“Until we can expand our scope beyond self-centred and purely human concerns to hold in mind the trillion worlds alive on this one earth at any moment, and to glimpse ourselves exactly in that vibrant, seamless web of interconnectedness, we are living in a kind of madness – which is to say, not living in reality.”
Susan Murphy – The Koan of the Earth
There is someone slowly dying in my living room. A small and fragile someone, only just born, too weak now to feed, just sleeping. Sleeping and dying. I have been told to put him out of his misery, but I am not sure what that means or I just can’t do it. I have put on a recording of his father’s voice and am letting Death take him when she will. I was expecting Death to come much sooner, but every time I checked he was still moving and breathing – this one’s a fighter I thought. I tried to feed him, but no interest.
After the swallows nest in our car port was attacked by one of the resident cats I found two broken eggs on the floor – I was sure that the remaining nestling would be dead. I gently picked him up with the remains of the nest still around him, when he began to move. Panic. What to do with a tiny newly hatched baby bird, whose nest had been destroyed?
Mother swallow was still flying around. I had to put him back somewhere that would allow her to look after him. My next door neighbour found a coir basket and we placed the newborn, nest and all, inside and managed to secure it in the same place the original nest had been. Mum and Dad now appeared and flew around showing signs of distress. Finally the mother landed on the nest, but looked confused. Now there was only one child where she was expecting three. But eventually she sat down to keep her newborn warm. I sighed with relief and prayed the baby would be alright.
I kept a watchful eye on the nest. Unfortunately Mum was not there the next morning. Was she out getting food? Dad, who the previous day had perched nearby guarding his family, was also nowhere to be seen. Mum made an appearance at midday, then flew off again. By nightfall she had not returned. I warned my 9 year old son that this was the end and we would bury all the little chicks together the next day.
However, Death comes in her own time. This morning as I went to get the chick from his nest to bury him, he moved again. My son was now adamant: ‘Mum, you have to do something to save him. You have to feed him. He doesn’t want to die.’ A quick search on the internet told me that it was pretty much hopeless, but my son’s pleading meant I found some worms in the garden, which I mashed into a pulp and tried to feed our little friend with a blunt wooden skewer. But he wasn’t interested in food. What I realised then was that he was dying and didn’t want to be interrupted. He was not in distress. He was just sleeping and dying. After watching me make a few gentle attempts to feed him, my son could see it too.
So now I am sitting here, playing the sound of his father’s voice over and over again. I don’t know how birds like to die, but wringing his neck or crushing his tiny skull under my boot is just not an option. I also know that many people will read this and think I am making too much of it. After all, it is just a bird. Yes, it’s a shame it didn’t survive, but the swallows will build another nest and more baby birds will be born.
But this is not just any bird. This is the child of the swallows that I have been watching every day for the last two months as they built their nest with sticks and mud. I have seen how they swooped down into the carport and back out again to perch high up on the street light in front of our home. Sometimes in the half dark, after an evening in the garden, I would look up and see Mum sitting on her eggs. My son and I would speak about the baby birds we were anticipating when the time came. These were not just another family of swallows. These were the babies we were hoping to see feeding and growing and learning to fly.
So here I sit, waiting with the little one, until it’s time to go.
I feel sad. It is normal to feel sad when someone dies. It’s just that in our culture, a baby bird is not considered ‘someone’. My son disagrees and was very distressed to think about the death of the three babies. So was I, but my grown up conditioned self kept saying: ‘It’s just a baby bird.’ Every time I felt the tears welling up I felt a fool.
Ironically I had just attended a friend’s funeral two days before. A human friend I should probably add, a definite ‘someone’ by our culture’s definition. Colin loved birds, he loved nature, and I am sure he agrees with me. Though I didn’t know him for that long, I can imagine he had done his fair share of animal rescuing. In fact, one of the photos of him in the funeral booklet shows his younger self with a bird perched on his finger. Luckily for me, it was acceptable to cry for Colin when we said good-bye to him. Luckily for me now, I can draw on his continued presence to support me in my grief for this little creature.
Perhaps it is the grief we allow ourselves to feel for the small things, that creates the channel for the bigger grief to come through. Or maybe there is no larger and smaller grief. Maybe there is no hierarchy of sadnesses. The grief simply arrives when we need it, allowing us to know what matters deep down, who and what we value.
Until we teach them otherwise, children allow themselves to feel and express their sorrows freely. They also move through their grief quickly and continue to live and enjoy life. As adults in this culture we stem the flow of feeling, both negative and positive, only to get stuck in places where life is asking us to move through.
What if we, like children, could keep our hearts wide open? Would we cease to decimate entire forests, knowing the trees for who they are? Would we become incapable of spraying chemicals on the land that enter the food chain of birds, mammals and amphibians leaving them diminished and deformed? Would we find words that more accurately describe our interrelatedness with the rest of nature than woodland management or biodiversity loss?
Instead perhaps, every oak, swallow, deer and wolf would be that specific oak, that particular swallow, each creature with her own story. And when Death came, even if through our own doing, perhaps we would be able to see them off in a way that honoured their living beingness, whisper our blessings for a swift and painless departure and be thankful for their gifts. How much more would we feel with our hearts wide open?
So here I sit, with the song of a male sparrow ringing in my ears, unashamed of the tears running down my cheeks.
It looks like our little friend has flown.