“The Judgment of the Birds”

Both my mother and her mother, my grandmother, loved birds, and over the years I’ve come to love them as much as they did. Hearing birdsong is a joyful experience and makes me remember my own innate joyous spirit, even though it is often less present than I would wish it to be. I’ve recently read the nonfiction, very personal and close-to the-bone book by Terry Tempest Williams,  When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice. Williams writes about having inherited her mother’s many journals upon her death, only to find that each one was blank. In order to come to some understanding of that “emptiness” Williams began a self study, a journey that involved filling those journals with her own writing, the weaving and interweaving of her own – and her family’s – story upon those blank pages.

In reading the book, I received two particularly welcomed (and unexpected) gifts: an introduction to Loren Eiseley, both the man and his writings. In the book, Williams excerpts from the philosopher-essayist-anthropologist-literary naturalist’s essay, “The Judgment of Birds.” Before sharing the excerpt with you, though, I’d like to tie it to the second gift, Williams’s inclusion of the story of French composer, Olivier Messiaen, and his gift of the ability to transcribe (from boyhood on) the notes of birds as they sing. During World War II Messiaen was interned in a German POW camp, during which time he composed his chamber music piece, Quartet for the End of Time. In one of those uncanny twists we sometimes hear about, a German officer in the camp made sure Messiaen was provided with the staff paper he needed to write the music. The Red Cross helped find instruments upon which it could be played. As Williams writes, “The piece was premiered in the stalag on January 15, 1941, in the midst of the most terrible war humanity has known.” In his notes to the piece, Messiaen wrote, “The birds are the opposite of time. They represent our longing for light for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant song.”  I feel deeply the truth and power of his words.

And now, from Eiseley’s “The Judgment of Birds” . . .

The sun was warm there, and the murmurs of forest life blurred softly away into my sleep. When I awoke, dimly aware of some commotion and outcry in the clearing, the light was slanting down through the pines in such a way that the glade was lit like some vast cathedral. I could see the dust motes of wood pollen in the long shaft of light, and there on the extended branch sat an enormous raven with a red and squirming nestling in his beak.

            The sound that awoke me was the outraged cries of the nestling’s parents, who flew helplessly in circles about the clearing. The sleeping black monster was indifferent to them. He gulped, whetted his beak on the dead branch a moment and sat still. Up to that point the little tragedy had followed the usual pattern. But suddenly, out of all that area of woodland, a soft sound of complaint began to rise. Into the glade fluttered small birds of half a dozen varieties drawn by the anguished outcries of the tiny parents.

            No one dared to attack the raven. But they cried there in some instinctive common misery, the bereaved and the unbereaved. The glade filled with their soft rustling and their cries. They fluttered as though to point their wings at the murderer. There was a dim intangible ethic he had violated, that they knew. He was a bird of death.

            And he, the murderer, the black bird at the heart of life, sat on there, glistening in the common light, formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.

            The sighing died. It was then I saw the judgment. It was the judgment of life against death. I will never see it again so forcefully presented. I will never hear it again in notes so tragically prolonged. For in the midst of protest, they forgot the violence. There in that clearing, the crystal note of a song sparrow lifted hesitantly in the hush. And finally, after painful fluttering, another took the song, and then another, the song passing from one bird to another, doubtfully at first, as though some evil thing were being slowly forgotten. Till suddenly they took heart and sang from many throats joyously together as birds are known to sing. They sang because life is sweet and sunlight beautiful. They sang under the brooding shadow of the raven. In simple truth they had forgotten the raven, for they were the singers of life, and not of death.


In another of those uncanny juxtapositions, I see a kinship between what happened in the stalag and what happened in the forest. I must say, too, that I dream of a day on Earth when light finally perpetually shines, illuminating each and every heart so that the pain and darkness hidden there as fear and loathing is healed in an instant of realization never before experienced in this tragic and beautiful world of wonders. Clem Snide’s beautiful song, Find Love, comes to mind. Listen. Enjoy. Take it to heart. Live it as best you can.

[You can click on the song title to listen on Youtube; forgive, please, the usual Youtube advertisement ahead of the song.]

© Amy Pierce and In Spiritual Wonder, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Amy Pierce and In Spiritual Wonder with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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2 thoughts on ““The Judgment of the Birds”

  1. Indeed, awesome…grace…”hope is a thing called feathers” to quote Emily Dickinson. Messengers from heaven…voices of light and love…oh, amy! on a significant day of my life you offer this gift. With a kind hug, Mary

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