Refuge

Heart In the Wild

Parker Palmer, in a delightful book called Let Your Life Speak, reminds us that community does not create abundance, but rather, "community is abundance." Evidence of this surrounds me, whether it be the memory of a coppercolored mountain lion gazing at me from a rocky ledge or the welcome sight of a simple, unadorned casserole waiting on my steps. The Earth whispers to me, "Mitaku Oyasin," reminding me that I need never feel alone again.

On an early morning in March, the ground was still covered with snow, but streams of snowmelt had begun to sing down some of the canyons. I carried a bucket of sun-flower seeds to the bird feeders. Since the burning of the house, I had not missed a day of filling them. The pine siskins, the most common visitors to the feeders, sang an especially sweet and cheerful song that could brighten the most somber and dark morning. On that day I felt low and moved slowly, as through pancake syrup, taking the feeders down and dumping the spent husks on the snow. The birds waited patiently in the aspen trees, chittering loudly. When the feeders were full, I sank down on my knees, not ready to return to the Earwig Palace, not ready to do anything. Settling down with the grace of a sack of potatoes falling from a truck, I held the plastic bucket with the remaining sunflower seeds in my lap.

In the next instant, the borders of my community broke wide open.

One tiny, hesitant pine siskin fluttered like a breath before my face. Bravely she hovered in the air like a child's toy helicopter, choosing, choosing. To the last bird, the flock fell silent. Her small toes, as fragile and thin as earring wires, reached out to the edge of the seed bucket on my lap and clasped hold. Her wings pulled in against her body like an old woman adjusting her winter coat, and she peered up at me.

My face hung over her like a pale moon. I could count each tiny, brown-flecked feather and see the rapid-fire movement of her breathing, scarcely believing how close she was. Clearly she was no normal bird. Perhaps she was an emissary. The instant she landed, the entire flock began whirring over my head.

And then they were upon me. I felt their tiny toenails in my hair and heard the beating of hundreds of wings like a chorus of heartbeats. I gasped when they began landing on my hands, my knees, my arms. The combined fluttering of their wings carried so much force that my hair blew away from my cheeks as they danced around my face. I reached slowly into the bucket and pulled out handfuls of seeds, turning my palms up. Two birds began a territorial battle on my wrist, leaping up and down and batting each other with their wings. On my other hand, one hunkered down like a fledgling and began spinning this way and that, opening her tiny mouth wide and begging me or anyone to put a seed in it. I had to blink my eyes to keep the tips of wings from grazing them, the birds hovered that close. They ate, preened, napped, argued, all over me and on me.

Like a snowflake coming to rest on the ground with a soundless flutter, time stopped. I sat in a cloud of tiny brown birds, mesmerized, blessed, anointed as Saint Francis must have felt when the flocks descended upon him. The melting snow streams must have brought to my Earth Mother my dream of sadness, and so she sent a flock of her children to comfort and cheer me and to bring me a moment of refuge in the dark of winter. And I listened to them as the Earth has listened to me, and we touched each other under gray Wyoming skies - wing to fingertip.

-- More from Heart In the Wild--

Excerpted from Heart In the Wild by Susan Chernak McElroy.
Copyright 2002 by Susan Chernak McElroy
Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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