Not really a review, more like a paean

Sightings - Sam Keen, Mary Woodin

Apologies up front.  First of all this is too long.  Second, it is not a review.  Instead, it is a direct copy straight from the authors pen of several passages I want to remember verbatim.  In fact, this book is almost enough to make me understand how, in the old days, people could quote entire passages of their favorite authors; or ala Orwell, a complete book.  This nonfiction book of essays on bird-sightings and life makes me want to do exactly that -- remember it in its entirety.  Failing that, I recreate it here, a little bit.


I read this via Kindle Unlimited, but I will be purchasing the hardcopy for my library.  Not only for the ideas expressed but also for the watercolors of birds and other wildlife.


"Each person has a unique way of experiencing the world that reflects the multitude of events that make one person’s autobiography different from another’s. . . 

 . . . the unique ways in which the experience of the holy comes to indivduals. . . they tend to overlook the sacred moments—the sightings and peak experiences—when a solitary self stands in awe before the miracle of existence, is astonished by the grace of soaring Red-tailed Hawks, is moved by the beauty of a trumpeting stargazer lily, or is comforted by a sonorous symphony of frogs on a summer night. . . . 

 A brief opening appears in the cloud of ultimate ignorance under which we dwell. Yet, the experience is so private, so idiosyncratic, that we don’t know how to talk about it. We stutter in an effort to put into words something that is ineffable. But there is no way we can explain concisely why our self and our world are unaccountably changed by such encounters. . . ."


 "I have not always been swept off my feet by the appearance of a Black-and-white Warbler or of a Bald Eagle. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a bird is just a bird, not a metaphor. But the birds I am writing about here are those that have opened new vistas, inspired my mind to ask new questions, made my imagination soar, and caused my spirit to expand. . .

 . . . I had a strong premonition that my sighting of this marvel would signify something important, though I didn’t know exactly what. No one in the fifth grade at Fort Craig Elementary School, where I was a painfully shy student, or at the First Presbyterian Church had ever seen an Indigo Bunting. They didn’t even know buntings existed. If I could see one I might possess a secret amulet that would protect me from my persistent feeling of being a misfit. . .

 Time stopped. The woods evaporated and left me standing awestruck in the presence of the holy bunting. It was as if I was looking from the outside at a scene that contained only the bird and me. Effortlessly, I slipped into a state of grace in which I felt honored by a magical being that had previously only inhabited the mythical world of my Birds of America. 


"It was in my wanderings in the woods that I first experienced a place apart from my parents’ world—a place in which my wildness and native sense of the sacred could emerge . . . divinity had no name and required no special acts of worship beyond open-eyed wonder and reverence for life."


"On gray afternoons in New England, when the only birds that haven’t gone south are those scurrying birds—Black-capped Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches, Slate-colored Juncos—that specialize in the dark tones of winter, a cardinal will slice through the gloom and land on a branch, bringing a promise of spring potent enough to get you through the dead time."


"Being a fan of the colorful, the exotic, and the rare, I believed that Scarlet Tanagers, or the interesting sparrows like the Black-throated, the Golden-crowned, or the Lake Sparrow, should be protected, but basic brown ones were expendable. They belonged to the same category of “enemies of higher culture” as starlings—which traveled in gangs like Hell’s Angels and were known to augment their daily diet with eggs stolen from other birds’ nests—or cowbirds that, in imitation of the jet-setting rich, laid their eggs in other birds’ nests, forcing the host to be a surrogate mother.

More than once, I had come upon the hanging nest of a diminutive Red-eyed Vireo filled to overflowing with a ravenous baby cowbird, while the ground beneath was littered with the corpses of vireo fledglings who had either starved to death or been pushed from the nest. . . 

. . .  One day in the front yard, while working on my marksmanship to avoid mowing the lawn, an anonymous bird flashed through the sky over my head. Without aiming, I let loose a missile in its general direction, and, to my surprise, it fell dead at my feet. I was horrified to realize it was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, an exotic bird I had never seen before. I picked up the lifeless bundle, caressed its yellow-gold breast with my finger, and felt deep shame for killing something so rare and beautiful.

After that, I was never able to kill for sport. Although I had no love for the colonies of English Sparrows, I came to respect the bare fact of their livingness. I understood that the great commandment to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God must be translated into the discipline of practicing reverence for all life. I was forced to recognize that all members of the commonwealth, all species rare or common, shared an unconditional will to live, which is the divine spirit within us. Standing, or kneeling, in the presence of the mystery of death and the miracle of life I had carelessly extinguished, I felt that ultimately there was no distinction among sparrows, sapsuckers, and me.

I owed reverence, respect, and restraint to all."


