The way of the birds

If there’s a track record running through all of my life, its a steady stream of birds…on the wing, on the ground, entertaining with antics, just always being there in my periphery, for all of my life, like the ever-present subplot that is more of a main plot, the older I get. They were vividly there in my attention all through childhood (I drew them obsessively) and they continue to fill all the corners of my world, even though there was a time when they seemed to drop into the background for a while when “life” took me over, yet they they never really left. I was always far more aware of the birds than many of the other people I spent time with seemed to be, so that (to this day) when I meet others who also pay attention to birds, I tend to know I have found someone I can really connect with. Just like, when there are clues that birds are all around me, that they are important, in a particular place, I tend know I have found one of my hallowed spots. Its as though I have spent my entire life walking the way of the birds, which is like series of subtle signposts calling me “this way, come this way; that’s right, over here, you’re headed in the right direction”.

Bronze of Gilbert White holding a swallow

It was like that the other day when we took a spontaneous trip to Gilbert White’s House in the gorgeous South Downs village of Selborne which, for all its hardly more than half an hour’s drive from my home, I hadn’t been to for probably more than a decade. The whole day was filled with birds, animate and not so animate yet when we got to the church, it was really then that I knew I had found a kindred spirit in GW, who was a famous naturalist of his day and whose book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selbourne, has been continuously in print since it was published in 1789. What really made White unique in his time (when dissection was so popular) was that he made his observations of live animals and plants in their natural habitat, writing down his observations as part of daily life, with an eye for detail and a wondering mind, making a particular study of the species known as hirundines; what we know as swallows, house martins and swifts, formulating a theory that was new in his time (it was thought that they hibernated underground) that they migrated in winter. He also wrote about countless other bird species along with bats, the importance of worms and even a tortoise he kept and closely studied the “language” of different bird species. 

On the south side of the village church, in a wall that had been partially reconstructed since a 1400 year-old yew tree toppled over into it during a gale in 1990, I found a glorious St Francis stained glass window in his honour, crafted in my home-town of Nottingham in 1920 and thankfully intact, which was stuffed full of every species of native bird you could think of, taken from his memoirs. This filled me with so much excitement, as the bird enthusiast and artist, lover of stained glass, that I am! How had I not seen this wonderful window before? Probably because we would have had the kids with us on our previous visit and, the time before, I was on an art-errand at the local gallery so this was the first time I had stepped into the church, as though it had been saved for this very day (in a month that has felt full of birds). Even all the prayer cushions were stitched with wildlife and birds. I was utterly transfixed and, as you can see, took countless photographs.

These past weeks have been so wonderful, the weather warm and springlike and my body following suit. I have felt the best in recent weeks that I can recall for years, probably almost two decades since my health issues began, and I’ve been full of such enthusiasm, gratitude and vibrancy, darting here and there with excitement, like a bird infused with springtime myself (probably doing too much, too fast…that’s just how I am). Everywhere we have gone, all the various gardens we have visited and on our daily walks, there have been special moments with birds…just so many robins, new sightings such as a bunting the other day, some grey wagtails (which are anything but grey with their canary yellow dazzle), even a kingfisher like a dart of iridescent blue along our river, a little egret checking out the riverbank, swans galore, often a kestrel, several buzzards along with countless kites, a pair of Egyptian geese with 6 hatchlings, a sparrowhawk landed on our garden fence and, everyday, our garden stuffed to the brink with sparrows, starlings, jackdaws, collard doves and woodpigeons, plus our resident robin with his new mate and a wren coming and going in the undergrowth. The image below links to some of the photos and short videos I’ve taken…but mostly I’ve taken it all in with my eyes and my ears (less fixated on “capturing” the moment than I used to be)!

The goldfinches have returned to the vicinity of our garden and mob the tall trees opposite the window where I do my morning qigong, their jewel colours flashing in the morning sun and their chatter filling the air. Two by two, they have started to check out our garden, first pecking at the moss on the roofline, then onto the branches of the wisteria or flitting into the borders, until some of the other birds inevitably startle them off, but they will be back again tomorrow. My heart is full of hope that they will nest again in the australas tree in view of our bedroom window, as they did last April, and I am almost holding my breath to see if they do. Meanwhile, the bluetits have claimed the little bird house behind the cherry tree, as ever they do, and the resident robin is checking out the little cabin of woven broom that I installed behind the magnolia tree just the other week. Another robin, bold and talkative, has become my friend down at the church carpark on our daily walk. He barely waits for me to put down the seed on the log that has become his “table” before he flits down to tuck in and has considered, very seriously, coming down onto my hand held out with seed…but not quite yet. He always sings for his supper, just two feet away on a branch, coquettishly tipping his head to make sure we are paying attention!

