Christmas in our house is a time for books. This year brought many and it will be many months before all are read and digested. Several are for the birds.
We’ve already read the first of those and it is a fine little book. Sightings. By Sam Keen. With lovely, not-to-be-missed illustrations by Mary Woodin. It is a little book about a large subject. Mr. Keen measures his life by numinous encounters with birds. Not “numerous”; “Numinous.”
Born into a family of Calvinists which, “shaped my psyche to be always anxious and striving, an easy grace descended on me whenever I escaped the embrace of my loving family.” His escapes were to eastern woods near his home and his first sacred sighting was on May 29, 1942. It was an Indigo Bunting. That sighting was followed by a Cardinal and a school teacher who also was a mentor and a birder. Since then Turkey vultures, Wild Turkeys, Mourning doves, and many other birds have opened for Mr. Keen vistas beyond birds. Birders, he asserts, are like other mystics, “. . .blessed with a special kind of vision of the world — the capacity to see eternity in a grain of sand or the presence of the sacred in the precision flying of a flock of blackbirds.” Birders are, “unusually susceptible to the emotion of awe.”
The book is a search for wisdom. Mr. Keen notes, “According to tradition the owl — the symbol of Athena, the goddess of wisdom — spreads its wings only with the arrival of dusk. Wisdom is the paradoxical art of seeing in the dark.”
His descriptions are precise. Here he is on the Wood Thrush. “You can identify the species by its eloquent dress. Think of a well-turned out English gentleman of the old school. The bird’s crown is tawny, passing into cinnamon brown on its back and shoulders, giving way to an olive-gray tail. It wears a contrasting polka-dot vest the color of clotted cream sprinkled liberally with blueberries.”
The best known member of the Thrush family is probably the American Robin but there are several more including all three Bluebird species found in North America. The Wood Thrush is a resident of the United States east of the Mississippi. At the end of the Wood Thrush’s chapter he writes, “Over the years, the Thrush’s shaman song has gradually transformed me into an enchanted agnostic. Unknowing. Amazed.” You can listen here (If you are taken to the main search page, type in “wood thrush.”)
Mr. Keen appears; however, not to be agnostic at all. Instead he seems religious. He efers frequently to the sacred, the numinous and, in an annoying affectation, to “G —” when he means God. Unless he is using the language carelessly, which seems unlikely given that he has been a professor of philosophy and religion, birds are for him a means to the sacred. An agnostic might accept “wondrous” or “awe” but not “sacred” nor “numinous.”
But this is quibbling. Mr. Keen did not write a book engaging in the great debate between Spinoza and Leibniz; he wrote a book about the wonder of birds, and he succeeded. It is a wondrous little book about wondrous birds and the joy they can bring to those attuned to them. We recommend it heartily. We’ll reread ourselves before our next birding trip.