Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Hope is the Thing with Feathers ~ a Prayer Song to Small Brown Birds

'Winter Wren', Wiki Commons ~

Hope is the thing with feathers 
That perches in the soul 
And sings the tune without the words

And never stops - at all -...

(Emily Dickinson)

These are difficult times, with so much unfolding, both here in Britain and elsewhere, that is painful, frightening, and feels almost impossible to bear.The election and inauguration of Donald Trump, and all that that promises to bring into being, Brexit, the rise of right wing politics and attitudes, fracking, the Dakota Access Pipeline, continued attacks on the poor and vulnerable, the badger cull, and so much more, all conspire to make life less bright. In my own small life, I struggle personally with financial worries, with keeping my little family afloat, and with the loss of the beautiful hawthorn hedge and mature trees that until recently were close to our house but have now been hacked down to make space for new houses. It is a small blessing that my beloved wilding tree has been spared thus far. She was the next tree in the line that was felled but, for reasons that are unclear, she has remained standing. For how long I don't yet know. Where once I walked care-free, I now turn the corner preparing myself to see an empty space where her beautiful old branches once met the sky. It is not a good feeling. From the personal to the collective, it all just feels too much, enough to shut down our hearts and make us turn away. And yet, hope is the thing with feathers that perches in our soul.

Chiffchaff, Wiki Commons ~

I have much to say about the war on our hearts and on our connection to the Land and to the Sacred. I will write more on that soon but, for now, I want to write about the blessings of small brown birds. What matters most, and perhaps what is hardest, in times like these is to keep our hearts open, to allow the flow of feeling when so much of us wants to shut down. Without that flow I believe that we are lost. I have written before about how grief is one of the gates to an open heart, but there are so many gates and, for me, one of those gates is birds. I have also written about feeding the birds in our garden every morning but I have not really talked about how much joy that brings into my life, nor the anchor that it provides to what matters. Today, for example, I have been scared and a little bit lost. It is a feeling that I am familiar with and one that might cause me to become grasping and needy. I feel that part of me scratching at the window of my soul, demanding to be let in. And yet today as every day, I fed the garden birds, with seeds and suet, with cheese and apple, I broke the ice on their water bowl and poured fresh, clean water for them to drink, and that made it better. It is not just that it matters to feed birds in the winter, nor that it is a nice thing to do and means that there will be birds to watch in the garden. It is that, at a time when we are being told, both explicitly and implicitly, that there isn't enough for everyone and that it would be best to think only of ourselves, when we are encouraged to turn inwards and harden our hearts, that buying seed and fruit and making sure to go out every day because the birds are waiting, challenges all of that. Because there is more than enough for everyone. It's just that some people don't want to share. And it matters because birds are one of the things that can keep our hearts open.

In the last few days I have been moved to tears of wonder and quiet awe, not to mention delight, at the presence of small birds. A wren seems to have taken up residence in our garden and is often to be seen foraging in our brambles. Two days ago she let me get quite close to her before she flew away, and today I was standing at the kitchen sink and she landed on the tree just outside our window no more than two feet away from me. I was enchanted and transfixed. I have also watched a blue tit on the rose bush outside our living room window carefully turning over rose leaves with his tiny foot to search for insects and, today, a chiffchaff doing the same. Sometimes small birds seem more mammal than bird, flowing with stoat-like grace between blackberry tendrils and rose thorns. I could watch them for hours. And that is not to mention that starry-night starlings who gather in a joyous cacophony of squawks and clicks in our cherry tree every day, or the doves with their outspread tail feathers lit by the sun, or the fat woodpigeons that land and seem to threaten to knock the bird feeder over, or the jackdaw couple who always arrive and leave together, or the lesser spotted woodpecker who spirals up and down our cherry tree and brings a flash of red flame to grey days, or the magpies with their long balancing tails and stunning secret rainbow colours, or the gulls with their demanding fluff-ball babies that blow onto our roof every spring, or the blue tits whose colours seem so vivid in the winter light, or the excitement of the sparrows who occasionally call by, or the blackbird pair who, to my absolute delight, have begun to visit, or the bright little winter robin. Every day they bring me a precious brush with the wild, and there are days when I would swear that they save my life.

