By Laurel Dykstra
Observe a holy Lent—the prayerbook enjoins, then spells it out with this austere prescription: self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and reading and meditating on the word of God.
I am someone with a Lenten disposition. My own natural reserve, saying “no” for its own sake, and avoiding extravagance, were honed by my family and by my participation in certain discipleship traditions. Whatever the liturgical season, I engage in above average quantities of penitence, fasting, almsgiving, and no shortage of (critical) self-examination. But there are places where rigor can’t take you, and the 40 Birds of Lent is one of those places.
My Lenten practice of paying attention, outdoors, is all about that first word of the prayer book charge, Observe. When I practice observation, when I fall into an attentive state something different happens. Figures emerge sharply from the background. Seemingly dull and colourless things flash brilliance. Like the orange on a House Finch. When I think I’ve missed my opportunity and the bird I was looking for has disappeared, I only have to come back to the same place to see it again.
Pay attention to the periphery.
Public parks, cityscapes, even industrial yards are rife with life and movement.
Observe! the field guide demands. Is the upper mandible curved or straight, two wing bars or one, spots or streaks, buffy or ruddy, was the tail notched or forked?
The cold on my face
Who is relying on the bittersweet nightshade for late winter food source
The way a shadow overhead silences a chorus of songbirds
The colour patterns on that most aggravating of invasives, the starling.
It’s not all beautiful: the raven eating a pigeon, the crow pecking at a rat’s eye, a nest of rats pulling the guts from a car-flattened gull. Not everyone’s family wants to hear about it at the dinner table or has file on their phone devoted to urban bird carcases…
This week in my practice of prayer outdoors I have noticed persistent calls to engage more deeply, to see more. The raucous yelling of crows shows me the racoon they are
mobbing, becoming more frantic as it climbs into one of last year’s nests. A tiny wren thunks against the window drawing my eyes from the computer screen. A torrent of bushtits that floods the yard and I am out the door. Time unfolds differently. I set out for 10 minutes and discover that 30 have passed. I am set to go indoors and am diverted again and again by a sparrow, a humming bird, a chickadee, a finch.
Maybe this is what Alice Walker calls “the universe responding” or what the church calls God answering prayers, and while I believe both are in some sense true, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. I think we are just hardwired for quiet attention. Maybe it made our ancestors better hunters, or better gathers–observing and imitating where and what other creatures ate. Maybe the practice of attention makes us better parents—noticing what our offspring need conveys an advantage, boosts their chances for survival.
Or maybe there are miracles, and resurrections, assaults, and decay hammering at our senses all the time and our phones, or our thoughts, or our built environment, or even our clothes keep us from seeing. All around us a persistent, clamoring and endless life and death, life and death, life and death, and increasingly, death. Greater Sage Grouse, Eskimo Curlew, Ivory Billed Woodpecker, Eastern Cougar, species, wetlands, rainforests, coral reefs…
The 40 Birds of Lent documents Laurel Dykstra’s Lenten practice of daily prayer outdoors noticing birds in the lower Fraser watershed. Laurel is the gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territories.