BY SHARON BETCHER
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
February 24, 2016
While sociologists of religion speak of the Pacific Northwest as the epitome of “the none zone” (where the majority of persons register no official religious preference on a census), most residents know Whidbey Island to home contemplatives, mystics, naturalists and activists of many religio-spiritual strains with a paradisal dream of living in intimate reciprocity with all beings. Lumens lifts up the voices and wisdom of those who live among us—the creatives whose very creativity, their luminescence, opens out from the taproot of the spiritual path and/or religious faith.
For Frances Wood, naturalist, painter and author, birds are co–celebrants in a religiously tuned life. The beauty of a tanager, the intrigue of chasing a bushtit with the eyes, the power enfolded in the fragile bone structure of a hummingbird, and, yes, their 10,000 species—many with unique songs and some with regional accents, no less—open us to and, indeed, share with us the central existential character of the spiritual life—namely, joy.
Wood is co–founder with Chris Peterson (also of Whidbey Island) of “Bird Note,” the two-minute daily vignettes on National Public Radio introducing the habits and habitats of the world’s birds. Asked to describe how birding fits into her spiritual life, she winks and then confesses: “I am a member of two churches—a Unitarian Universalist, who meets for ritual, community and social action, and a follower of the Church of the Low Tide. Both are needed to feed the spirit.” While inspiring and critical exploration with and through words might be like birdsong for the human community, Wood is adamant that as humans we must also learn to still our rational chatter, so as to let in the animal and vegetative immediacy of our world.
Asked to define the spiritual life, Wood quotes the Quaker theologian Parker Palmer: “The heart of the spiritual quest is to know the rapture of being alive and to allow that knowledge to transform us into celebrants, advocates, defenders of life.”
“Nature,” Wood insists, “gives me…gives us that joy.” And if one is looking for a spiritual practice, birding requires a meditative discipline all its own—a presence to the “now”; a calm, serene, attentiveness that sets aside the ego; an appreciation of sensual stimulation, of beauty. Well, maybe it’s a bit more zen than that, Wood chuckles, since one must ever in birdwatching cope with the futility of it all as the bird takes to the sky or dives deep in blackberry tangles. Even if sometimes a futile chase, birdwatching does offer spiritual reward, leaving one feeling ever more alive. For Wood, the Church of the Low Tide is not that many feet from the doorstep of her rural Langley home, perched above Possession Sound.
Nature is—for Wood, as for many in Cascadia, something of a cathedral—that place where self–consciousness drops away and we settle into animate immediacy to our world. With her own joy as obvious as a robin in the newly resurging warmth of the spring sun, Wood’s insights remind one of primatologist Jane Goodall’s reflection on “primate spirituality”—a question, really, as to whether the gorillas’ dance at the base of the waterfall in the Kakombe valley might be a proto-religious ritual. In light of Wood’s reflections, I find myself asking: might not birds, given the way they abandon themselves to song, be—as Goodall queries—co-religionists? And might birds, perpetually interacting with our human species, invite us into a joyful communion not so much a transcendental supplement but as the sheer ecstasy of being alive?
Wood, who moved her residence from Mercer Island to Whidbey in 2000, has been wandering the low tides of Whidbey since childhood. In fact, four generations, extending over 100 years, have summered at the family cabin on Brighton Beach in Clinton. And it was on that beach when Wood was six that her eyes settled on a blue heron, a heron that—much to her indignation—was quickly chased off by a neighbor’s dog. It was her first memorable lesson in ecological habitat: “That weekender’s dog was a disruption in the daily habits of that blue heron.”
“Bird Note,” begun about 15 years ago when Wood and Peterson both worked for the Seattle Audubon Society, was conceived as a way to invite listeners to enjoy the rapture of bird song and redress the connection to environmental habitat disruption. Given the immediacy of birds to our everyday world, here was a way beyond the “what’s in it for us humans” approach to environmental stewardship—a way that moved through joy to advocacy.
Although she had been painting birds for years, it was after a tour of Russia and an introduction to its religious iconography that Wood began to depict birds as icons. That work is packed away somewhere, and Wood now shakes off the iconographer’s sensibility: See the bird not as a “window to the divine,” but in and for itself, she proposes. Her own artistic renderings insist as much—their pen and ink ornithological specificity complemented by an abstract watercolor flourish that sets off the personality of each bird. Don’t look through it for the divine; see it rather as “this” bird here, this Steller’s jay that raucously rides the head of the eight-foot tall sunflower. “To me, the bird says it all,” Wood adds.
“Naming” is really, really important, Wood, ever the teacher, tells me. Naming—as in “this bird with the taupe body and dark head now eating berries from my barberry bush here in January is a junco”—promotes deeper caring connection and, then, inevitably, protection. If I care about the red footed pigeon guillemot disappearing from the shores of Possession Point, then I will worry about what goes down the drain in my home or runs off my yard and what then leaches into ground water and runs into the ocean. Caring connection, in Wood’s view, is the precipitate to a moral life. Intimacy with the world will surface the moral duty—that is, the reflective recalibration of one’s life habits in light of the environmental crisis.
Amidst climate change and earth’s sixth great extinction, joy is as much a necessity as ever. Joy, Wood proposes, is not just pleasure or mere happiness. Joy is a more profound relationship to the world which isn’t necessarily undone by loneliness or suffering. Joy names the ecstasy of being alive, the adoration of the nested communion we call home. The cultivation of that joy-filled life is as close as the whisper of a wing, the “cronk” of a heron, the pip of a duck.
Wood’s book, “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West” (Fulcrum Publishing, 2004) is available at Moonraker Books in Langley. Her paintings are available through the Rob Schouten Gallery, Greenbank.
Image at top: Wood amidst Spring on Whidbey 2015. (photo by Bill Graves)
An academic theologian and philosopher by background, Sharon Betcher is now an independent scholar, writer and wannabe farmer living on south Whidbey. As a writer, she won the 2012 Short Story Smash and took first place in the memoir category of the Whidbey Island Writers Association’s 2012 contest. In March 2015, Betcher presented at the annual Women of Whidbey (WOW) Stories Conference.
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