Today is Monday. During these pandemic days, when my schedule has been turned upside down, thrown up in the air, and often landed in unpredictable ways, Monday has become a catch-up day for me. Today started off bright and beautiful, with sun shining and busy birds singing and calling back and forth across the trees in the woods that edge up against my back yard. I had a plan for the day and I set up my home office on the deck where the breeze that began to smell of rain could caress my face and the incoming clouds could provide everchanging scenery for the moments when I knew that I would have to look up from my computer screen. It is a pleasant place to be and when I started, I knew that this morning would be productive in reading and answering emails, setting up a zoom meeting, beginning the work for my sermon next Sunday, and doing some research for an article that I need to finish this week.
Just in the middle of the length of my deck, at the edge of the woods, is a locust tree that I have grown fond of during the first year that I have lived in this space. In mid-May, the leaves are nearly fully out and are still that gorgeous, vibrant, bright green that always makes me think of St. Hildegard and her understanding of the greening power of the Holy Spirit. I have watched this tree throughout the seasons of this first year. It is a tree of much character. Early in its youth, something split the tree’s trunk and now, close to the ground there are three large trunks that split into six smaller trunks a little higher before the tree spreads out into branches that extend down into the forest and across the edge of my deck and the roof of my house. Near the ground, where the split occurred, the center of the tree is gone. Often I see deer nuzzling in the hollow space of that tree, trying to discover if maybe I have left an apple or a pear just for a treat.
I didn’t notice it so much when I moved into this house, last June, but I notice now that this tree is under stress and is not as healthy as it once was. There are several branches that have no leaves and seem to be waiting for a strong wind to help them down to the ground. The bark is peeling in many places and, though I haven’t really checked, it seems that the trunks and limbs of this tree seem more fragile than what is commonly thought of as a very strong tree, used for building strong fences and strong furniture.
By late morning, my Monday list nearly complete, the activity in this tree began to distract me and it felt almost as if there was an urgency for me to watch and discover what this tree and its friends can teach me. The lowest branch on the tree that has any leaves at all, hangs over the corner of the railing on the deck. The spring green leaves often catch my attention in the early morning as the rising sun backlights the leaves and the gentle, morning wind sets them shimmering. This morning, I have noticed, again, that this one branch is very important to the bird life all around me. This unassuming branch is the last place for safely hopping, in order to reach the bird feeders that are placed around the top of the deck. It is also this branch that offers the space for a hasty getaway for small birds that need to escape Harry the cat as he prows.
I love watching all the birds that use this branch. Blue Jays fly to the branch and then fight each other for a place in line for the peanuts that I put out each morning. Teeny, tiny Tufted Titmouse families hop to the edge of the branch, turn their heads to the side to judge whether I am safe, before they flitter to the feeder for the small seeds. Their constant chirping is a beautiful sound to me and always lets me know where they are. There are abundant cardinals in the woods and in the late afternoon they seem to flock to the feeders all at once. The leaves on the locust branch move in rhythm to the cardinal’s dance. Chickadees and robins, occasionally red-winged blackbirds, and the ever-present towhees, telling me to “drink your tea” also come to the locust branch, almost as a ritual just before swooping down to the place where food is mostly plentiful.
However, on the tenth Monday morning of these pandemic days, it is a red-bellied woodpecker or two that really distract and then keep me amused. It was the characteristic “laughing” sound that caused me to look up from my work and then, the flash of the bird’s red head, sitting still among the verdant leaves of spring, waiting to make certain that it was safe to fly down and snatch a bite. Then the chirp, chirp, chirp of a juvenile, not yet showing red on his head, kept me watching as he hopped from the safe branch, back some feet to another branch, and then to another smaller branch to nonchalantly peck the wood. He wasn’t very good at pecking yet, that was certain, and before too long, he decided that I was safe enough to risk a seed or two from the birder feeder.
These little birds amused me. They made me smile. They made me notice them and the branch of the fragile locust tree that seemed determined to support these little creatures as they made ready to eat their daily fill. The red of the birds’ heads was striking against the green of the leaves and I tried for so long to take a photo, but birds are wise in their own way and they were determined that I could look ,but not take a picture. This was a moment that I needed to spend observing and learning. It was a moment in which to take delight and to smile and to remember that we are all part of Creation and designed to share this world with each other.
