It is 9:30 in the morning. I look out the window at the counterpane of snow that fell through-out the night; at the long shadows of this winter morning. Strange how an overspread of new snow seems to quiet the mind.
I see my wife Sabrina wearing her knee boots and bulky overcoat crunching along seeing to it that all her babies are properly fed. She is the self-appointed Patron Saint of Anything Sick, Injured, Abandoned, or Lost. What St. Christopher is to travelers, Sabrina is to her ‘littles.’
Juncos, woodpeckers, gold finches, gray squirrels, doves, chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, titmice, and even bluebirds keenly await her feeding rounds. No matter how early in the morning Sabrina goes out, the birds are already there waiting; impatient, and long-awake. The expansive white mantling lends an opalescent backdrop to their activity.
A medium-sized white pine dusted here and there with snow becomes her outdoor Christmas tree, and her birds, its ornaments. They flit from bough to earth unconscious and unconcerned that they are creating a rich bouquet of color no artist’s palette could rival; name the color, describe the shade, you will see it there.
As they did before the storm, the birds feed ravenously now. They seem like shoppers descending on a close-out sale, furiously devoted and single-minded in their task.
But this is understandable. Biologists say more small beings die of exposure than disease or predation. The smallest hummingbird’s wings beat 3000 times per minute; the tiny shrew’s heart, 1600.When you are this small, these prodigious demands on energy require a very high metabolism to remain warm through sub-freezing temperatures and wind chill, and this metabolism is fueled by food… lots of it.
No one dies of starvation on Sabrina’s watch. I watch her devotion with awe. Sometimes I think she and they share a single heart.
Interestingly, the colder it gets, the more the usual dictates of personal space are suspended in the interests of survival for birds and mammals. The urgency of preservation trumps the instinct of territoriality in this circumstance. For example: you will rarely see more than two finches eating from a thistle bag. Today I saw four. Mixed species joined together eating.
Afterwards, the birds fly to the protection of tall grasses or trees. But in winter, most leaves are gone. Thankfully we have four Bradford Pear trees in the backyard, their still-attached leaves defiant against the wind and temperature of the season. I see the birds take refuge in this heavy-boughed shelter. This is understandable, for theirs is a dangerous world, and the predators they face are more forthright than our own.
Much of our property is intentionally neglected. We could own a manicured, pesticided, herbicided lawn. Visitors would approve and cast favorable remarks, I am sure. But then where is a baby rabbit to hide or a mother bird to teach her young to survive? We could cut down or cut up the old or fallen trees, but then where would small mammals take cover, and what would camouflage the stealthy passage of turkey and deer?
Especially in winter, our wildlife depends on the spare economies of leafless brush, barren limbs, and the impossible tangling of briars to defend their place in a most perilous world. Is this a Better Homes and Gardens layout? Ask the animals, ask the birds, for theirs is the answer Sabrina and I care most about. This unruly profusion of bushes and trees are life, food, home, and protection to them.
Although she is cold, Sabrina will see this work done. This afternoon, the temperature notwithstanding, she will be at it again. Her babies will eat. They will be cared for. This she provides in return for their beauty, for the way they make her feel, and finally and simply, because she must.
This is the work she was born to do, of that I have no doubt, and I am privileged to bear her witness. I am blessed to have come at last in my life to a simpler time and theme.
To watch and tend ‘the least of these’ is to be washed / baptized in a warm river of something genuine, and profound, and spiritual. Gently coaxed from you are the stridences of our days and our times, and the soft rhythms of this truth plays to you: having is not the same as being; only being is the same as being.
Do I have the finest car, the grandest home? Is all value to be reckoned by the gold standard of prosperity? No. But I have bluebirds and God-made forests and often beautiful days. Being is knowing you are about your proper business. Life is precious; time is short; this is a good thing to learn. Soon.
My prayers, once so convoluted and dutifully styled, now contain but two words. ‘Thank You.” Thank You for her, for them, for those beginnings which shaped me, for my life, for my family.
In my gratitude for all this providence, those invisible, nagging (and usually unimportant) things which tether the mind, often without us being conscious we are so constrained, fall away, and in their place comes a peacefulness, a liberation, and the knowing that you are set on a right path, doing a good – and genuine – and yes, even righteous thing.
Saint Sabrina… everyone should be as blessed as I.