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Bird-Watching and the Breathtaking Personalism of God


Deven Dadbhawala CC

Anna O'Neil - published on 04/25/16

When I learned to use the birds' names, like Adam first naming them in the Garden, I began to enter into a relationship with them.

A few years ago, as a freshman in college, I was out in the woods late under a full October moon. My classmates, who were drinking in the hut across the field, hollered at me to come back and join them. I shot back gaily, “I can’t! I’m talking to the moon!”

Indeed, I had been standing there enraptured, with my neck craned back at a right angle, and getting stiff, too. Most of this flower-child act, to be perfectly frank, was designed to catch the attention of a certain long-haired senior. It didn’t work.

Now I pass my days as a stay-at-home mama to a son who’s a far stride more genuine than I am, since he actually is enraptured by everything. In the midst of caring for him, I recently decided to do something just for me, something I love — so I took up bird-watching. Goodness knows I do enough standing at the window and saying, “Bird. BIRD. Look, a bird!” (Enraptured Son is easily distracted, so the birds have already proven themselves to be an ally.)

Quickly, “look, a bird” has changed to, “look, a brown-headed cowbird and his wife!” Suddenly, there are birds everywhere I look. (I have to be very firm with myself when I’m driving.) The broader category of “bird” has been replaced with a hundred sub-categories. Now I am seeing that this one flies in scallops, that that one prefers to eat off the ground. This one keeps going back to the marsh, and then way up to that treetop. That one would rather run and hop than fly.

Somewhere in the middle of all that information, they stopped being “bird” and started being “you.” You’re awfully territorial! You’re smaller than a mouse! You can’t sit still for a second, can you? Would you turn around so I can get a look at your belly? Oh look, when you open your wings up, there’s red and yellow!

You are lovely.

In 2013, researchers from the University of Wisconsin and Yale, in a paper titled “Language can boost otherwise unseen objects into visual awareness,” showed that in terms of “sensitivity and response times” — and here I paraphrase an extremely dry abstract — when people are given a word to describe something, they notice details in it that they hadn’t noticed before. They see what they couldn’t before they had the word.

There’s the story of Jules Davidoff in Namibia, too. The Himba tribe only has five color categories, as contrasted with our eleven. They don’t classify blue and green as separate colors. When he showed tribe members a set of squares, eleven green (grass green) and one blue (turquoise), they could hardly tell them apart, and certainly not at a glance. But they do have many different words for what we’d lump together under the simple label “green.” So when Davidoff tested Westerners similarly, we couldn’t pick out the single different shade of green, whereas they spotted it right away. Go ahead and try the test yourself here. It’s harder than you’d think!

What is true for colors is true for everything from constellations to rock formations. When you give a thing its name, when you see it by more than its category, what was invisible becomes so visible that you can’t go back. So suddenly I wasn’t watching birds; I was watching that goldfinch, and that crested woodpecker. The birds changed from object to subject — not subject elevated to a human level, of course, but nevertheless, a subject I am capable of having a relationship with. Laudato Si tells us.

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis … suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself (66).

When I learned to use their names, like Adam first naming them in the garden, I began to enter into a relationship with them. And in a change so subtle as to be initially invisible, I now see what was invisible to me at first: a world bursting with life, because it is a world that is bursting with the immanence of God, a world where the breath of God is still moving over the waters and through the woods, and coming gladly through the little working throats of the junco, the chickadee and the titmouse.

One doesn’t have to be a naive and slightly desperate freshman to have a true relationship with the world. Because this world is bursting at the seams with the personhood of God. It is no accident, and should be no surprise, how gloriously individual is each creature, once we have the language to make it visible. God, they tell us, would have come to Earth and died for just one man, if only one man had needed him. Here is a God who does not gloss over the details, viewing us as humanity en masse. No — he encounters us each in the most personal, the most individual way. And so it is not just God’s grandeur that the world is charged with. The world also reveals God’s great specificity, his love of the individual, the detail, the subject, which, if we have eyes to see and words to express it, we can hardly miss.

So it seems that my son and I really do have every reason to be enthralled with this world.

Anna O’Neilis a graduate of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. She likes cows, confession and the color yellow, not necessarily in that order. She lives on Rhode Island with her husband and son, where she tries to remember that, as Chesterton said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

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