What I Am Learning from the Wild

hummingbird feeder

When I first mounted the bird feeder outside my office window last fall, it was loaded with birds. Sparrows, tufted titmice and finches visited it daily and I could barely keep it full for them. And then: they disappeared. Winter set in, and I would go weeks without having to re-fill the feeder. On warmer, sunnier days, I could see flocks of birds in the distance, bouncing about on the dry, brown heads of grass to knock the seeds off into the snow for their friends. But the feeder sat empty while our office cat gazed longingly at the window’s blank screen, finally dozing out of boredom. Brand new to feeding birds, I had no idea what to make of this sudden change and the pace of work picked up so I didn’t have time to search for answers.

Into the spring and early summer as I flitted around inside the office, the full feeder swung in the breeze like a leftover sign in a ghost town where no one could remember the last time anyone enjoyed 25-cent room and board. Occasionally, finches would wander by like dazed, travel-weary tourists. They’d glance around and think, “It’s smaller than I imagined,” promptly moving on to the next destination on their itinerary. And sometimes, out of the corner of my ear, I’d hear the whir of a hummingbird’s wings outside the open window. I’d glance over just in time to see her whipped away by some invisible string of longing that was never going to be satisfied by sunflower seeds.

I thought of the biblical banquet parable in which the well-to-do guests fail to show up, chairs sitting sadly empty around a table heavily laden with fancy food growing cold. But thankfully, that isn’t the end of the story: the master sends the servants out into the streets to invite anyone and everyone they can find and they fill up the seats with a glorious array of social misfits.

Feed the ones who want to show up, I thought.

So I invested in a couple of new feeders, seed, nectar, a hook.  I set the works up and waited, wondering where my novice bird dabbling might lead. It took all of an hour to attract a whole flock of gold finches chattering happily to one another around their vertical table filled with nyjer seed. Just a couple of days later, I saw a tiny beak poking into the false flowers from inside a blur of wings: a hummingbird!  And then another—or maybe the same one—returned again and again and again.

The cat and I are once again hooked on nature’s reality show, and I’m thinking about what I might learn from this simple drama outside my window. I recognize in myself an inclination to apply abstract ideas and expectations, cooked up in the isolated kitchen of my own head, to everything around me. I want all of the plants and people and creatures to play along according to my whims. But what I am learning from the wild is how to pay attention to what is going on outside my head and step into the thing that is already happening apart from my impetuous will. What plant wants to grow here in the shade without irrigation? What have we been referring to as a weed that is actually medicine, good for what ails us, or food for the creatures we love to see hanging around? Maybe instead of turning up a new garden bed to maintain, I should put my energy into planting hazelnuts in the corridor where I see a mama deer and her fawns passing through each season.

Shifting my perspective in this way helps me begin to see a web of connections, rather than a jumble of random parts. In Letting in the Wild Edges, Glennie Kindred writes,

Within the safety and privacy of my garden I am exploring my growing understanding of nature’s interconnected web and breaking down the barriers of an old separatist belief system I no longer believe in…. My love and appreciation of the natural world opens my heart, so that in giving I am also open to receive.  I extend each of my senses a little further and become more conscious of previously unnoticed subtle levels of communication and interactive relationships I am engaged in with the plants, trees, birds and insect life around me. Yes, my garden has become a sanctuary: a place of safety for all that lives within its four hedges, including me.

I value Kindred’s perspective on interconnectedness and try to deepen my awareness of life’s interwoven web every day. And yet I also acknowledge that there’s an important counterbalance to a sense of connection: that part of treating others as I would like to be treated involves recognizing and respecting “otherness.” For example, my enjoyment of a pastoral landscape is more complete when I also keep in mind that that very same landscape holds the threat of violence for other creatures. As I hope the birds are teaching me, that tension of being both one and many is a mystery worth cherishing in our human community and beyond.

The hummingbird returns for about the twentieth time in an hour and I will her to land on the feeder to take a drink so I can look at her more closely. I wish she would sit in my hand to rest and stop her busy fluttering for just a moment. But then I remember that she is other—beloved and connected, and also other—and I wish her well, whether she chooses to perch in or fly from my small window on the world.

Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma is a caretaker at GilChrist Retreat Center. She and her husband Rob co-direct the nonprofit organization *culture is not optional and help run a fair trade store in Three Rivers, Michigan.