Assessing the Situation: Breath, Spirit, and Chickadees
Breath, blown into the mouth and nostrils of a swimmer carried limp from the sea nearly lost, can find, touch, and waken his heart to life.
Some believe god blew into the nostrils of the first man created, and he then became a living soul. (This was once known as the first resurrection.)
Blown through the lips, blown through a wooden pipe, a reed, or the horn of a conch shell… breath can make music just like god makes a living soul.
Living breath can flutter the down of a chickadee feather held close to the face of a sick child sleeping.
But those who sleep in death have no breath to stir a reed to song or a heart to life, no breath to raise a soul, to lift a feather like a poor birdless wing to flight, to make music, to sing like god.
If living breath is the holy spirit of the spoken word (some say twice holy in prayer), then this invisible spirit is made visible tonight, an icy wraith, by the breath of carolers singing of the Christ in a freezing snow.
Whatever draws breath in a flowering garden must immediately become one with the invisible spirit of the fragrant lily, become one with the fragrant living soul of the sweet briar rose.
Some believe the breath from a flock of chickadees settled in a locust tree can cause the languid leaves to flicker microscopically. This spirit is visible to anyone watching closely enough, standing still enough, barely breathing.
Do We Love Trees or Rivers More?
Some might think rivers (constantly washing as they do all day and night) are cleaner than trees, the way trees are always dropping their seeds and shells, the dead parts of themselves to the ground, creating a roughage all around in plain sight.
But rivers are somewhat bland, rarely possessing a distinct color of their own, primarily reflecting the tints and shades of others. In summer they look like the summer skies at noon above them, later assuming the fiery, scarlet-russets of evening as if believing all along they were the times and skies themselves. Yet rivers, unlike trees, multiply the beauties around them, reflecting and doubling the blossoms of sweet flag, hempweed, indigobush, mimosa blooming along their shores and borders, at night transforming the one full moon into thousands of itself riding on wavering ripples.
One doesn’t often hear a tree calling in the distance. Although once, in a windy hardwood forest, I thought I heard “oak” slowly being sung in the deepest, fullest, bass voices rising up from the earth to surround me, and a whistling soprano “suuuumac” coming from the open foothills, accompanied by a whispering “ceeceecedar” in the background for rhythm. (My blind friend told me that he’d heard these trees long before I heard them. I do trust my blind friend.)
In contrast, rivers are nearly always easy to hear, rowdy, roaring and racing without pause, rising up, crashing over boulders, slamming down the other side, slapping and slopping the shore. Rivers can rage against their banks, shaking trembling tents beneath trembling trees during midnight lightning, thunder and relentless rain.
Yet these same rivers flowing slowly, repeat over and over the same comforting phrases of the ancient lullabies everyone knows. Rivers are often saviors declaring clearly and definitively to anyone wandering lost in the forest, “follow me, follow.”
During sub-zero winters, however, rivers and trees both are almost totally silent, except for sounding an explosive crack, a sudden and painful breaking of ice or branch, echoing through the frigid forest, near and far away.
Because they swim and feed in rivers, most water turtles, cooters, musks, don’t like trees so much, unless a large poplar has fallen into the river and become a perfect sunning bed. But birds, nearly all of them, love trees, even tom turkeys. I wonder whether geese, swans, and ducks might love rivers and the lakes they create better than trees. Maybe most birds, overall, love the sky even more than they love either rivers or trees.
Rivers and trees seem equally self-confident, forging their own paths through life, establishing trails over the earth or spreading in patterns across the sky. A kind of predestination…they both seem to know from the beginning where it is they must go. And lo, they go that way until the end.
The Best of Bones
They have always taught us about scaffolds, the importance of inner framework, balance and movable levers, by demonstration have borne testimony to knobs, joints, sockets, and junctions.
Dauntingly beautiful in their functions, bones are massive in the shield-like breastbones and branching ribs of grizzly bears, blue whales, bowhead whales, in the reassembled bones of woolly mammoths and the bony frills of three-horned dinosaurs; crucially steadfast, the backbone, the braincase, human shoulders shouldering a sack of grain or a child’s sleeping body.
Bones are legion, scattered everywhere earth-wide— whether the scorched, dried, burnt bones of rat snakes or rosy boas lying on desert sands, their rib bones arranged in order like ripples on the dunes; whether bison bones or coyote bones half-hidden on high, grassy plains; or in gardens and fields, the thumb-sized skulls of voles and anoles rattled by the slightest breeze, their minutely hinged jaws hanging open, each spine a string of ribs thin as pine-needles; or a gray fluff of feathers near the splintered bones of a bird’s wing cast aside on a forest floor.
Remember the stories skeletons carry—bones of pre-human ancestors turned to rock; a migrant lost and murdered millennia ago on a mountain top, frozen and mummified by icy winds; countless bones of condemned criminals thrown into the solid darkness of peat bogs; kings and chiefs placed carefully in narrow caverns and graveyard caves; the battered remains of warriors abandoned with their useless weapons in the overgrown meadows of deserted battlefields; skeletons alone in the starless night of a sea bottom, hulls themselves among the board- broken hulls and crumbled eaves of sunken ships, covered with silt and uprooted seaweed, torn kelp swaying slowly in a careless current; a mother’s skeleton lying in the open soil, an infant’s skeleton at her side, both unearthed by flooding weather from their shallow grave along the trail.
The bones endure, fossilized stone, neither body nor soul, though once, in life, they were the keepers of both. Why a pity? Why a promise?
Pattiann Rogers has published 14 books of poetry, most recentlyHoly Heathen Rhapsody(Penguin, 2013) and Quickening Fields (Penguin, 2017). In 2018 she received a special John Burroughs Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Nature Poetry.