Mr Keen doesn't limit himself to the observation of birds only.  He writes about interactions with other species as well.  This one describes his encounter with a rattlesnake.:


"Feeling both fear and fascination, I sat down at a safe distance and settled in to observe. Our eyes engaged. Nobody moved. As we remained in our silent encounter, my fear was gradually replaced by a sense of comfortable familiarity. For an eternal moment, I lost my habitual anthropocentric prejudice and found myself empathetically united with the rattlesnake. I was no longer a superior being, but instead a member of a family of sentient beings, all of whom love their way of life no less than I love mine. . . 

 As I write this, I can almost hear the sneers and criticism. As though one could have a revelation by viper! . . .

 We are accustomed to the old metaphor of heavenly angels with feathered wings bringing us divine messages, but our age requires dark angels to remind us of the wisdom of the earth. Just the fact that I am amazed to see a wild snake in this paved and manicured world is a vivid reminder of how far we are from realizing that we are all a part of a single ecosystem. . . 

. . .  [the encounter serves to ] remind us to tread reverently on the humus and to show compassion to all sentient beings. Any entity, person, or event may become sacramental, whether a dead sapsucker, a living rattlesnake, or the prophets of old."



"The thrush’s song belongs to a family of experiences that usher us into a threshold where sound trails off into silence, time disappears into timelessness, and the known world is engulfed by the great mystery.

The family includes the reverberating echo of a temple bell that dwindles off into the void; the polyphonic chanting of Tibetan monks that merges into an endless communal chorus; the electric interval between the crash of thunder and the flash of lightning; the awful emptiness when the exhalation of a dying person is not followed by an inspiration; the deep sigh and profound calm that comes in meditation when the mind finally stops chattering; the timeless moment, before sleep or after awakening, when we enter a dream world in which it seems perfectly reasonable that we should fly, change gender, or simultaneously be ourselves and our parents."



His is observation about "The Mo(u)rning Dove" is both poetic and profound:


I always have trouble remembering the proper spelling of this bird’s name. Is it the Morning Dove or the Mourning Dove? Does it herald the beginning of the day or the end of our days, the dawn or dusk of our trajectory? . . . 

 The soft cooing of the Morning Dove was like a whisper reverberating in a cathedral. I couldn’t tell whether it came from nearby or far away. Like the flickering images of desires that have not yet become clear to the conscious mind, the echoing song seemed to call me forward into the future. Huddled under the blanket, I would imagine the kaleidoscope of possibilities that lay before me that day. . . 

 When I was young and bushy-tailed, the Morning Dove awakened me to the intoxicating notion that my imagination was the only limit to what I might become. . . 

These days it is in late afternoon or dusk that I hear the dove whose name, I have now determined, has to do with mourning. It no longer sings the siren song of the endless possibilities of childhood, but instead the vespers hymn that signals the approaching twilight. . . 

The Mourning Dove’s song is a ticket to travel, a time machine, a magic carpet that whisks me into the elsewhere. Time past, time present, and time future swirl into a single continuum. The remembered joy of the limitless mornings of childhood alternates with the sadness of the approaching twilight . . . 



I hear two Mourning Doves

calling to each other

over an unknown distance.

Two short owl-like calls,

hoo hoo,

followed by three evenly spaced notes.

A haunting duet.

No birdsong is so plaintive,

the whistle of a distant train,

a passing glimpse through a lit window

seen on a long journey

on a rainy night.

So near,

so far.

Like my soul.








". . . nobody loves a vulture. Nobody puts up vulture feeding stations, or has pictures of the gangly fledglings on their refrigerators. Like garbagemen, they perform a necessary function but are not revered. . . 

 Remembering that the vultures are always circling, we dare not forget that ten thousand beings are aborning at this instant, and buds are bursting into bloom. When we make a habit of remembering our morality, we gain that bittersweet, tragic sense of life that was so prized by the Greeks. Anxiety invites us to become courageous. Realizing the poignancy of life, we resolve to suck the marrow out of every passing moment. . . 

. . . our awareness of mortality and our love for those who have passed over into death spreads out to encompass others and increases our compassion for the whole human family. Within the universal embrace of death, we are all citizens of the same commonwealth. The other is no longer a stranger, the world no longer divided between Us and Them. We are all recipients of a sacred gift and a fearful destiny. Our great obligation is to be reverent toward one another."


Almost, this could be seen as a handbook for living successfully with meaning in a world where, somehow life has lost its Meaning and it's Wonder.  When all of us are encumbered with electronic devices, and we no longer enjoy or are even aware of the beauty and the miracle of nature.


"In a few short generations, we have moved from dwelling on the land to squatting on its surface, from being at home in fields and forests to being aliens in any wilderness we cannot domesticate, fearful of any animals we cannot control. I cannot escape the feeling that I am swimming against the stream of modernity. Like my turkeys, there is something awkward and ancient about me."