The news is getting me down. Nearly three hundred Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boku Haram. The capsized South Korean ferry and more than 300 drowned students. Kids taking guns to school and the governor of Georgia signing a law that says anyone can carry a gun almost anywhere in the state. The ever-continuing feminization of poverty. A couple Saturdays ago, I heard an enormous noise of cawing and shrieking and wings flapping outside my window. It went on for several minutes, so I finally set my book aside (I was trying to ignore Eyewitless News), got up, and looked out into the courtyard. Two huge, noisy crows were chasing a smaller bird. I think it might have been a scrub jay. I have no idea what the jay’s crime had been in the crows’ eyes, but they were chasing it back and forth, up and down, and one of them finally speared it with its beak. The jay fell. The crows landed on the roof of the building across the courtyard and strutted back and forth for several minutes. One of them went down for a closer look at the fallen jay. Then they flew away.
I’ve seen crows attacking other birds before. They’re extremely intelligent birds, but they also get aggressive. Some years ago, I sat at a desk in an office, gazing out the window, and saw a crow destroy a hummingbird’s nest and eat the babies. Sad, yes, but this is how crows around the world find food. My coworkers wanted to storm outside immediately and (I guess) shoot the crow and maybe tear the little tree out of the ground. “No,” I said. “Leave it alone. Tennyson was right when he wrote that nature is bloody.”
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed….
These lines come from “In Memoriam, A.H.H.,” written by the Victorian poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1849 or 50. It’s an extremely long and all-but-incomprehensible poem about the death of Tennyson’s beloved friend, Arthur Hallam. (I still remember a joke from my Victorian poetry class: The title of Tennyson’s poem “Maud” has one too many vowels.) (Think about it.) In the late 19th century, Darwinists immediately pounced on Tennyson’s line “red in tooth and claw” to “prove” the survival of the fittest and that the toughest guy always wins. We see movies all the time that tell us the same thing. Not just predatory animals like lions, but superheroes, too.
And the little scrub jay in my courtyard? Its body just lay there. I went out later and got a closer look. Its head had been nearly severed. “Well,” I said to myself, “the building manager will no doubt send someone to toss this corpse in the trash.”
That didn’t happen. The jay’s body was still lying there on Monday. I also came to my senses. “A life is a life!” I said to myself. “That’s why when I found the big spider in my bathroom, I scooped it up on a sheet of typing paper and carried it outside.” When I took my walk that afternoon, I picked up a little branch of violet statice and brought it home and stuck it into the ground next to the dead jay. “After all,” I said to myself, “this was a tiny life, but it was a life. I can give it this tiny bit of honor.” When I looked out my window on Tuesday morning, I saw a red flower lying next to the jay’s body. Tuesday evening, there was a cluster of white flowers next to the jay. With Thursday came the so-called gardeners (who mostly rake the dirt in the unflower beds). And with Thursday went the little jay into the trash.
I suppose I could draw a couple lessons here. The pre-Christian peoples of northern Europe, who recognized a predator when they saw one, honored a war goddess named Babd, who appeared as a hooded crow. Babd was one of the Morrigan, a trio of sister goddesses who appeared as crows and were often seen flying above warriors in their battles. Their cawing, it’s said, inspired both fear and courage in the boys.
We can also consider “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” a popular gospel song published in 1905 by two white songwriters and used by Ethel Waters, a great black actress, as the title of her autobiography. The gospel song was suggested by the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:26: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
Now I’m wondering if there’s an allegory in here somewhere. The crows I saw were just doing what crows around the world do. Looking for food. What divine eye is looking at crows? At the human predators of the world? Smaller birds and those who seem helpless often meet violent deaths. What divine eye is keeping watch over the women and children of the world?
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.
8 thoughts on “A Tiny Life by Barbara Ardinger”
Barbara, very important in the context of your deeply heartfelt thoughts today!!! thank you, is “survival of the fittest,” whereas evolution in nature is actually a process of “survival of the most adaptable.” Sometimes that means survival of the most humble. Likewise to live long, it is said, “you have to be willing to cope.”
Thank you for this thoughtful, beautiful, heartbreaking-lifting post.
Beautiful and heart-rendering. So sad, so terribly natural. Thanks for honouring a life.
Absolutely, Barbara. We delude ourselves if we think there is a divine presence watching out for any of us. I believe that we usually hitch up our forces of denial and our defense mechanisms to ward off the knowledge that we never really know what is going to happen next, and that bad things happen to small, defenseless creatures (as well as larger, human ones) all the time. The following saying always brings a tear to my eye: “Dear Goddess, bless thy beasts and singing birds, and guard with tenderness small things that have no words.” We would do well to realize that all we really have is each other, and that despite our lack of control, we must do the best we can to leave the world a better place than we found it.
Birth, growth, life, decay, death — yes, it’s all there. But we humans can either exacerbate this cycle or ameliorate it. Your honoring of the tiny life of the jay outside your window in the face of the human atrocities resulting from guns and war is a small, but needed gesture. Thank you.
Many thanks to you all so far. Katharine, perhaps you could expand your comment into a blog? Maybe it’s we who keep an eye on things?
very thought provoking. and yes, i agree that we have to keep an eye out for each other; and lend a hand when needed. without worrying about how it would look (embarrassed) or are we being taken advantage of….and i think if we start in our own backyards/neighborhoods the circle will expand to encompass the whole of Mother Earth….we need to speak out!!
hmm, crows eating baby birds may be their method of survival and not evil. crows killing and strutting but not eating may be an indication that intelligent crows are “intelligent enough” to do evil. siggghhh