I wrote this essay 13 years ago. One change: my daughters are a bit older now. The woodpeckers, however, have not changed a bit. First published 26 September 2005 on Worldchanging.com. Reprinted in Because We Believe in the Future: Collected Essays on Sustainability 1989-2009, by Alan AtKisson. Note: On Amazon.com, this book received a one-star review because my dear friend Bob Meadows (the reviewer) was trying to help me and he thought one star was good, and five was bad. The text of the review was quite positive. So, if you feel like helping out with some more positive reviews on Amazon, I’d be grateful. — Alan
I was taking a break from thinking about the great problems of the world. Not just pondering them at leisure: thinking about the problems of the world is, weirdly enough, part of what I have to do for a living. For most of the past few months, my thoughts had been more global than usual, as my current client was a global initiative, and the project involved evaluating its impact worldwide. Conversations with an extremely diverse range of sustainability leaders, from Greenland to New Zealand, had left my head spinning.
So I was taking a break from global thoughts, and drinking a cup of organically-grown, fair-trade coffee, with a dollop of “ecological” milk, as we call it in Sweden. I was thinking, you know, it would be nice to slow down a bit, spend more time just watching and listening to the natural world around me. I used to do a lot more of that; lately, between work and parenting, it feels as though I “never have time.”
About a minute after that particular thought flitted through my mind, on my way out of the kitchen and toward the computer, I heard a raucous uproar outside.
“Magpies,” I said out loud. They are not terribly popular birds, but I like them for their iridescent green-blue trim feathers, their inquisitive intelligence, their “tough-bird” image. Not even the crows mess with the magpies. This was a much louder chorus of magpie-screech than usual, one that kept going and stayed around. Still, it was just a bunch of magpies. There was no compelling reason to go back to the window. I had work to do.
And yet I hesitated. What was that thought I just had? The natural world was screaming at me from just outside the kitchen window. What was it trying to say?
The natural world was screaming at me from just outside the kitchen window. What was it trying to say?
First I saw the magpies, easily a dozen of them. Very unusual for them to band together like that with any kind of common purpose. But they clearly had one.
It was a woodpecker. From the window, it looked dead, or nearly. Why a dozen magpies had ganged up on a woodpecker, I’ll never know, but the beating had been thorough. It lay there spread-winged on the grass, belly down, motionless. And Pelle the cat — whom I call Pelle the Conqueror because of his remorseless attempts to rule our community — was just a meter away, and closing slowly. He looked amazed at his good fortune, and he was taking his time. The magpies were hanging around to jeer and watch.
It’s just natural, right? The cat gets the bird in the end. But woodpeckers are beautiful creatures, possessing, to this observer, a certain dignity. My daughters have learned to recognize their sound, with pleasure. I had to do something.
By luck, there was an empty cardboard box nearby. I shooed away Pelle, folded back the woodpecker’s wings, and lifted her into the box, very delicately. How remarkable! To hold a living wild bird — something I’ve done only three or four times in my life — is like being offered a peek into the tabernacle. And this bird, though injured, was very much alive. It shivered with shock. It scrabbled a few awkward steps, and stuck its sharp beak and head through a too-small hole, cut through the cardboard for human hands. I took hold of the bird again, slowly pulled it back, disengaged its claws, released it again in the center of the box.
My tiny girls would be home soon, and while I was excited at the thought of showing them a woodpecker up close, I was not so eager to have them witness its death, which still seemed quite possible. So I stood there for a moment, pondering the woodpecker, and the feelings of my small children (our 3-year-old is just starting to ask tough questions about death), and fates much smaller than the world’s.
And then the woodpecker flew off. An explosion of wing and feather. “Not dead yet,” as they say.
All because I had a thought, “I should pay more attention to the natural world.” All because for once, I had actually acted on that thought, immediately.
What was nature trying to “say”? I don’t presume to know … nor do I believe that “Nature” was trying to “say” anything, at least not to me. Nature is full of sounds and signals. Whether we listen or not is entirely up to us. But it’s hard to imagine any scenario for “saving the planet” that doesn’t include paying closer attention to those signals than we do now.
Nature is full of sounds and signals. Whether we listen or not is entirely up to us.
Had I saved the woodpecker? I’ll never know that either, of course. But I had the distinct feeling that I had saved, or at least retrieved, a small piece of myself.
I do know that I saved one woodpecker from the ignoble (and rather unnatural) fate of being eaten by a domestic cat, after being marauded by magpies. Perhaps I even saved its life. I doubt that it noticed, and Nature tends not to express gratitude. But who needs gratitude, when your reward is an immediate and deep pleasure?
And the pleasure is likely to continue. Since the woodpecker had flown straight as an arrow toward a venerable old tree, from which we often hear the characteristic rat-tat-tat, its continued survival was likely to result in many more adorable outbursts from my delighted daughters:
“Papa! Listen! The woodpecker!”