A long while ago, I volunteered to help remove nonnative plants from a nature preserve in Bolinas. The man I worked with was a birder, and was very good at identifying types of birds from their songs. One of the songs I heard, I had not heard before. The clarity was amazing, two pure notes, the first starting in mid-range and the second very high, followed by seven short notes pitched in between the first two.
I asked him what he thought it was, and he had to think. “It’s probably a white crowned sparrow,” he said. But I had not heard one like that. Then he pointed out that it was most likely a young bird still learning how to sing. In fact, as sparrows become more experienced singers, the high notes become very high, to the point of shrillness, and the short bursts at the end of the song feature what musicians call “grace notes.” To our simple minds and ears, maybe not as pretty but, to other birds, very impressive.
There is a legend that grew up around the life of Francis of Assisi. In it, he was traveling with some companions when they came upon a flock of birds in the trees. He told them to wait for him while he “preached to my sisters the birds.” He did so and, supposedly, held their attention and none flew away. While that story has attained mythic status, there is no question that he loved nature. Two years before his death and suffering from an eye disease, it is said that he dictated to a scribe his canticle “Laudes Creaturarum” (Praise of the Creatures), aka, the “Canticle of the Sun.” He thanks God for Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Sister Water, etc. He even thanks God for Sister Death, whom no living person can escape.
I remain thankful for the wonders of nature, even though I often take it for granted. I’ve gotten better at listening to birdsong, too, and I would like to think that Francis indeed spoke to the birds. He would have needed a highly developed musical ear, and an understanding that God’s music is nothing like ours. I wouldn’t even be surprised if God created birds for her/his own listening pleasure.