Between Red Bird Songs and Brown Squirrel “Skalds”: Learning from the Poetry Outside My Door

By Jim Perkinson, a sermon for St. Peter’s Episcopal, a riff on Luke 12:22-31 for “Animal Sunday” in the Season of Creation Readings: Year C

I woke up this morning an old man—an experience recurrent over recent months here at the far end of pandemic shifts in life and schedule and interaction.  I have not the energy I had before my classrooms miniaturized from a 20 by 30 ft space of animated bodies to a 12 by 15 inch screen flattened into pixelated colors and shapes.  I cannot strut and gesture, advance and retreat with my ideas taking on flesh and then resounding, reverberating, up-thrusting like rock or quieting like mist in the rhythmic back and forth of in-person engagement.  My body is bereft and grieving.  And that grief is but a minute fragment of what ghosts my bones now, as I become ever more aware of what I have lost—not just in recent years, but recent centuries and indeed millennia, that yet echo as traces and sighs, unspoken and unspeakable in my veins and hair, my nose and ear—ancestors that whisper and pulse and haunt, whose own grief and jubilation has no anatomical muscle adequate to its tones and cadence. 

I am old in a way now true of most of us–even those a scant twenty years from the birth canal—old in having forgotten most of the sensations that register all the exuberance of embodiment and scent and breathing gust or lisp shared across the boundary of my skin and that of locust leaf and sunburst and cloud cover and rain and hovering, darting flight of monarch and mosquito, much less bellow of bear and rumble of buffalo or antelope across grass and mound of plain.  My words fail.  My senses flail, without the necessary theater of wild consorts and teachers. 

I am old and come late to the realization of the losses, 5,000 years in the making, as city-states arced ever more aggressive and consuming on a mission of global invasion and re-invention of all things natural into a price-tag and package, sellable and disposable with scarce a thought or a thank you, a civilizational march, gone hyper in colonial intensification, white-faced and raging, decimating whatever dared look back with indignation and refusal, and now surging digital and algorithmic, reducing to mere pixel every wiggle and chortle, every dream and breath—whether of hustling youth of color in a ‘hood of abandonment and gentrification or web-hanging spider, dozing in the sun, just waiting a slight ripple to eat and breed, indeed, waiting nearly in vain, as we send wing after wing of insect into oblivion and extinction. 

And thus, I hear the gospel text of a Jesus of Nazareth, waxing poignant about the kingdom, saying worry not for food and cloth and drink, but consider the ravens, consider the lilies! (Lk 12:24-31).  Ridiculing the reputed “glory” of Solomon as not holding even a nickel’s worth of beauty compared to a weave of blossom and stem!  And a few verses prior, noting Palestinian sparrow-commodification—five birds only cost two cents!—but insisting nonetheless God has never lost count or ceased to value the little ones (Lk 12:6-7)!  And indeed, God did come to Jesus incarnate in a dove-body, at the start of his ministry, according to Luke (Lk 3:21-22).  And so I do watch the crows around our place, full of caws and tricks and memory—indeed, one of our mates in the co-op must have done something untoward somewhere along the road of events in the last couple decades as now a corvid crowd of three quite regularly gathers on tree next to their unit and flies, Kamikaze-style, one after the other, into an upstairs window—not hurting themselves, but nonetheless hitting the glass and very clearly registering their outrage at something!  I muse and wonder but my real heart stop and throb over recent seasons has been for a cardinal pair who have trained me to feed them at beck and call. 

It began maybe two summers ago when one softening eve, a lone male perched on a limb a couple dozen feet away from my second story study window and as the dusk darkened, sang and stared my way.  I stood up from desk and moved to the window to return a facsimile version of his call and back and forth we went for a good ten minutes.  Don’t really know what was said, but by winter, I was putting out some seed Denise had supplied as Christmas gift—not most days, but whenever the snow had covered the soil and the chill registered in fluffed out feathers and day-long searches for what might sustain a slight-boned, winged body til spring. At one point I even slung cardboard onto the top of the front bush as “pallet” for the feed, hoping to keep it high enough that the squirrels couldn’t intercept the repast.   Only partially successful!  And I told friends, “I don’t want to encourage dependence—so only when the weather is especially adverse, do I open my hand.”  But the response has been instant and insistent—sparrows and chickadees galore as well as the rouge-and-ruddy pair. 