There are many stories about woodpeckers. For the indigenous people of North America, woodpeckers are considered lucky birds. These birds are associated with friendship and happiness. However, all over the world, there are several variations of a story where a selfish, old woman was turned into a woodpecker because she refused to be generous. As the story goes, the old woman lived by herself, deep in the woods. She wore a red hat on her head. She had everything that she needed and more.
One day a traveler came to her door, deep in the woods. In some tellings of the story, the traveler is just a traveler. In other tellings, the traveler is God, in disguise. He is tired and hungry. His clothes are torn and very thin, hardly any protection from the weather. He is in need of food. So, the traveler asks the woman to give him some food.
Reluctantly, the woman agrees. She tore off a bit of dough and rolled it out and put it on the griddle to cook. When the dough was cooked, it had spread all over the griddle. The woman decided that it was too big a piece to offer the traveler, so she tore off a bit more dough, smaller than the first. When it cooked, it too covered the griddle. Again, the woman determined that it was too much to give a common traveler. So, again, she tore off a bit more dough, a tiny amount barely enough to see. She rolled it out and placed it on the griddle, where again it filled and overflowed the griddle, creating an abundant piece of bread. The woman again determined the bread was too generous to give a “no good” traveler, so she gave him a stale piece of crust instead, thinking that he would be none the wiser, but of course, the traveler knew exactly what the old woman had done. He told her that she was selfish and that she had a chance to be generous, to help someone in need. She didn’t need to know who he was. Because she refused to be generous to the stranger, from then on, she would have to look for her food in the bark of trees. With that explanation, she grew wings and a beak, and the red hat on her head became the red of the woodpecker’s head and she flew off.
I remembered that story as I watched the woodpeckers dart in and out of the locust tree, amid the green leaves. I couldn’t help but think that this old story does not do justice to these birds that provide me such entertainment and joy. Thinking about the story reminded me again that we are in the midst of uncertain times. All of us may encounter, during these pandemic days, strangers who are in need. We may even be the strangers that are in need. It doesn’t matter who the stranger is, whether we know them by name or not. It doesn’t matter if the stranger is someone important in disguise or not. It doesn’t matter if we will ever meet the stranger again or if the stranger can repay us for whatever we are able to offer. What does matter is that in order for us all to make it through this time, we need to be able to offer, whatever it is we can, with a glad heart.
My locust tree is not in the best of health. It is possible that a strong wind will destroy it in the next year or so, but for this day, it provides shelter for the birds of the air, a place for woodpeckers to live and squirrels to scamper and hide nuts for the winter. We might think that this is exactly what a locust tree is for—to provide shelter—but isn’t that also what we are called to do for our fellow travelers in the journey of this life—to provide shelter and sustenance and hope, offering what we can, little or much?
I think that most of us would agree that it is what we must do for each other, but there are times when each of us is that old woman, who judges the traveler as someone not worthy of her gift of food. Maybe through this time of pandemic we can find ways to break out of our tendencies to judge and cultivate instead, ways that bring us deeper into relationship with each other, with all of God’s children, and know that we are all loved and cherished by God, our Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
Maybe through these pandemic days we can take more time to observe and listen for what nature is trying to teach us as well, that we are to live in harmony with nature so that all of creation can thrive. There have been all kinds of stories and evidence that through these horrible pandemic days, there has been the blessing of rivers and streams becoming clearer, of birds heard in places where they have not been heard for a long time, of the air clearing so that sights, unseen for a long time, are gazed upon in awe.
The birds that gather in the edge of my woods give the fragile locust tree a purpose. It supports the birds, offers them shelter, a place to teach their young to care for themselves. The tree is a stage for beautiful music and a display case for the most beautiful combinations of color in nature. The tired, old locust tree is still useful and offers its gifts with kindness and understanding. I hope that I too may offer gifts with kindness and understanding during these days when the world needs more love and hope than judgement. I hope that these days of pandemic can teach us something that nature knows already—that we all thrive when we care for each other.