This morning I read an article in Orion Magazine about a small shorebird, the Calidris canutus rufa – commonly known as the red knot. Writer Deborah Cramer penned a number of essays that accompany paintings of the birds done by artist Janet Essley. These little birds, just the size of a robin, make one of the longest journeys on the planet, from South America to the Arctic and back again in their yearly migration. Along the way, they sustain themselves with Horseshoe crabs in Delaware and mud snails in Brazil. A nesting period in the Arctic results in newly hatched young feasting on insects during the Arctic summer. Climate change and human activity are disrupting the patterns these birds know deep in their DNA, but nonetheless, they persist.
The stories Cramer shares in her essays, about the red knots, are an eerie read during this time on earth – this time when humans are being impacted by a global pandemic, when systems cease to function for myriad reasons, when refugees flee war torn lands just to be turned away or jailed where they thought they might be safe, when creatures of all sorts disappear every day. We are living in a time of deep transition, even as the economy grinds to a slow crawl as people grapple with how to live during a time of uncertainty.
“..the juveniles…somehow make their way unaccompanied…finding a route they’d never traveled, heading toward a place they’d never been.”
Cramer is talking here of the red knots who hatch in the Arctic and somehow find their way to a home they’ve not yet seen, but somehow know deep in their bodies. When the time comes to migrate, they stop to feast on clams in James Bay, Ontario and then fly on, nonstop, to South America.
They haven’t ever been where they are going, much like we humans haven’t perhaps been where we are going, either. But I think we know that things can’t go back to ‘business as usual’ — somehow we know that’s not where we can stay.
One of the essays is about how the birds have been hunted widely over the years in some places, from Cape Cod to Guyana. [International coalitions are currently working on preservation efforts.]
“I see a sadness in Essley’s painting – birds in disarray, scattered, a trail of blood encircling the flock.”
Right now there is a collective sadness hovering over much of the planet, I think. On a video call with my family last night, one of my brothers spoke of some colleagues who weren’t able to see their parents before they died last week — because if they went to say goodbye, they’d be exposed to the virus. A neighbor of mine recently expressed heightened anxiety and depression, made worse by feeling trapped at home. Countless young people in high school and college will not be able to walk across the stage in celebration, weddings are being postponed, family reunions cancelled. So many are out of work. The very old can’t keep company with the very young, at least for now, in some places. Many have died. There is a lot to grieve, no matter how you are being impacted by what’s happening on the world stage.
Cramer goes on to say,
“And yet, in the painting’s beauty, vibrant color, and potential flight of a bird..there is hope.”
There is hope, of the active sort, being practiced all over the world. Of course there are those who are in despair, because there are places where things are very bleak. It’s not easy to navigate continual loss, whether it’s a physical loss of life to unemployment to perceived loss in the form of deep uncertainty. But despite the very real hardships, there are many doing the work of buoying spirits, of holding space, of healing, of offering aid when aid is needed.
In the final essay in the series, the one about the red knots returning home to southern Chile, Cramer writes,
“Each day birds come in with the tide, first appearing as tiny wisps of distant smoke, and then as giant clouds sailing over a tidal plan for miles wide, stretching all the way to the horizon.”
There is a lot of tough stuff going on in many areas of the world – that much is certain. But there’s also much beauty being uncovered: from how folks are stepping up to help one another to the way migratory birds continue finding their way home again. Which makes me think of Douglas Wood’s words, in his beloved children’s book, Old Turtle:
“After a long, lonesome and scary time…
the people listened and began to hear…
And to see God in one another…
and in the beauty of all the Earth.”
Anxiety is real. So is beauty. There is loss and uncertainty swirling around us all. And there is also a tiny corner of peace, or maybe you could call it possibility, in each moment, like a wisp of distant smoke. Things will continue to shift, they may well get harder before they get easier, and conditions on the other side could be different than we are ready for. But just like a juvenile red knot, we can learn to listen and find our way home again, even though the terrain of the future is unknown.
Beautiful and terrible things happen every day, and it’s always been that way. Fear and anxiety are normal, and you are allowed to feel what you are feeling – but you don’t have to let fear drive. Feel it, and then turn to your support network, get some fresh air, and pay attention to the things in your immediate physical space. Nourish your roots. Look all the way up. Keep your eyes on the distant wisps of smoke. There may well be a giant cloud of hope stretching toward the horizon if you have the patience to watch for it.