was young, I think that it was the sharp rapier of their beaks that disturbed me. Now I feel nothing but gratitude and love.

A Wedge of Starlings, Walter Baxter, Wiki Commons

As for their survival in our land, it is sad to note that, whilst one third of starlings used to survive their first year, this number has now been reduced to only 15%. Birds surviving to breeding age may live for a further two to three years, although the oldest known individual was 21 years old! Starlings are tenacious and adaptable birds and their fortunes are closely linked to human activity, particularly as farming has provided them with suitable conditions for nesting. It is people who have made it possible for starlings to hugely increase their numbers across Europe and Asia, so deeply woven in are we. In many countries, they are considered beneficial as, by eating large numbers of invertebrates which are considered crop pests, they do us a service. However, in areas where autumn and winter crops are grown, they may come into conflict with people. These conflicts mainly centre on cherry orchards (I know that they strip our cherry trees every year, but I celebrate that, along with any cherries that I manage to salvage for myself!), autumn-sown cereal crops, and cattle feeding troughs. Because of this there have been many failed efforts to reduce their numbers.

In Britain though that decline seems to be happening whether we have a direct hand in it or not, and it’s not entirely clear why. It’s likely that rural populations are being adversely affected by loss of permanent pasture, which is their preferred feeding habitat, together with an intensification of livestock rearing. It may also be that their dependence on invertebrates when feeding their chicks has made them vulnerable as that food source becomes more scarce due to climate change and the use of pesticides. They may also be finding fewer suitable sites for nesting owing to household improvements, so hermetically sealed are we. Often too they are disliked even by people who enjoy feeding birds in their gardens, due to their clearing a bird feeder in a matter of minutes. I can certainly attest to that, as we seemed to spend more money replenishing the birds’ food over the summer than we did our own! Starlings are gregarious birds and have evolved to feed in flocks for protection, but they are nonetheless labelled ‘greedy’ by some. This is easily remedied if one must by providing some feeders that are only accessible to smaller birds.

It is clear that the fortunes of human and starling are deeply entwined. I hope for more sustainable farming practices that might help them, and us, to thrive and I hope that, as with stag beetles, we can use our small plots of earth, our gardens, to help the starling people survive. It seems that they are most affected by the reduction in numbers of worms and other invertebrates when they are feeding their babies. At all other times they are so deeply adaptable and resilient, very much like humankind, and so perhaps we could again be more mindful of allowing our gardens to become a prayer to dirt, encouraging a diversity of beings to make their homes there. I know that that would be a world that wasn’t just more healthy for starlings and their young, it would be more beautiful for us. Certainly this year the starling people in our garden seem to have successfully raised two clouds of young and it has been a joy to see. I am just a little bit proud if anything that we have done has helped them. Bring on the cacophany of feathers and stars!

The Starling That Dared to be Different, http://www.radiolab.org/story/starling-dared-be-different_kw/

Novena for the Fallen Through

Protection, justice, and shining health for our wild kin.

This is a prayer is for the starling people, our starry-sky kin.

Blessed Cuthbert,
Beloved Cuddy,
Saint of Salt and Fire,
Antlered ancestor,
Friend of otter, eider, cormorant, and crow,
Walker of the untamed edge of Land and Spirit,
Lover of wild places, wild creatures, and wild grace,
Threader of sea-stars into wild prayer.

We stand in solidarity with you at the roots of the Tree of Life.

We lift a prayer of solidarity and hope for our the starling people,
beautiful of feather, bright of spirit, wild of voice,
from winter speckled snowflakes to summer Northern Lights,
trailing spring in their Aurora Borealis flight.

Blessings on the starling people,
so deeply entwined with the tides of humankind,
adapatble, resilient, communal, vociferous,
so much like us, so beautifully different.

Blessings on the rakish ones,
the rowdy ones,
the raucous ones,
breakers of monotony,
who split the day with song.

Blessed Cuthbert,
Beloved Cuddy,
Saint of Salt and Fire,
Antlered ancestor,
Friend of otter, eider, cormorant, and crow,
Walker of the untamed edge of Land and Spirit,
Lover of wild places, wild creatures, and wild grace,
Threader of sea-stars into wild prayer.

We stand in solidarity with you at the roots of the Tree of Life.

Help us to learn from the star-feather people
the meaning of home,
the strength of base and cup, of nest and love,
the tenderness of shared work,
the vulnerability of trust.

