During the past year I’ve been learning to identify the bird calls I hear in my backyard. Some are obvious and easy to learn; I’ve recognized the strident screeches of blue jays and grackles for at least as long as I’ve lived in Austin. Other, subtler voices require a more attentive ear.
A little over a year ago I learned to distinguish the call of a Great Horned Owl from the call of an Eastern Screech Owl. Both species live in my neighborhood, and I was lucky enough to hear them calling for mates during winter months, when I was up late or early studying for an anatomy course. During a hike at McKinney Falls this spring, I learned to recognize the loud chip of the Northern Cardinal. While watering my garden a couple of mornings ago, I heard a familiar voice: tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle. Though I’d heard the call in my backyard many times before, I didn’t know the owner. I watched the tree branches, and within a minute a Carolina Wren hopped into view. Another morning in the garden I heard someone knocking on a nearby utility pole. I looked up and saw the red cap and black and white barred wings of a Red-bellied Woodpecker, and then I heard its rolling trill-l-l-l. There are many more voices to learn, and I’m a long way from understanding the subjects of their songs. But I’m learning to listen to birds, and I’m beginning to match names, faces, and songs.
In the first chapter of Earth Path, Starhawk recounts a fairy tale about a prince who is sent by his father to the Isle of Birds to learn their language. After seven years on the Isle, the prince reports that he is able to hear something; after seven more years, that he is able to hear and understand something; and after seven more years that he is able to hear, understand, and say something. The prince’s father is disappointed with the boy’s progress, but for Starhawk the story points to characteristics of an authentically earth-based path: slow time in nature, observation, patience and persistence on the path.
It’s no coincidence that observing nature with the senses is one of the first steps in the scientific method, too. The earth-based pagan path and the scientific method are both ways of connecting deeply with our world as it is, with “the physical reality of the living earth,” as Starhawk says. We may listen with our grounded and fully open senses, or we may listen by taking measurements with scientific instruments. What matters is that we maintain our sense of wonder and curiosity, that we keep asking questions. When we go outside, open our eyes, smell the air, and listen, we set foot on the Isle of Birds. Learning their language is slow work, but they’re always speaking, along with the rest of the world around us. I’ll keep listening.
may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old
may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it’s sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young
and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there’s never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile
Anna Walther is a wife, mother, writer (link to seeds.sunriseruby.org), linguist, and student of nursing. She lives in Austin, Texas, where she attends First Unitarian Universalist Church with her family. She practices place-based paganism by observing the movements of the sun and the moon, collecting local stories, visiting sacred trees and springs, learning about plants, animals, and minerals, and celebrating the Wheel of the Year as it turns in Central Texas.