And then yesterday I walked, as I often do these days, to the graveyard of the 1,000 year old church close by. Churchyards are so often a rich source of connection to nature and this time I was particularly blessed; first by watching a wren indulging in a lengthy dust bath, something which I have never seen before, and then by a tiny goldcrest foraging on the branches and leaves of two yew trees that I happened to be standing under. Goldcrests are well known for their cavalier attitude to the presence of humans and I stood enchanted for at least half an hour watching this one flit from one tree to the other only a few feet from where I was standing. Who needs a mountain to feel awe when there are goldcrests in yew trees? There was a moment when he was lit from behind by the pale winter sun and I have to admit that I wept for the beauty of it all and for the fierce aliveness of that tiny bird.

Goldcrest in a yew tree, Wiki Commons ~,_Brussels-8.jpg

I have little more to say. It was just that something in me wanted to record that moment as a prayer song to all the things that are beautiful and fiercely alive in our world, in spite of and because of it all, and in the feathered hope that we will all notice the things that could keep our hearts open in the days and weeks to come.

As for the birds, the late winter is sometimes known as the 'hungry gap' when many winter berries and seeds have gone and little food is available. Birds need more energy in cold weather and the shorter days mean that they have less time to forage. At the same time, the loss of wild hedgerows and much garden space means that there is less and less food for them to find, and at a time when many migrant species are arriving and needing feeding up after their long journeys. It is a blessing to them, and to us, if we can put out a little food and water for them every day. The RSPB provide some valuable tips on how best to feed the feathered~kin in winter, and at other times, here. I wish you many moments of quiet awe and simple delight in their good company.

Goldcrest eating silver birch buds, Wiki Commons ~,_eating_the_silver_birch_buds_(11585923184).jpg

You can read the full text of Emily Dickinson's poem here. Honey for the soul.


  1. This is so beautiful. I'm deeply sorry for the loss of your trees, I know that heartbreak, and I am so glad you have kept your heart open to beauty and hope.

    1. Thank you so much, Sarah. I was so shocked about the trees. One day they were here and then, with no warning, gone and a huge white wooden fence put up around the building site. So ugly after all that green, and all those precious winter hawthorn berries lost. Luckily, there are lots of ivy berries nearby so the birds still have something. Tough times.

  2. Tiny brown birds are sort of my favourites, though I can't tell them apart really at all. Well, some look different than others, but that doesn't help me with actual identification?

    I feel your feels on feeding the birds as an act of abundance, though. I feel much the same way about feeding & taking care of our Major Tom. He's got a hurt paw just now, which I'm pretty worried about, but he still doesn't want to stay inside, so he's on the back porch, curled up in the sun, just outside his warmy spot so he can go back in when the sun goes in.

    Here's to abundance, & feeding those who need it!

    1. Tiny brown birds are especially lovely I think. I am not that good at bird identification, I am sorry to say, but I am learning. I am even worse at trees!

      I am so sorry to hear about Major Tom. It is upsetting when they are hurt and we don't quite know how to make it better. I am sure that he has his own wisdom about it though and curling up in the sun sounds very wise. I hope that he is feeling better today.

      And yes, here's to abundance and to being fed in all ways!

    2. He is _mostly_ resting in one of his various warmy spots but occasionally I find him at the front door when I'd last seen him at the back door, so he's been gimping around mightily. Still not putting any weight on the paw; I'm worried it's broken. If naught else, he's always got a place here, though.

    3. How is he today, Kate? I was cheered to hear that he was putting some weight on it yesterday. It is good that he has you.

    4. He's putting more weight on it than he was yesterday! Also he tried to spray two different places in my room, which I'm not _thrilled_ about, but it does mean he's feeling better. (I managed to stop him both times, & then he got all cranky & stomped off. It amazes me how well a cat with one still-not-really-working forepaw can stomp.)

  3. Beautiful. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one taking heart from the winged ones.

    1. Thank you so much, Therese. Oh, aren't they such a joy. Perhaps it's the they don't seem quite a part of all that is going on in the world when they can just rise above it lighter than air. I would like to be able to do the same sometimes.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I genuinely do appreciate and value what you have to say. For some reason I am currently struggling to reply but I am reading everything you say and I am grateful. I will work on the replying!