In order to see birds, it is necessary to become a part of the silence.Robert Lynd
I was recently told that my birdwatching hobby is “quaint”. Whether this particular comment was intended to be complimentary or not (I think not), I chose to take it that way. I have, it seems, reached a point in my life at which far more worldly activities interest me less than they used to. I have traveled a great deal. I’ve embarked on some unique and thrilling adventures over the years, but the lust for “experience for experience’s sake” seems to have diminished within me. That’s not to say I don’t love a good adventure—or travel or meeting new people—but I am far more interested these days in pursuing that which nourishes my soul. That which not only brings me peace, but also brings me satisfaction. That which is somehow inherently meaningful.
Indeed, when I started this blog nearly 5 years ago, I sensed I was embarking on a quest for meaning. I relearned how to write poetry, began making collage art, watching and photographing birds and other wildlife, and writing about the importance of sensual living, of engaging fully, bodily, in the experiences of everyday life. In retrospect, I realize that all of these activities have one very important thing in common. One characteristic which gives them an element of depth, which makes them inherently meaningful: they force me to become part of the silence.
I’ve long believed, when I am out in nature—really out there—deep in the forest, high on a mountaintop, that I am somehow able to hear the silence speak. That the trees, the landscape, the rugged cliffs and serene skies, along with all the creatures that inhabit them, communicate with my soul in the most profound ways. (This is probably the closest thing to a truly “religious” experience I’ve ever had.) But I’ve come to learn that the silence doesn’t only live “out there”.
The silence is everywhere. The silence is the other side of living, the other side of being. The silence is what makes creativity possible. What brings depth to our experiences. What makes the world around us come to life and feel miraculous in all of its aspects.
We find it, I think, when we engage our senses fully. When we create. When we foster a healthy sense of curiosity about the natural world. When we engage fully and physically with the materials of the present moment. Although sometimes, it seems to me, the silence also finds us—and often in ways we least expect.
Creative people, as I see them, are distinguished by the fact that they can live with anxiety, even though a high price may be paid in terms of insecurity, sensitivity, and defenselessness for the gift of the “divine madness,” to borrow the term used by the classical Greeks. They do not run away from non-being, but by encountering and wrestling with it, force it to produce being. They knock on silence for an answering music; they pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean.Rollo May
It wasn’t until I started experimenting with photography that I realized just how important the silence is to how I perceive the world and how I communicate that vision to other people. There is seeing, and there is Seeing. There is hearing, and there is Hearing. And when I am part of the silence, I See and I Hear. What’s the difference? During those precious moments in which I See and Hear, there is no such thing as just a or just another. It is as if everything is sacred. Everything is soul.
I wrote recently about the experience that first got me interested in birdwatching. On a sunny, spring morning, I saw a Northern Cardinal in a tree. And something miraculous happened: the moment I looked at him, he ceased being just another bird in just another tree on just another morning, as all others had been before him. He was, instead, the picture of perfection. It was as if the entire universe had aligned to produce the most harmonious, most sublime image ever created. It was a kind of ecstasy, really. (I imagine this is what Maslow would describe as a “peak experience”.)
A little red bird in a tree. So simple. So “quaint”. Since that day, I’ve not encountered just another bird. Because there is no such thing. That any living creature, human or non-human, is just a or just another is a terrible, and terribly destructive, fallacy.
In that moment, I believe, the silence found me, and it became part of my perceiving. Indeed, I sometimes think that which we call “miraculous” is simply a product of the silence. It is that which evades us in the course of everyday life because we’re too busy not looking. We’re too focused on what we must do, who we must be, what we must accomplish, how we must look, what we must strive for, etc. Everything else is ornamental. A little red bird in a tree is just a little red bird in a tree, when in reality, it is the silence knocking at our door.
Maslow said all of this, didn’t he? What he called “unified” or “Being-perception” is, to my mind, no less than being part of the silence. Of making meaning out of meaninglessness. Of encountering the stillness and making it sing.