walk slowly, bow often
windows, walls, and the illusion of safety
Hello. This post is about Death & Birds
Last year, I saw a Toucan—in the wild. We were in Costa Rica, a place embarrassingly rich with life and colour, and there was a rustle in the trees above us. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I saw its beak before anything else and my hands instinctively shot up to cover my mouth, suppressing the excited squeal that wanted to escape. I got Davids attention and pointed to the impossibly proportioned bird. One of my favourite things in life is watching Davids face go from ‘slightly-frowny-concentrating’ face to ‘wide-eyed-seven-year-old-brimming-with-wonder’ face, and our colossally-billed friend prompted just that.
I later learned that what we saw was a ‘Keel-billed Toucan’, sometimes called a Rainbow Toucan, for obvious reasons—their beaks feature strokes of red, orange, yellow, green and blue. Toucans enjoy using their beaks to playfully sword fight with one another and (because we as a species do not know how to appropriately respond to the miraculous) their population is in rapid decline, due to habitant loss and hunting.
Our time in the Costa Rican jungle was in equal parts enchanting and humbling. On one of our first nights there I was woken by what I thought to be a pack of wild dogs, howling in the distance. As they came closer, I realised it was in fact a pack of howler monkeys thundering through the jungle’s canopy, hollering their rallying cry which, especially to the unaccustomed ear, can sound a little threatening. Few of the places we stayed in had walls or glass windows, and I became acutely aware of how much I rely on those simple things to provide me with a sense of safety.
The lushness of the jungle itself, however, bewitched me. For the first week there it was almost too much on the eye. I have been taught by the Patron Saint of Noticing (Mary Oliver) to “walk slowly”, to “bow often”—and, I do, but the density and complexity of so much plant and animal life was constantly threatening to overwhelm.
As we softened into the experience, however, the lushness of our surroundings became a living temple in which we were quite blissfully engulfed. Tiny worshippers, immersed in the breathing lungs of this sacred earth.
One night, in what we’ll call a dream, the rainforest extended an invitation to me. Having noticed my deep appreciation for it, it asked if I wanted to die there, to decompose and merge with it, becoming rainforest myself. I was so moved by the offer that I almost accepted it, but, knowing that then was not the time, I expressed my sincerest gratitude and politely declined. I promised to return, though, and the jungle ensured me that the invitation would remain open, for which I am most grateful.
David and I both consistently struggle with the incessant pull to abandon ship, to go and live far from the things of man. More and more so, as the months roll by and the spectre of insanity seems to creep, like a fog, into every recess of society. But, for now, we are still ‘in it’, whatever that means, and as such we must work to cultivate that sense of enchantment. After all, the miraculous is always waiting to be seen. It is right there, and it is never concealed—though our cloudy lenses, made murky by drudgery and cynicism, sometimes impede the extraordinary view.
When I first wake up, usually before I even open my eyes, I contemplate the fact that I am not guaranteed the day. Being human is an implicitly fragile endeavour, and the sense of safety afforded me by windows and walls and the fact that I’ve lasted this long is, largely, an illusion. The enormous privilege of living in a country not currently at war cannot protect me from the vast array of circumstances and events which could, nonetheless, see this day be my last.
Often, when I initially drop into the uncomfortable reality of the precarious nature of my existence, I notice a need to control arise, a part of me wants to rigidly arrange life in a way that ensures my survival. This part is integral, and is a brilliant piece of evolutionary design, but the appropriate response to my fragility is not control—it is humility. Mortality is deeply offensive to the ego—but in the moments that I allow myself to feel the truth of just how tenuous “I” am, my cloudy lenses begin to clear, the miraculous appears, and my hands instinctively shoot up to cover my mouth, suppressing the excited squeal that wants to escape.
Yours in aimless flight,