Guest Essay: Do Birds Sing?

Cheryl Leutjen

During my last trip to Los Angeles, Cheryl Leutjen and I put on a workshop entitled “From Eco-Angst to Eco-Engagement: Navigating Your Path Through the Global Crises of Our Time with Integrity, Love and Grace.” We read excerpts of our writings to begin each section of the workshop; I loved what Cheryl read for the section on “Grief,” and asked if I could share it with my readers. I hope you enjoy it.
—DC

Do Birds Sing?

by Cheryl Leutjen

Today I sit with my back against a venerable oak tree, one of many growing in a line along the apron of the city street behind me. Before me is a concrete drainage ditch, several feet deep and wide, edged by a barbed wire fence, the not-so-natural home of the Los Angeles River.  Down the way, a crew is pouring concrete for a new retaining wall, yet another edifice designed to keep nature in its place.  The sound of mariachi music from their portable music player wafts my way. Tiny birds chirp sweetly overhead, unconcerned with presence of people and machinery, of concrete and glass or even of the dull roar of jet engines thundering faintly in the distance. I sit at the crossroads of nature having its way and of human persistence to control it. Such is the Urban Habitat.

When I focus on the concrete, the barbed wire and the droning of machinery, I feel a tightness in my chest, my mind rattles away processing meaningless facts, and I cannot write. When I shift my gaze upward into the clear blue sky, admiring the tree branches that shade me and the sweet sparrows that circle overhead, the tightness is gone and my heart sings. Words pour into the page.

The tiny birds cheep so noisily and gladly that I wish I could understand what they are saying. What I do know is that they are not at all concerned that the water flowing in this concrete lined channel in the hot summer months is fed only by the outflows of local water treatment plants. They are not bemoaning the loss of habitat when this area was cleared for development some fifty years ago. Their cheerful noise tells me they rejoice in their good fortune in finding cool water, sheltering oaks and nutritious food to share with friends and family.  They remind me to sing the sweet praises of joyful adoration of the Beauty in the world, no matter where I am, no matter how much ugliness I think I see.

I close my eyes and imagine this place when clear, sweet rainfall flowed in the mucky ooze of a living stream bed and when the landscape was a palette of earthy hues, when the only sounds were unamplified voices, chirps, ribbits, caws and growls.

Did the birds sing, I wonder, when the bulldozers came? Did they sing to greet the sun at the dawn of that particular new day? Did they sing to rejoice in the warmth of the sun and the taste of a fresh earthworm even as their beloved tree homes surrendered to the great mechanical claw?

Or did they sing a different song, a mournful song for a homeland lost to urban sprawl, for nests felled by trees chopped down or for mates crushed by the rumbling machinery? Did they sing an angry battle hymn, did they gnash their beaks, did they trumpet a war anthem?

Or are birds free of human propensities to decry and to disparage what Simply Is? Do they respond to change instinctively and without sorrow, adapting to the changing environment with Ease and Grace?

I suppose it may seem foolish to suppose that birds could have feelings in the way that humans do. My intent is not to anthropomorphize them into flying, feathered mini-me’s. What I have come to realize in all my hours of sitting on the ground writing in numerous locations around our Urban Habitat is that our furred and feathered and creepy-crawling city-dwelling companions have learned much about how to adapt to a world that looks, sounds, smells, feels and even tastes differently than the one in which their ancestors lived. What can I learn from them? What does the California Black Bear know that allows it to live in a City-impacted environment that the California Golden Bear (an extinct subspecies of the grizzly bear) did not? What can these sparrows tell us about finding fresh water when the trusted supply disappears?

Raised in a culture that has always taught me that humans are in charge, I find it a welcome discovery to learn that we’re not solely responsible and that the Web of Life offers a storehouse of Knowing about how to live and thrive in a changing world. What better educator of the importance of Vision than one who has mastered the ability to fly above the day-to-day annoyances that, if allowed, can grind a human into dust? What better instructor of the healing power of Music than one who celebrates each sunrise with a song? What better teacher of the power of Community than a flock that begins and ends each day together, chirping their stories of the day with each other?

I can think of no other, and so I am content to leave the contemplation of Great Actions for another day, while I rest here, gazing upward, and learning from my esteemed and feathered teachers. ∞
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Note: after reading the essay above, Cheryl led the workshop participants through the following exercise.

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Recall your fondest memory of being outdoors as a kid. Where were you then? What did you do there? Did you go alone or with a group of friends or family? What was the best part of being there?

Do you know what it looks like now? Does it look pretty much the same? Is it covered in concrete? Has suburban sprawl displaced the patch of wild nature you once knew? How does it feel to see a car wash where you once searched for four leaf clovers? Or to see a freeway where your childhood home once sat? Or to drive by an oil refinery where you once played in the tide pools?

What do we do with these feelings of loss?  Shall we begin a grief support group for people who have loved and lost Natural Places? Shall we start a Facebook page where we can post old pictures and chastise the idiots who destroyed it? Or do we just suck it up and forget about it the best we can?

I submit that all of our loved-and-lost natural gems, the green forests and the pristine beaches and the rolling grasslands exist still in our hearts, just as we remember them. They are as real to our subconscious minds, when we recall them in vivid detail, as they were the last time we played there. We keep the beautiful places of the world alive by visiting them often—even if seems too far away for us to visit. Indeed, the subconscious mind cannot distinguish between an apple in the hand and the vivid memory of a ripe, juicy apple you picked from the cranky old neighbor’s tree—right before he chased you off his property. So indulge yourself in the sweet ecstasy of your memories.

Feed your soul today with the love you hold in your heart for the dearest wild places in your memory banks. Be here in this place that lives in your memory. Feel the sun—or the rain—on your face as you survey this place you love so well. Touch the tree bark or the fresh-cut grass or the sandy beach or whatever you see nearest to you. Hear the birds sing or the ocean waves breaking on the shore or the absolute stillness. Immerse yourself in this place, recalling every detail, and see how it feels to be here again. Fill your senses. Linger. Explore. Be.

When you feel complete with this experience, consider offering a word of gratitude for the Beauty that still resides in this place—and in your heart—and always will. Return here as desired, and revel in the Beauty. Fill your Beautiful World Reservoir, just as you would the fuel tank in your car. Replenish when empty. ∞

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Cheryl Leutjen
 is a writer and small business owner. She is passionate about living more sustainably, honoring our bountiful and beneficent Earth, preserving the Rainforest, knowing the Truth of who we all are, taking personal responsibility for her own happinessand raising children who appreciate the same. Cheryl creates and facilitates personally empowering, spiritually uplifting and consciously creative experiences that reconnect us with the Truth and Divinity of who we really are. 

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