I was watching some chickadees, juncos, house sparrows, titmice etc. at play in the fields of the lord (even for an atheist) and was captivated, as always by their grace, beauty and song. Especially the song, the joyous chirp and the hurled chip.
By happenstance I was rereading Annie Dillard last night on birdsong in Pilgrim. She was discussing the fact that, even today, not everyone agrees on why birds sing. But we all do agree, whatever the motivation, it is beautiful.
“It does not matter a hoot what the mockingbird on the chimney is singing ” she writes. “ff the mockingbird were chirping to give us the long-sought formulae for a unified field theory, the point would be only slightly less irrelevant. The real and proper question is: Why is it beautiful? The question is there since I take it as given as I have said, that beauty is something objectively performed- the tree that falls in the forest- having being externally, stumbled across, or missed, as real and present as both sides of the moon…If the lyric is simply, mine mine mine, then why the extravagance of the score? It has the liquid, intricate sound of every creek’s tumble over every configuration of rock creek-bottom in the country. Beauty itself is the language to which we have no key; it is the mute cipher, the cryptogram, the uncracked, unbroken code. And it could be that for beauty there is no key, that it will never make sense in our language but only in its own, and that we need to start all over again, on a new continent, learning the strange syllables one by one.”
Which got me thinking of the greatest nature poet of all time IMHO, Gerard Manley Hopkins, English poet and Jesuit priest, whose two great themes were nature and god (and yes, I also find it interesting why such a convinced atheist spends SO much time with and on religion and god; go figure).
His “sprung rhythm” creates such intense concentration of meaning in so few words that it’s like the song of birds written, there to dazzle and lead us to soar. And of all of his unquestioned masterpieces, this is by far the best.
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