Have you noticed those large stick nests atop tall phone poles along Highway 525? There are two between Freeland and Greenbank. Each time I drive by, I crane my neck to pick out the occupants, large birds of prey called Ospreys. They are dark chocolate brown birds with white breasts and smallish white heads.
These birds are about to take off for a long fall migration south into Mexico, Central and South America. In preparation, they are fattening up on fish. Osprey dive feet-first into shallow water for their prey, which is almost exclusively surface-schooling and shallow swimming fish.
My friend Sue tells the story of her brother who lives on Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts. The bay was named by the Colonists for the Osprey which lived there.
Sue’s brother despises the gull — calls them sky rats — which perch on and mess up his boats. Yet he painstakingly built two Osprey nesting platforms of fine hardwood and installed them on tall poles overlooking the water. Then he collected the appropriate sized branches and placed them along the beach for the osprey to use to build their nests.
Within a year, the platforms were claimed and nests constructed at least partly with the supplied materials. Sue’s brother took great joy and pleasure from “his” Osprey families.
While hearing Sue’s story I was reminded of a quote by the theologian Thomas Merton. I’ve recently become aware that Merton kept copious journals of his observations of birds and nature in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir.
Merton wrote: “I want not only to observe but to know living things, and this implies a dimension of primordial familiarity which is simple and primitive and religious and poor.”
I love that phrase “primordial familiarity.” I expect Sue’s brother had, at least at some level, a primordial familiarity with his Osprey. Merton’s description of that familiarity as “simple, primitive, religious and poor” exactly defines what I feel when I connect with wild birds.
At least for the moment, I forget about keeping lists or examining the plumage markings or even considering appropriate habitat, but just absorb the simple, primitive, religious (or spiritual, or reverential, if you prefer) and poor (meaning humble or deserving of compassion) connection to this wild creature.
I felt this recently as I finished a long walk in a park. I’d seen practically no birds and spent much of the time stewing about finding a solution to a problem that was troubling me. Just steps before returning to my car a bright, bold Cooper’s Hawk erupted from a thick bush and landed on a low tree limb right in front of me.
We eyed each other for a long time and I quietly admired his wildness, independence and energy. I felt that same simple, primitive, spiritual and humbling familiarity which Merton mentioned.
The answer to my dilemma didn’t come to me with the sighting of the hawk, but seeing that wild creature so very close broke the heavy burden of decision and lifted my spirits to see that there were many possible answers and the process could be a joyful exploration of options.
That insight also helped me understand another Merton statement, “People who watch birds and animals are already wise in their way.” The first time I read that, I puffed myself up and thought, “Absolutely!”
But soon I sobered to what Merton likely meant. We are wise to the value of connecting to the world beyond ourselves. We can, at least on occasion, find the primordial familiarity that gives us joy and hope.
Soon those skyscraper stick nests will empty as the Ospreys launch into their southbound migration. But new wintering birds will begin to move in and take their places as inspiration for our primordial familiarity with wild things.
Frances Wood has just launched a new website called 41 Whidbey Places: Our Island, our stories. The site describes special places on Whidbey and the personal stories they hold. Visit www.41whidbeyplaces.com to read the growing collection of stories.