We are reconciled, I think,
to too much.
Better to be a bird, like this one --
an ornament of the eternal.
from "The Lark" by Mary Oliver
It is hard to learn things about yourself when you have given yourself the benefit of the doubt for so long.
No one should be running to a dictionary whenever an unknown vocabulary word shows up in a reading passage, right? Hard-learned lessons teach us how to sketch out a meaning from context rather than let ourselves be consistently derailed by every unfamiliar term. The skill with which we pick up the thread of meaning later in the sentence or later in the paragraph justifies that judicious move forward over a text. Our education allows us to do this verbal fast-forward again and again without our – usually – suspecting that we have deprived ourselves of anything essential.
Marc last week asked me out of the blue who my favorite authors were. Tempted at first to review the literary canon that acts as the underpinning of my undergraduate and graduate degrees in French and English and theology, I opted instead to name the two authors whose works I would automatically pick up from my bedside table if the volumes were there: contemporary American poet Mary Oliver and American naturalist Edwin Way Teale.
I think of myself as their loyal champion, a devotee, a spiritual younger brother. I trust them, I trust their worlds, I trust their words. I subscribe to the values enshrined in their writing.
However, I was startled recently to come across a chapter by Edwin Way Teale that left my mind’s eye feeling blind. In descriptions of his Connecticut farm, I kept coming across the names of birds whose color and shape I could not picture. On one page he mentioned wood thrush and veery, purple finch and catbird and scarlet tanager, yellowthroat and rose-breasted grosbeak and chestnut-sided warbler and great crested flycatcher. On the next page he catalogued the presence on his farm of phoebe and flicker and towhee and meadowlark, barn swallow and woodcock and nighthawk.
My mind nodded through the lists. Yes, these were birds with wings, birds who sang and built nests and flew south. I was attentive to how Teale described them and their habits in the meadows around his house. On the other hand, I kept substituting a new mental marker whenever the name of a different bird was mentioned. In time the mental markers were perched on a clothesline, and I may as well have been picturing the caricatures in a New Yorker cartoon. I wondered what I was missing.
Was I missing anything essential by not knowing the realities behind the markers? Were there compelling reasons to slow down my reading just because the words were technical or unfamiliar? A Google search for images to match the markers in Teale’s chapter gave me my answer.
What had made me think earlier that I could remain ignorant of this beauty? How long had I succeeded in relegating this startling display of nature’s richness to the background of my knowledge of this world? I am missing something, I know now. And there has to be something I can do not to miss it anymore.
Photos (top to bottom) of Chestnut-sided Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Eastern Bluebird, Blackburnian Warbler, and Scarlet Tanager from Mentor Lagoons