Such glorious, healthy, vibrant weeks…not so much this week as my body has contracted in some considerable pain as the cloud cover has come over to drop temperatures and turn the sky to greyish-white. Yet, all morning, the blackbird has sang out his clear song, almost more amplified by the stifled energy of thick cloud-cover, making it seem quite ethereal and far more worthy of attention than the rush of morning traffic on the road (so I hold back on putting in my headphones). Now, the baseline of a pigeon coo has just joined in, and now the robin from the magnolia. My sleepless night was broken into rays of hopefulness as vibrant as any sunrise when the little wren sang our her trill at what can’t have been any later than 4 o clock (new time…oh how I loathe the disruption of the clocks “changing”). The birds don’t halt their patterns for moods, clocks or weather change; they simply busy themselves today as they did yesterday…the jackdaw pair gathering mouthfuls of dried stems (now I’m so glad we don’t keep such a tidy garden!) for their nest, the magpie doing likewise in the top branches of the giant redwood in view of our window. Impossible to dwell anywhere but here and now when the birds are around. They call us back to this moment more efficiently than any reminder on some “app” designed to drag us away from our obsessions, our fixations and our ruminations (which I first mistyped “ruinations”…not far wrong!) Those deep-dives into past or future, raking over or anticipating worst-case scenarios do us no good at all and only keep us out of this moment’s abundant gifts.

The birds are one of those freely available and most abundant gifts (when we notice them…). Flicking back through the pages of my gratitude journal, I find there is a clear theme in my daily list of good things worth highlighting from my days: “goldfinches checking out the garden…”, “nesting lapwings in the field near the church…”, “robin came right up to my hand…”, “blackbird sang to me while I was in the bath…”, “cormorant down by the river…”, “another mob of goldfinches seen on our walk…”, “long tailed tits above our heads making a racket…”, “a thrush serenading us on our walk…”.

Imagine a world without them…I really don’t want to yet not everyone notices when they are here. I pay far more attention to them than I do to “the news” or half a dozen other things that would have my mental health in tatters if I let them and, for that distraction, I am just so grateful though, in my opinion, they aren’t the “distraction” away from what really matters (all that other stuff constitutes the real distraction)! What can I really change in this world, except for the direction of my focus? What we give our attention to affects everything we get to experience…this was one of the earliest things I learned for myself after “the crash” and, no matter how busy or distracting life ever gets again, I will never forget it.

As I sit here right now, watching a jackdaw comedically hang off the tiny window box, meant for much smaller birds, in order to help himself to a peanut, and as sparrows make my bright-green euphorbia bush bounce with bizarre animation, as though it is alive, given I can hardly see that they are in there, I know I am perfectly alright today, I can breathe, can find my creative spark before anything more weighty presses down on my mood (nothing reminds us more effectively than a bird lustily singing out to the morning sky that creativity should always take precedent over other more practical matters of the day…). They remind me tirelessly that the world continues to turn with its daily and seasonal routines, even when the sun doesn’t shine or the weather disappoints…and everything else that may be “going wrong”. In short, they remind me what really matters and that’s what matters to me.

About Helen White

Helen White is a professional artist and published writer with two primary blogs to her name. Her themes pivot around health and wellbeing, expanded consciousness and ways of noticing how life is a constant dance between the deeply subjective and the collective-universal, all of which she explores with a daily hunger to get to know herself better. Her blog Living Whole shines a light on living with high sensitivity, dealing with trauma and healing from chronic health issues. Spinning the Light is an extremely broad-based platform where she elucidates the everyday alchemy of relentless self-exploration. A lifetime of "feeling like an outsider" slowly emerged as neurodivergence (being a Highly Sensitive Person with ADHD, synaesthesia, sensory processing challenges and other defecits overlapping with giftedness). All of these topics are covered in her blogs, written from two distinct vantage points so, if you have enjoyed one of them, you may wish to explore the other for a different, yet entirely complimentary, perspective.
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3 Responses to The way of the birds

  1. cathytea says:

    I’m with you and the birds, too!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. mudpie12 says:

    Birds just make the heart sing. I remember spending hours watching an albino blackbird as I recovered from surgery years ago. He gave me hope and joy at a time I didn’t necessarily feel it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Helen White says:

      Now, I’ve never seen an albino blackbird…but I can well imagine. I feel somewhat like this today as the birds, including the incessantly singing blackbird (thank goodness for this season, when they do!) are keeping me buoyant on a day when, for no particular reason, my heart feels heavy and I am so very grateful (as ever).


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