FAST WISDOM™ NEWSLETTER
By Lonner Holden
Spring Equinox: Birds as Keepers of Listening
My friend Steve and I stood still on the trail watching a lone Black-Tailed doe feed right in front of us. She was young, maybe a year and-a-half old. Initially, she was about twenty feet away, facing us and slowly moving toward us as she nibbled on thin grasses, threading her way between Coyote Brush which dominated the landscape. As we remained standing still, attentive and calm, she continued to move toward us, looking up at us occasionally to reevaluate our state of calm, assessing tension, safety and threat in her environment.
We were on the trail to Abbott’s Lagoon in west Point Reyes. It was a weekday and the trail was pretty quiet of humans, except for us. It was sunny and a light breeze breathed through the brush and over the dunes, giving easy soaring to the ravens gliding above the steep hillsides on the ocean side of the landscape. Our time with the doe was uninterrupted, so afforded us a long interlude of listening and observation; our senses became more keen as the scene sustained itself, so we became more a part of the natural landscape and less of an intruder.
Both the doe’s ears rotated toward us. Being primarily auditory oriented, deer rely more on their hearing to discern changes in the environment. Even as her eyes faced the ground during her nibbling moments, both of her ears maintained being absolutely focused in our direction. Then she would look up, as if to corroborate visually what her ears were telling her. She took another short step toward us, now about ten feet away, when suddenly, out of the grass near her feet, a previously undiscerned adult male California Quail took flight away from her and us, immediately hooking back to face us as it took perch atop the tallest Coyote Brush visible within at least a hundred-foot radius. The bird immediately began a sharp vocalization, as if making an announcement. It’s voice was terse, but only mildly intense, as if it was repeating, ”OK, so far.” “OK, so far.” The deer continued feeding, unwavering from its original intent and still not alarmed at our presence. Yet, something had changed about it.
The change was not obvious at first, so I observed more keenly details about its posture and tension changes in its muscles, even the way it put weight on its hooves. Nothing seemed different. Then I saw it. The deer was not only listening in Steve’s and my direction as before, but now it had one ear still facing us, while the other ear had rotated directly over its shoulder facing the quail directly behind it. The deer was relying on the sentry quail for moment-to-moment threat and safety status reports on us.
Intra-species communication is something we can expect in the natural world because we communicate among each other as humans as naturally as the sun rises and sets. We observe dolphins, frogs and crickets communicating among their own kind all the time. Yet here Steve and I had before us inter-species communication happening between a quail and a deer. As Steve and I remained calm and still, the quail’s vocalization did not change in volume, pitch or rhythm, and the quail continued to reflect our state-of-mind, broadcasting every couple of seconds to whomever was near enough to hear.
The deer continued to feed, slowly moving toward us, now only about six feet away from me. It’s one ear still committed to the direction of the quail. Though nothing changed with our outer demeanor, other than I began to feel tired of standing and internally a bit more restless, the quail suddenly gave a single, tenser, sharper utterance and the deer turned on her heels, trotting in the direction of the quail, away from us, vanishing from view into the brush in only a couple of seconds.
It was almost like the deer was the younger student and the older and wiser quail was mentoring it in just how close is too close. When the doe reached a proximity-to-humans limit she was not yet savvy about on her own (being habituated to humans, as deer are not hunted at Point Reyes), the elder quail seemed to discerned a subtle change in the environment - likely my body language showing my subtle, internal restlessness - and gave her a sharp instruction to retreat - and she did exactly as she was told - by a bird.
Birds are the most sensitive presence in the landscape, as they are the mirrors of change as it occurs in real time. With their quick nervous systems, holistic vision and small, precise and predictable vocabularies, they can detect and communicate movement changes in their subtlest expression - including a person’s internal state being expressed as a tiny droop in posture at 30 feet. If we want to understand the nature of change in the relationships between hawk and gopher, cat and mouse, coyote, raccoon, deer, mountain lion and snake, we become listeners to the birds. And because birds teach us the fine art of listening, they open our minds to curiosity like no other presence in the natural world. For once we begin to notice this bird language - the movement and vocalizations birds make reflecting safety and threat changes in the environment - we begin to notice that one sound and a specific movement means “cat” while another means “Cooper’s Hawk”. We begin to notice that the birds are communicating not just among their own species, but also across species. Then we notice that everyone is listening to the birds. The coyotes, the bobcat, the deer, the voles. We become more deeply connected to the vast system of inter-relatedness and inter-dependency of nature.
The birds are showing up everywhere now; choosing mates, building nests, defending territories. Spring has brought the language of the birds to our doorsteps, and with it, the opportunity to engage in deep listening.
Listening is the highest sense, as it guides us internally to a voice not heard by the rest of the outer world. Listening guides us to a quiet mind; to insight, creativity and inner wisdom. To learn to listen to the birds is to also cultivate the capacity to connect with previously unseen relationships in our own inner landscape, is to find inner knowing, inner peace and happiness. Listening is the sense of deep connection. What is the newest awakening of awareness for you in a moment of quiet, in a moment of listening within yourself? What might a little bird tell you today?
Jin Shin Jyutsu:
Listening and the sense of hearing are related to Kidney and Umbilicus Energies.
- Kidney: With your right hand, gently hold your left little toe;
- Place your left hand gently on the front of the pubic bone.
Sustain for 5 - 10 minutes.
- Reverse hand positions for right flow.
- Umbilicus: Place the back of your left little and ring fingers perpendicular to and against the palm side of your right index, middle, ring and little fingers with the right thumb across the palm side of the two left fingers.
- Sustain for five to ten minutes.
Restorative Nature Practice:
- Before getting out of bed in the morning, bring your attention to the sound of birds outside.
- Then notice them again before leaving the house.
- What is the feeling you get from their sounds? Is it simple, gentle calling back-and-forth? Is it tense, and alarming? Is it totally silent, and if so, what is the quality of the silence?
- What is it like to ask yourself these same questions regarding how does your inner landscape sound?
- How does your inner quality of sound and voice change over time during your day?
- Make a regular practice to sit quietly in your yard and observe and listen to the birds.
NEXT MONTH: Trees: Patience, Presence, Community
- Early Spring is a time of year when winter caches have been depleted and before summer produces even early harvests.
- What miscellaneous foods can you gather to produce an innovative soup or salad or hot cereal?
- (Hint: Minestrone soup was created as the soup for all seasons.)
PICK OF THE MONTH: Video: Bird Language with Jon Young, author of What the Robin Knows