We awakened to a warm spring morning, the kind of day you’d expect to get in late April: a lazy kind of day, so it was quarter after nine before I got out of the apartment. With the excuse that I was going to look for early spring migrants — although what excuse did I think I needed to get outdoors on my day off when the weather was so pleasant? — I headed over to Mt. Auburn Cemetery with my binoculars hanging around my neck.
I stopped at the chalk board where the birders write down what they have seen that day. A man with graying hair, as unshaven as I, had just picked up the piece of chalk and was looking at small notebook. “What did you see?” I asked, “anything exciting?”
“No, not really,” he said. “220 robins, 6 Northern Flickers, lots of grackles, umm….” He consulted his notebook, a page with the date at the top and each species neatly written on separate lines. The name of each bird was followed by hatch marks, his method of keeping track of his count. “One Fox Sparrow still. Cowbirds, 3 Great Blue Herons…. Nothing exciting. The best bird was the one I didn’t see, a Saw-whet Owl. I found the tree where it had been because of the whitewash and the pellets.” He pulled a small furry lozenge out of his pocket: an owl pellet, the odd bits of hair and bones that the owl can’t digest and later coughs up. “It could have been a Boreal Owl,” he said, “some small owl, but most likely a Saw-whet. But it’s gone now, headed north.”
I left him writing down his findings and wandered off. I had started too late in the morning; the birds wouldn’t be very active this long after sunset. I stopped at the top of one small rise and just listened:
Blue Jays somewhere in front of me. Beyond them, the rush of tires on pavement from Mt. Auburn St. A chickadee up above me; then two more off to one side. Robins behind me, and to my right, and off in the distance all around. Banging from the workers up on the scaffolding over at the chapel. I didn’t see any of this, just heard it around me. Then a funny nasal “cawr” sound: two Fish Crows right up above me. I looked at them through the binoculars, and they looked just like ordinary American Crows; the only way I could tell they were Fish Crows was their call.
The wide-spaced trees and open ground under them creates a sort of savannah in the cemetery. The trees grow more closely together in a few wooded places, and you can hear the difference between the savannah and the woodlands: in more thickly wooded areas, the songs of the birds take on a peculiarly characteristic sound, as their songs echo around the trunks and branches, and it becomes more difficult to determine exactly where the singer is sitting; whereas in the more open areas, you can pinpoint a bird’s location with greater accuracy.
Down at one of the small ponds, I could see a few inches of the new green shoots of cattails coming up above the water. Three male Red-winged Blackbirds squabbled at the edge of the water, setting up nesting territories perhaps. Sounds coming over the open surface of the little pond were characterized by their clarity: the sounds arrived at my ears without anything intervening.
I find it fairly difficult to distinguish between two sounds; I do not have great aural acuity. I once stood at the edge of a field with a professor of ornithology. She said, OK, you hear that Song Sparrow? –well, do you hear the Indigo Bunting that is directly behind it? I literally could not hear the Indigo Bunting; my hearing was unable to sort out its song from the louder, more familiar song of the Song Sparrow. This may be why I am always surprised when people say that a god or gods listens to their spoken prayers. Why would a god listen to individual people? — to me, that seems like a hard way to go about things. If I think more carefully, I suppose I am baffled by the thought of trying to distinguish between the thousands — no, millions — of spoken prayers arising at any one time; no matter how omnipotent a god might be I simply can’t conceive of making sense out of that cacaphony.
Nor can I understand those philosophers who say that language is what creates Being, that without language we have nothing, no meaning, no existence. Or the philosophers who spend their entire lives trying to sort through how language works. Language is not a primary experience for me; it’s probably a tertiary experience. I find myself in the world by knowing where I am in space, not by means of language. Language offers me no insight into the squabble between those three Red-Winged Blackbirds, yet I understood them better than I understand some people.
They say — at least some people say — that spoken prayers find their way to heaven. Who is listening? and where is heaven? –that I don’t know. I know who is listening as I stand under a tree and next to a pond. The Gray Squirrel on that tree is listening to me, and keeping a weather eye on me to boot. The three blackbirds are listening to each other. The Blue Jays listen to each other, and sing at each other using a highly variegated repertoire of sounds that range from harsh cries to flute-like solos; as watch-keepers of the trees, they also listen to everything that goes on, and send out warning calls as needed. I listen to as much of all this as I can distinguish. We’re all listening to each other.
I can’t discount those people who say that God or a god or gods listen to their prayers. I have a friend, someone whom I respect, who says that God has spoken to her and that she speaks to God in her prayers. But when it comes to me, no one in particular is listening. The philosopher Edmund Husserl reviewed Descartes’s famous argument that the only thing you can be certain of is that you think, therefore you exist. Husserl showed how Descartes was in fact wrong. Instead, said Husserl, one thing you can really know is intersubjectivity, that is, you can know that other beings exist. Husserl says this does not happen through listening or language, but through direct apprehension. Therein lies god or the gods.
By half-past ten, the birds had gotten much quieter, and they had retreated into places where they were difficult to see. I watched one tiny Gold-crowned Kinglet flitting from branch to branch high above my head in a tall pine tree. A few chickadees buzzed and whistled. A funeral procession wound by on the cemetery road below where I stood, the black hearse and the train of cars following it with their headlights on. By eleven o’clock, I arrived back at the chalkboard, and I read through the list of birds seen as written by the man to whom I had spoken. I hadn’t seen half the birds he had seen; and come to think of it, I hadn’t seen half the birds on my own list, I had only heard them.