learning to see the birds

The birds are on the move. By the lake they’re flocked around the bushes and saplings. They’re travellers and migrants, called by…

The birds are on the move. By the lake they’re flocked around the bushes and saplings.

They’re travellers and migrants, called by ancient urge to the north and south, and they pass here largely unnoticed except for early morning devotees like the dog and I. Red-winged blackbirds. Grosbeaks.

My people say the birds are child spirits, the song of them is the innocent, exuberant joy of children. In this splash of late winter sunshine they’re gleeful.

Standing in the chill air, watching them, is a foray out of the world, its time, its rush, its burdens. Even the dog is drawn to their energy and sits at my knee and watches.

It reminds me of a story I heard when I was a young man. I’d always taken birds for granted, seldom giving them any attention, never paused to watch them or see that they might have something to teach me. At a traditional winter gathering when I was 25, I heard stories that changed things for me.

In the Long Ago Time, the harshness of winter became deadly. The snows piled higher than they ever had and Keewatin, the north wind, blew long and frigidly.

The cold was so devastating that the sap in tree limbs froze and they swelled and exploded. Everywhere in the forest was the sound of popping trees. It was a haunting sound in the darkness.

A small chickadee was nearly frozen. He hopped along the snow and came to the base of a small tamarack tree. The wind blew mightily and the little chickadee huddled close to the trunk of the tree and begged it to lower its branches to shelter him from the bitter wind and cold.

But the tamarack was young and proud. It reveled in its fine shape and refused to lower its branches. So the little chickadee gathered his strength and hopped on through the snow, clutching his wings about him to stave off the cold.

Eventually, he came to an old pine and moved close to the trunk. The chickadee asked the same favour of the pine tree, and seeing his plight the pine tree dropped its lower branches to shelter the small bird.

Creator watched the drama unfold. She asked the tamarack why it had refused to help the small bird. The tamarack replied that it did not see the need to surrender its beauty to shelter the bird.

Then, Creator asked the pine tree why it had decided to help the freezing bird. The pine tree replied that it had felt the bite of many frigid winds and knew how lonely and terrifying it could feel. So it had helped the chickadee out of empathy.

As a sign of the pine tree’s compassion Creator allowed it to always show its drooped lower branches.

Creator allowed the tamarack to keep the magnificent shape it admired about itself, but its vanity and selfishness caused it to loose its needles every fall, so that it always faced the winter naked and cold, as a sign of the costs in a lack of mercy and compassion.

It’s why you always see birds flocked around pine trees in the winter and why tamaracks are skeletal and lonely all throughout the Moons of the Popping Trees.

Hearing that story harkened me to birds. I was as young and haughty as the tamarack when I heard it. Like a lot of young people I was fixed on appearances and the idea of surrendering my hard-fought idea of myself was improbable at best.

But traditional stories exist for the listener to journey back to again and again, and the more I revisited that story, the more it seemed to hold for me.

I began to look for birds. Everywhere I drove or walked I searched them out. They were always easy to find. I began to see differences in their rhythms, their attitudes and, of course, in their plumage and their songs. But the biggest thing I noticed was the change that happened in me when I took the time to see them.

At 25 I was a confused young man. I’d just reconnected to my native family and my culture, and there were tough, internal battles going on within me all the time.

I struggled with acceptance of myself as a native person. I believed that all the years of displacement disqualified me, that it was only my skin that made me Indian, Ojibway, and that I lacked the necessary soul to ever really belong.

So I used vanity as a mask. I dressed either expensively, trendily, or in a very native way. A very expensive native way.

I had fringed moose hide jackets with elaborate beadwork. I had turquoise rings. I had hide vests and moccasins. Within the glitz of my wardrobe, I hid the terrified and lonely young man that I was.

But when I started to search out the birds, took the time out of my days to watch them, hear them, and learn more about them, I found a calm I had never felt before. I became a birdwatcher.

I had books and binoculars and sturdy walking shoes that allowed me to hike to wherever they were and I visited marshes, forests, meadows and semi-arid deserts.

I could sit for hours, enthralled by the magnificence of their vitality and cheer. When they sang, I heard the voice of celebration, of the benevolence of life, of grace and mercy. These days, it’s pretty much the same thing.

They say that the birds are more ancient than the dinosaurs. They say that they survived the cataclysm that ended the great reptile’s reign. I believe it’s true. Walking through the hushed air of morning, seeing them flit and hop among the branches, is to feel the presence of a sage wisdom, gleaned from millennia.

Look around you, they seem to say. Notice this world you’ve been given to live. See its majesty. Sing, then they say. Celebrate. It’s not just an Indian thing.

Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He recently won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels.