It’s truly a spring day and a beautiful morning. For once, the sky is clear, and the quality of sunlight is so alive. I love the early morning light even though I rarely get up to see it or hear it. There’s a hum in the air.
Early, for me nowadays, means 8:00 or 9:00 am, not 6:00. And the birds. Amazing. Right now, a male cardinal is singing. They sing love songs to their mate or hopeful mate. And we, lucky humans, get to hear it⎼ if we’re quiet enough, or our neighbors are. Imagine one creature making love to another with its voice and we get to listen in.
What is it in the song, what quality attracts one bird to another? Biologists often talk about ‘fitness,’ but I think that’s bunk. What does ‘fittest’ mean in terms of a bird song? I’m not an ornithologist but I don’t think a female cardinal picks the gruffest or toughest sounding male. Being gruff, at least in a human, limits the vocal range.
Even Darwin, who is often misquoted as saying or implying it is aggression or a “selfish gene” that makes beings fittest, actually spoke in his book The Descent of Man only twice about survival of the fittest. Of course, we humans can be selfish. We’d have to be blind not to see it. But many of us act like we are helpless before our selfish impulses and blind to other aspects of ourselves, aspects that Darwin named as essential to our survival.
Systems scientist David Loye pointed out in his research on Darwin’s Lost Theory of Love: A Healing Vision for the New Century, that Darwin included 24 entries on the importance of mutual aid, 24 on reason and imagination, 61 on sympathy, 90 on a moral sense, and 95 on love.
Especially since cardinals mate for life, and males feed the females both before and after she lays her eggs, wouldn’t ‘fitness’ in a voice be its beauty, its subtle and yet lingering notes? Wouldn’t it be the ability of a vocal vibration to make a listener feel warm inside, safe?
Imagine we let ourselves feel loved by the world around us. So much would change, I think. Maybe fewer of us would have a cavalier attitude toward nature and treat it as mere “equipment” to exploit for our own immediate purposes. We’d feel the life around us more intimately. Maybe we’d feel more valued and loved ourselves. More powerful, alive, engaged. We’d feel everything speaking to us. Not just birds but trees, rivers, clouds, the air we breathe, the other people around us.
We’d feel the streams of the earth as the veins of our body. The air as the fuel that animates us.
There is a story by the Taoist Chuang Tzu about “The Useless Tree.” I first heard it years ago from a storyteller named Tek Lin. Two woodcutters out walking on a hot day see it at a distance. It is so large, the limbs cover so much space, they imagine the many board feet of timber they could get from it, and the beautiful flooring they could make from it.
But when they get close, they notice the branches are all crooked, the trunk twisted and full of knots. It was useless. No one could cut it in any way that would warrant the investment. It was so twisted it wouldn’t even make good firewood.
But standing under it, the shade was wonderful. They felt so contented just standing there, they unconsciously decided to sit and relax for a minute. Who would cut such a tree?
We could learn so much from that tree about relating to anything, or anyone. Too often we focus, even in our relationships, on what we can get from them or it, or on choosing or quantifying what is most useful. To say someone is useless is a curse. But what does ‘useful’ mean in terms of who we love, talk to, or spend time with?
And if ‘useful’ means quantifying a person’s attributes and thinking primarily about how they can be useful to us, well, I think it’s obvious that we should be alone for a while.
Focusing on ‘use’ can distract us from seeing, feeling, touching, and knowing whom we’re with, and what we’re doing. It’s how we feel in the shade of this person, or with this person, that’s most important. If both of us can just be there, caring and taking care of each other. And we can both listen to our words by letting them play inside us without obstruction, so we discern what kind of song we’re singing and respond with easy sincerity, one limb swaying with another. That is a beautiful morning.