Pockets of the sacred
and the Mystery stood sentinel on either side of existence
Hello. This post is about Death & Birds.
It’s been a strange week... Norman and his crew arrived and settled nicely into their aviary. These birds already feel like part of our family, our community; in as much as, their happiness and wellbeing directly impacts my happiness and wellbeing. I spent all of last night dreaming about them.
A few days ago, a juvenile Robin flew into one of our upstairs windowpanes, dying instantly. We have ‘anti-collision’ stickers on our windows, so rather than seeing foliage reflected in the glass and heading for it (which is the cause of most window strikes) it is likely that she was being chased.
As is customary in our household, she was laid to rest on a bed of herbs and flowers, in a wooded area of the garden—a prayer wishing her well on her journey to whatever may be next. She looked like a Waterhouse painting.
Her Death led me to look at figures relating to window strikes. According to the American Ornithological Society an estimate of between 365 and 988 million birds are killed annually by building collisions. In the UK it’s around 100 million—again, annually. These figures are secondary to the Deaths caused by habitat destruction.
In 2019, the US House of Representatives passed a bill to reduce the amount of glass used for federal buildings, in an effort to protect birds from Death by collision. In 2021, Melissa Breyer, a bird collision monitor for New York City Audubon, picked up 291 dead songbirds from around the foot of the World Trade Centre in a single day; all victims of its reflective glass.
Major architect firms have shown next to no interest in addressing the issue, and there are no policies in place in any major UK city to protect migrating birds, who have not yet evolved to understand, or perceive, glass. I’ve felt a persistent background hum of disquiet since seeing those figures, and Breyer’s images.
Earlier this year we discovered (late to the party) Dr Iain McGilchrist; psychiatrist and author of The Master & His Emissary and The Matter with Things. In the former, he explains how he came to the realisation that the Left and Right hemispheres of the brain have two distinctly different ways of seeing the world: the Left hemisphere views things as being inanimate; objects to be manipulated, used and, as he puts it, ‘apprehended’, while the Right hemisphere views things as animate, interconnected, all existing within a larger whole, and to be ‘comprehended’.
When both hemispheres are working in unison, this is a brilliant piece of design. But Dr. McGilchrist (or Sir Iain, as we have lovingly come to call him) suggests that the West, in its current form, is behaving much like someone with Right-hemispheric brain damage. Meaning that the traits of the Left hemisphere have become overtly dominant.
We see this everywhere. From mass environmental destruction to industrial scale farming, unchecked growth and the mass production of ‘things’ with little to no thought given to the very real repercussions experienced by multiple human and non-human beings around the world; each one animate, each a tiny universe in their own right.
Sir Iain goes further, explaining that the Left hemisphere favours the known over the new, certainty over possibility, fixity over flow, and parts over the whole. He explains that “the right hemisphere is better at accepting uncertainty and limits to knowledge”.
This all comes to mind in response to my disquiet. We, as a species, can only have constructed such a destructive way of life if we have, in fact, become dangerously disconnected from the reality of our inherent interconnection.
I’ve been reading Sir Iain’s most recent book, The Matter with Things, as well as Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, (I’m a glutton for punishment, apparently) and, something from the latter struck me:
“Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to understand it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.... Things flow and are indirectly linked together, and if you push here, something will move at the other end of the world. If you strike here, something somewhere will wince; if you sin here, something somewhere will suffer.”
This is a perfect example of Right hemispheric thinking. The kind of thinking that seems to be desperately lacking in large swathes of our modern world.
I feel as though I quite regularly experience little pockets of the sacred—usually in the form of an interaction with a bird, or in the space thick with presence and honesty that can open up around Death, and dying, or standing still in nature. The sacred does not lend itself to language, though I can practically feel my Left brain fighting to come up with the words. This is why so many sacred texts rely heavily on metaphor (the Right hemisphere is crucial to metaphor comprehension, the Left is more literal).
I have heard Sir Iain say that he suspects this dangerously lop-sided functioning of the human brain became prominent around the time of the Industrial revolution. It seems to me that it was also around this time that our relationship to Death started to become distorted.
It is the Right hemisphere that allows us to engage with un-knowing; and so it is this side of the brain that allows us to enter into relationship with the Mystery stood sentinel on either side of our existence.
Did we inadvertently spend the last couple of centuries building a world where the sacred is less recognisable? Where birds, once held in considerable esteem, are now considered collateral damage of the monoliths of capitalism? Where Death is considered an ailment which could, with the right technology, be cured?
I like familiarity and certainty as much as anyone, but I’m curious as to the many possibilities that exist and which might never be known. I’m curious as to what happens to the subatomic particles, or to the dark matter, or to whatever it is that exists within the perceived empty space that sits between myself and another, when I say, or think, or feel, ‘I love you’.
I do not believe that the answer to that is ‘nothing’. I believe in the notion that love may actually be a field, in the same way that gravity is a field. A universal field, within which everything is held.
I believe, but I do not know. Like I said, it’s been a strange week…