This morning I stood for a long time listening to, but unable to see, a bird bathing in the hidden bath. From the moment we set it up on an old stump, surrounded by salal, with a wild rose budding and prickling in front, the dish has been a popular and sought-after spot.
I love that watery sound – involving much whirring, vaguely like a dog’s shake, but a smaller, faster sound. It’s hard to hear it as anything but pleasure or happiness.
When Richard Mabey speaks of the human skills of image-making and language in his book “Nature Cure,” he asks if we can use those skills, not to separate us from nature but as a “gateway to understanding our kindredness to the rest of creation, to fitting our oddness into the scheme of things, to become awakeners, celebrators, to add our particular ‘singing’ to that of the rest of the natural world.”
Mabey’s book is a poignant, beautiful tale of a broken spirit, brought low by depression after a series of life events, including the completion of a monumental work cataloguing the flora of Britain, but then revived by re-engagement with nature – not just being in nature, but the struggle to use his skills, regain “his imaginative relationship with the world beyond.”
Sometimes it seems easiest to make that imaginative connection when another species behaves in a way I think I can understand. Often those observations are painful, sighting a lost dog or learning of lost habitat, so I cling to joyous moments – like the love of a bath.
We don’t feed the birds here, but we do offer water, in simple bird dishes fashioned from the large pottery saucers meant to go underneath large glazed pots. We keep them clean with fresh water. Two dishes, the hidden one and one we can see easily from the kitchen, are close to the house, three others, smaller, balance on upright logs near bushes for cover. On the South Forty, three much-used baths are near a hose bib.
The birds don’t seem to mind if the dishes tip a little, making an uneven water level, with shallows. Most of the birds are small and stand on the flattish rocks we put in the dishes as perches; they walk down the rock’s gentle sides as if wading into a lake. Just like people going into the water, birds vary their approaches, some wade on in up to belly, others flit and hesitate.
In these warming days when the action started up again, juncos were first, and song sparrows with their beautiful speckled breasts. Towhees love the baths, make their distinct call, wait for each other to finish.
In the house, I lean down to get something from beneath the sink and look up to see a very stately robin, I imagine her large with child, such a rounded huge pale orange breast. She submerged in the water up to her breast, cocking her head in that way robins do, cautious. She stood for several of my breaths, and then quickly dipped her head, and then again and again. In between fluffing and, hard not to write joyfully, doing that fandango of shaking – drops spraying, making the musical sound of a body getting wet on purpose, a spin of the whole feathered being in desire. She stayed five or so minutes and flew off to a stub of a branch, high on a Doug Fir, to dry herself in the sun.
That seems a movement that we have completely lost – except maybe as an involuntary shudder – I wonder if it comes from the spine or from that energy channel the yogis talk about.
Some place we share.