But now this spring and summer—a new level of call/response syncopation.  Mr. Red Bird in particular began doing little pirouettes and two-step feints on his favorite limb-perch until I would stand up from my desk seat.  Before I could get down the stairs to the front door with plastic bag of dried sunflower seed in hand, he would have already zoomed into the hedge five-feet from the door.  I would gently open the squeaky frame, and sprinkle a handful on a rondel of cement between the lintel and the bush that quickly became his turf and “plate.”  For the rest of the flighty crowd of sparrows and chickadees, I would scatter on the nearby sidewalk.  No longer was I initiator based on weather, but now the impetus had been taken up by this bright red character, whose eye came right through the glass and whose antics summoned and whose vigilance immediately took up position as I stirred. 

And I have to confess—I cared not that I had become his “slot machine” feeder, even interrupting my own Zoom classes to fall all over myself in responding whenever he called.  It had become personal.  He knew my face and habits.  And he beckoned.  And he had my heart as well as my hand! Sometimes, he would even give a little chirp as he took up each seed, and I would chirp back from behind the screen door.

And then came August 12—I even marked it on my calendar.  A new tack—the Red Mister this time got my attention by flying up and across the 2nd floor window before which I sit at my desk just barely not grazing the glass with his wings, and then as soon as I rose, rocketing down immediately in front of the door.  Except this time, he was actually perched on a big vase we have just one foot from outer screen door, cocking his head and peering in at me.  So, I laugh in amazement to my wife Lily sitting nearby in the living room and she comes to watch.  As soon as I open the door to scatter seed he hops back to the bush another 2 feet away, while I sprinkle my offering on his usual concrete “plate.” And then of course, he immediately hops down and begins to feast. 

But this day, a black squirrel about twenty feet away on the sidewalk, perks up, stands on hind legs to observe, and then scurries over to get in on the goodies—and even nips at the cardinal to assert his own little “dominion.”  I get pissed off, open the door and begin noisily and fervently shooing the squirrel away and of course, Mr. Red flees as well!  And I go, “Oh shit!  I’ve just violated two years of trust build-up, and now my fiery-colored friend is probably pissed at me, suspecting a trap!” I return disconsolate to my upstairs desk only to find another squirrel, brown-tailed this time, hunkered down on a little branch just six feet outside my window and bit elevated above, looking directly in and down at me and reaming my rear-end in squirrel-profanity for the next ten minutes.  Reet-reet-reet-reet-reet-reet! I get up hang-headed and move directly to the window and apologize—but he has his say nonstop for the duration!

Sure enough, I do not see my cardinal twosome for the next four days.  I am deeply grieved, constantly looking up out the window as I do writing and computer work, with real heaviness, day in and day out.  Until, then, on the 5th day, suddenly, there he is again, on the limb and once again, immediately diving to the bush as I rise to go downstairs.  And again, he is up on the vase right by the door, as if not offended or afraid at all.  And the next day, he shows up three separate times—and for one of the feedings, doing the window “fly-by,” and then even mid-day bringing the Mrs. by with him as well, so she can feast.  I am ecstatic!  He is back again two days later, then three days after that, with all the usual eagerness and closeness, intact.  But then a long stretch goes by and no appearance at all, neither himself, nor his mate, nor the sparrows and chickadees that have also learned the ropes. 

Finally, after thirteen days, one evening, just before going out running right as dusk is coming on, I go to my study window and say out loud to the outdoors, “I miss you Red Bird friends, though I thank you for the reassurance after the debacle a few weeks ago.  And I also think I have not learned what I should have, that I was supposed to realize that you, squirrels, have your own needs as well.  I think I cannot just respond to the charismatic red-feathered ones, because they please my eye, but need to take care for you little bushy-tailed tree-acrobats, in kind.  So, I also speak to you squirrels ‘out there’ somewhere beyond the window (though none of you are in sight). Sorry for privileging the cardinals alone; I will give seed and food to you as well and try to learn to care more holistically for the wild mutuality in my front yard.”  End soliloquy.