Help us to honour that
the foundations of our homes may be built
in a different prayer;
the ghosts of reed beds, marshes, rivers, streams,
woodland, the dream of trees,
to remember that there are other needs than ours,
built in deeper tides and times.
Help us to allow and provide what we can
to make a home for all beings displaced
by our own ancient quest for home.

Help us to remember that
cracks don’t mean crumbling,
but can be the space where Life gets in.

Blessed Cuthbert,
Beloved Cuddy,
Saint of Salt and Fire,
Antlered ancestor,
Friend of otter, eider, cormorant, and crow,
Walker of the untamed edge of Land and Spirit,
Lover of wild places, wild creatures, and wild grace,
Threader of sea-stars into wild prayer.

We stand in solidarity with you at the roots of the Tree of Life.

Teach us how to share, to joyfully give,
to learn that self-protection can appear as brashness,
that seeming greed is often need.
Help us learn to live communally,
cooperatively, collectively
as you did with your own wild kin,
became a joyous choir of diversity,
singing the mending of relationship in.
To mimic your older tongue,
a way of living that we have forgotten for so long.

And let our little starlings,
our pearly kings and queens,
lead the choir with boisterous symphony.

Help us to notice what the earth gives freely,
where we stop the flow of mother’s milk
by being too tidy, too attached to our plans
for land that is only borrowed and gifted to our care.
Help us to learn from the starling people
the ability to change our colours and our seasons,
not being fixed, adapting to what comes,
allowing our gardens to take their own shape,
embracing spider and cranefly, moth and mayfly,
snail and earthworm, sawfly and bee,
a feast for starling chicks,
bringing the wild to door and heart,
and finding both flung open.

Blessed Cuthbert,
Beloved Cuddy,
Saint of Salt and Fire,
Antlered ancestor,
Friend of otter, eider, cormorant, and crow,
Walker of the untamed edge of Land and Spirit,
Lover of wild places, wild creatures, and wild grace,
Threader of sea-stars into wild prayer.

We stand in solidarity with you at the roots of the Tree of Life.

We lift a prayer of sorrow
for the dwindling of the starling people,
the silencing of their song,
we do not wish to live in a world of dying stars,
but in a nursery of light.

We pray for their return,
for soft nests and warm spring rains,
for untainted earth rich with life,
for long summers and wide blue skies,
for golden autumn, the intimacy of winter
for discordant song to fill the air with joy,
as speckled snow and northern light,
teach us how to live more deeply entwined.

We ask this in the name of badger and water vole,
hen harrier and natterjack toad,
red fox and red deer,
dotterel and dormouse,
red squirrel and seal.

Of starling and sparrow,
sand lizard and slow worm,
hedgehog and hare,
corn marigold and marsh cleaver.

Of great crested newt and small fleabane,
ringed plover and oystercatcher,
pasque flower and mountain ringlet butterfly,
wildcat and skylark.

Of marsh fritillary butterfly and shrill carder bee,
blue ground beetle and white-clawed crayfish,
freshwater pearl mussel, cormorant, and crow.

Blessed Cuthbert,
Beloved Cuddy,
Saint of Salt and Fire,
Antlered ancestor,
Friend of otter, eider, cormorant, and crow,
Walker of the untamed edge of Land and Spirit,
Lover of wild places, wild creatures, and wild grace,
Threader of sea-stars into wild prayer.

We stand in solidarity with you at the roots of the Tree of Life.

May the starling kin thrive.
In a human world where so many walk with loneliness,
let them teach us the value of good company
the protection of community,
the joy of dancing in constellation,
and may humankind and starlingkind
become celestial family,
a twinkling stellar society,
find that our futures are entangled,
that it’s written in our stars.

The first is for badger.
The second is for hedgehog.
The third is for Sheffield’s street trees.
The fourth is for otter, cormorant, and seal,
for salmon, and elver, and eel.
The fifth is for shark and orca,
the sixth for stag beetle,
the seventh for starling.
May our string of prayer beads,
formed in the starry sea where all things are one,
gathered on the shore of meeting,
be filled with life, love, and wild justice
for all beings on this earth we share.

For this we pray.

Aho mitake oyasin, amen, blessed be. Inshallah.


Starling at Stonehenge, R Wampers, Wiki Commons

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