Thursday, October 16, 2008
The Bluebird of...?
Bluebirds are a local indicator species. A bluebird sighting is a moment of unfettered joy, a subtle sign of abundance, a flashing blue blaze of hope. They're supposed to signal some level of health in their habitat, and their increasing rarity makes each appearance feel more like a sign of special grace...
But our bluebirds are different.
The first sighting was innocent enough. My OFJ (Off-farm job)was in a local middle school, providing academic and therapeutic support to kids with Autism. I'd been bringing in pictures of my farm animals to share with the kids. Uploaded to the classroom computers, the images could be used during speech therapy sessions, social games and communication exercises. Looking through the digital farm album became one student's preferred "reward choice." A student prone to violent outbursts could sometimes be helped to calm himself by putting on soft music and watching the images on "slideshow" mode. The results were so encouraging that I took to wandering the farmstead and woods, camera in hand, on a quest for images to excite, motivate, and inspire. That was how I came to discover our bluebirds the first time--not just one, but a courting pair, flitting from bare branch to bare branch at the edge of the pasture on a grey April day. I was thrilled to see them and profoundly moved by the gift of their presence. I was amazed that they chose to show themselves when I had a camera along.
I snapped several pictures of the birds, their vibrant blue bodies almost startling against the landscape of hushed browns and greys. The next day, I brought my digital camera to work with me and happily shared my story of discovery. It was one of my last moments of unrestrained enjoyment and enthusiasm at that job, as one student's behavior issues and a supervisor's health issues combined to make the rest of the school year pretty painful and miserable for our entire classroom. I left that job at the school year's end, ready for a break from such intensive caregiving. I thought about work environments that might be happier, but I didn't think much about bluebirds.
The next time I saw a bluebird, we were in the midst of butchering chickens. The bold little fellow perched on a pasture fence rail and watched us work. He seemed undisturbed by the avian carnage around him--the curling steam above the scalding pot, the bustling field kitchen with its sharp knives and scattered feathers, the plucked birds cooling in the ice-water bins--and merely cocked his head curiously now and then. He sang a few experimental notes: "Cheer, cheerful..." and watched us perform our grisly work. I felt the first hint of a suspicion that "happiness" was not exactly this particular bird's mission.
The next time a flash of blue caught my eye, I was gathering some of the last produce of the season. It was early October and the farm was newly quiet, as six of our eight pigs had been carted off to the butcher two days before. As I culled a few hen-pecked tomatoes and inspected the frost-damaged bean leaves, I heard a whirring of wings and looked towards the pasture. Not one or two or even three, but four male bluebirds were wheeling and careening through the air in an epic territorial battle. The birds swept low, fluttered in place, and fiercely lunged at each other by turns. I watched until their battle moved beyond the range of my vision. Later, it occurred to me that these birds had appeared on the pigs' scheduled date of butchering. I felt...slightly unnerved.
Yesterday morning, I saw them again: a male and two females this time, squabbling over rights to the last laden cluster of elderberries. The elderberry bush, already bent low with the weight of its fruit, was bobbing and waving from the birds' aggressive attentions. I slowly inched backwards and snuck inside to grab my camera, thinking of nothing but beauty and novelty. A half-hour later, I hopped in my car and went off to my "New Ventures" class, a grueling (but free!) 12-week course for aspiring women entrepreneurs. Back on the farm, the lads worked on our woodshop-to-cottage conversion project while I sat in a sterile classroom discussing cash-flow projections.
I was glad when the time finally came to head home. I pulled into the driveway, walked across the grass and up the weathered wood steps...and found a massive, jagged gap where the double-door threshold used to be. Little heaps of shattered, rotten wood were strewn across the deck, along with the splintered remains of the threshold. How we had avoided a fall, a broken leg, or anything more serious in all our trips across that threshold was beyond imagining--especially in the last few months as we hauled heavy materials, ladders and equipment across it. I stared, dumbfounded, at the uneven, empty span...and then I remembered the bluebirds.
I understand it now. Some places are blessed with birds of happiness. Some farms are hit with twisters and perhaps those farmers need such birds to remind them to hope, to lift their heavy hearts and take their thoughts, winging, over the rainbow. Here in New England, our hazards are neither as immediate nor as dramatic. Here, we cope instead with the slow grind of inclement weather and the constant frustration of infertile soil. We don't need to be surprised by cheer; we need to be reminded that things can change, lives can transform, struggles can end.
Our bluebirds appear to be harbingers -- not of doom, but of transition. It is a strange sort of visitation, but not an unwelcome one. We need such reminders. We need to be shaken out of our sad and stubborn ruts by a sudden blaze of of blue.
There is wisdom at the fringes. There always has been, whether or not it's accepted by those at society's comfortable center. Annie Dillard says that the world's prophets and mystics are those who dare to "go into the gaps..."
Here at Tir na nOg, we are blessed by the Bluebird of Gappiness.