In part I was responding to a new level of awareness kindled just the day before, when Lily and I had viewed a conference presentation by a Filipina anthropologist friend of hers, talking about her work with indigenous people in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines.  Grace, as she is named, recounted how at one point in her field work, a shamanic leader she was learning from had brought her on a day-long trek to his deep-in-the-mountains homestead, and made a major offering immediately upon arrival, not bothering to rest even a moment to refresh from the arduous climb, but doing a ritual to make up for his son who had just a day or so before gone out and mocked a bunch of frogs nearby who were giving a croak-fest that was different from what the son normally heard in that part of the mountains.  The young man had apparently even maimed a couple of them in his teenage disgust, and then that evening, had suddenly collapsed with severe abdominal pain and cramping, been rushed to the hospital, diagnosed, and recommended for radical surgery the next day for a life-threatening blockage. 

Learning about such while down in the city, the profoundly disturbed father had hustled to the site of the offense in his mountain home with Grace in tow, made the offering with deep apology and humility, and asked for the “mountain spirits to show him whether the offering was accepted, or he needed to do something else.”  Shortly thereafter a white heron-like bird that is normally never seen at those heights had cruised by, which the shaman took as an omen of acceptance of the amends offered, and then shortly after that, learned that the son’s condition had suddenly mysteriously resolved and the surgery was canceled.  Standing at my window the evening after listening to Grace’s recounting, I had nothing like a sick son at stake, but my little squirrel apology was nonetheless a fumbling attempt to mimic the shaman’s example, hoping for some little sign of acceptance.

I then immediately went downstairs to give “flesh” to my promise and get some nuts and cheerios to put out for the little furry ones before jogging—couldn’t have taken more than literally one minute to do such, and by the time I put my hand to the door—boom!  Mr. and Mrs. Red Feather were already there in the bush by the door looking in!  After thirteen days of absence and at the approach of dusk when they usually are not around.  I nearly fell over!  But quickly got out some seeds and thanked them profusely as I sprinkled the offering.  Then, once they were done and had taken off, put out the squirrel gifts as well and did my run around the park with a lot more energy than usual!

The next day, as part of my new-found attention to this entire little network of wild interaction outside my home, I did some research on squirrels in myth.  There is not time here to go in depth, but suffice to say, my Nordic ancestry has long accorded the nut-hoarders a small but central role in their Origins Stories.  The bushy-tailed squawker known as Ratatoskr (“Roto-Tusk” or “Drill Tooth”) runs messages up and down the ash bark flanks of the Great World Tree, Yggdrasil, conveying import between the serpent-dragons at the tree’s roots and the eagle dwellers in its heights. 

A bit more digging and it turns out the messaging role is likely a reflection of the alarm-scoldings frequently heard in woodlands environs all over northern Europe when danger impends and the squirrels react.  But these bush-tailed “squawkings” are also understood as habitual “rumor-mongering,” provoking upheaval from below and lightning from above, and thus keeping the snake at the bottom and bird at the top stirred-up in relationship to each other. This life-giving “oppositional” struggle is also reminiscent for me of Ojibwa myths of Thunderbirds and Water-Monsters here in the Great Lakes Basin, who also are depicted as tussling.  The back-and-forth between the wingeds and the water-slitherers is fundamental to ecosystem health and the balancing of weather-systems—Storm inundations alternating with Watershed filtrations and redistributions to keep life quickened and moving.  So squirrel-provocations are recognized as helping precipitate change and reciprocation. 

But even more, in old Norse, the prime human conveyer of meaning and myth in those societies is called a “skald,” one who was expected heatedly to call attention to situations of injustice and even, in courtly protocols, not only to praise leaders in alliterative rhyme but to “scold” and “scoff” as prophetic herald—keeping royalty accountable to the people.  Which is to say, among my ancestry, the role of poetic social critic is modeled on the row caused by squirrels. Wow.

Thus, Jesus says, consider the lilies.  Remember the sparrows.  Yes, love the red birds.  But don’t despise the squirrels.  You may discover they are your predecessors’ spirit-familiars.  And they might even teach you your vocation.

And sure enough, just as I am rounding out this reflection on my computer, after another absence of some 6 days, there registers at the corner of my eye a fluttering in the bushes below . . . and there is the Mrs., giving little chirps, soliciting!  I go down to put out the seeds and she zooms over to the bush by the door to perch while I scatter.  But once she hops down, and pecks up six or seven sunflower gifts, and then wings herself away, as usual, to the west, I make sure to also put out some nuts . . .

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