Please note: Each of my public radio essays was written and aired at different times between 1999 and now. None of them is posted in chronological order. Hopefully, the ideas and insights in each of them will transcend the times and places about which I’ve written. I hope you enjoy what I have to offer.
During a recent retreat, I took a break from writing and walked outside the forest cabin in which I was staying. Poking through a hazy sky, the sun setting in the west cast its receding rays on the clouds and the woods with that mix of light and shadow so dreamlike and intense a person cannot easily describe it. As I began to chant the first line of my afternoon prayers, I walked to the side of my cabin and spotted a small bird perched perfectly upright with its feet clinging to the branch of a wild bush. It barely moved and it would not fly, yet it did not seem to be in distress or pain. It wore white tufts of hair or down on the sides of its head that reminded me of pictures of Albert Einstein. Its white back was speckled and streaked with brown, and its underbelly was a dull white. As I stood there so close to the bird yet not touching it, my eyes met its eyes that seemed to show no fear. I wondered silently: where had this bird come from and why wouldn’t it fly away? Was it sick or injured? Was it a baby or perhaps a baby owl? I brought over the gardener of the retreat center; he confirmed for me that it was a baby bird, that it would have to be nursed with a dropper if we were going to care for it, and that I shouldn’t touch it or the mother bird would reject it. I later learned from him that this is no farmer’s legend: apparently some species of birds will not touch their young if they smell the scent of another species on them. The director of the retreat center came over, and together we watched this tiny creature balancing itself silently on the branch. She remarked that, sadly, nature would have to take its course because the center could not care for injured or stray wildlife. We slowly surmised that the bird had tried prematurely to fly from a nest in the tall tree high above my cabin. We marveled at this baby’s maiden voyage: unable to fly well, it must have tumbled onto the forest floor, miraculously landing on that supple, green branch unharmed, with its feet wrapping around the limb and holding on for dear life. When a fully grown bird appeared, hovering tentatively on the low hanging branch of a nearby tree, we stepped away, believing that this was the mother waiting for us to leave so she could care for her fallen child.
Before I drifted off to sleep that night, I listened to the composer Ralph Vaughn Williams’ delightful piece, The Lark Ascending. The solo violin paints a light and beautiful musical picture of a lark flying higher and higher into the heavens, its view of the ground becoming increasingly expansive and distant. “When will you ascend, baby bird?” I thought to myself about my new friend who stood five feet outside of my cabin window. Right after I woke up the next morning I walked outside to see what had happened to the bird. There it still stood on the branch, seemingly unfazed by its nighttime vigil in the cold air that could have resulted in its being eaten by a predator or its freezing to death. An hour later, as I prepared to leave the retreat center, I looked for the bird and it was gone. Had it finally ascended like the lark?
I got into my car, drove away from the retreat center and pulled onto a winding road to get home. Driving along the way, I was startled by a bird that suddenly flew in low from the right side of the road and under my car. Unable to stop my car quickly and safely enough as I rode from that point where it met the bird, I glanced in my rearview mirror. The bird lay dead on the road, and it rapidly faded from my sight as I drove along. My remorse was matched by my sense of tragic irony. One bird wanted to start its life by ascending in flight like the lark but did not yet know how. Another bird knew how to ascend like the lark and ended its life in flight, yet probably did not know why. I think about those birds as two depictions of the same truth. As we grow, from time to time we need to soar, ascending into freedom flight like the lark. Yet the risk of suffering and death comes with those ascendant flights of freedom. Hopefully we find the wisdom and the courage to accept that truth as we leave the comfort of our many nests over and over again.
Dan Ornstein is rabbi of Congregation Ohav Shalom, and a writer living in Albany.
© 2010 By Rabbi Dan Ornstein.