Of birds and trees

With a smile we tell people that when we lived in South Dakota we enjoyed watching the deer and wild turkeys in our yard. Now that we have moved to Washington, we watch the rabbits and humming birds in our yard. Our setting here is a bit more urban than our South Dakota home. For most of the time we lived in South Dakota our home was in a rural, unincorporated area. Then our neighborhood was annexed. We received some city services, such as water and garbage disposal, but our subdivision was not connected to the city sewer. We also did not have curbs and gutter and street lights as is true with some parts of the city. We enjoyed our rural lifestyle. We didn’t want street lights and preferred being able to see the night sky more clearly with less light. Our deer and turkeys, however, paid no attention to city boundaries. Rapid City has plenty of urban wildlife and we weren’t the only ones who got to know the deer that nibbled the grass in our lawn.

There are plenty of deer in the hills around here, but we haven’t noticed any urban deer in town. The rabbits, however, seem to be having a good year with plenty of cover and lots of forage to eat. There are eagles and other predators in the area, but the rabbit population seems to be holding strong.

Watching birds has brought us a lot of joy in our time of living here. The humming birds haven’t been in our yard year round. We just began to notice them as the yard began to flower with various plants. They are shy and we don’t see them every day, but they visit frequently enough to bring us a great deal of pleasure watching their unique flight from blossom to blossom. Occasionally, we will catch the profile of one sitting on one of the higher branches of the neighbor’s tree.

Even more dramatic than occasional visits of the humming birds was the six months or so that huge flocks of arctic snow geese occupied the fields around town. They were joined by thousands and thousands of swans. Trumpeter, mute and tundra swans in huge numbers live about half of the year in Skagit County and the other half of the year in places farther north in Canada and Alaska.

And then there are the seagulls. We used to see an occasional California gull that somehow ended up temporarily in South Dakota, but when the river is running clear it is a magnet for hundreds and hundreds of gulls who come up from the nearby sea coast following the food. The Skagit River has a huge delta and the surrounding wetlands provide a lot of cover for all kinds of birds.

Other than domestic chickens and turkeys, however, we haven’t seen their wild neighbors in our immediate neighborhood. I don’t miss the mess the turkeys left on our deck and back yard, but I do miss watching their antics as they made their daily journey across our lawn in South Dakota.

The prophet Ezekiel described his vision of trees and birds in the 17th chapter. He tells of God’s promise to take a sprig from a tall cedar and plant it “on the mountain height of Israel.” “Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will next winged creatures of every kind.” It seems that Ezekiel’s vision of the return of the exiles and the restoration of Israel and the coming of God’s reign of peace includes time for bird watching.

Part of my retirement routine has been listening to a program that airs on our local NPR station called Bird Note. I haven’t been a very attentive birder in the past, paying attention to only the most obvious birds in the neighborhood. The radio program has been educating me about differences in how nestlings leave the nest, about sapsuckers, about how robins choose their nest sites and about predatory birds such as the Northern Goshawk. I don’t consider myself to be an expert in the lives of the birds, but I am learning more than I used to know.

At our son’s farm, we enjoy watching the swallows chase insects in flight during the early evening hours. They were treated to the magnificent sight of a bald eagle perched on their bar roof last week. I’ve seen eagles soaring in the area before, but having one land on the barn roof was a special treat.

Since I have been paying a bit more attention to the birds, I have noticed that there are references to birds in the Bible. In addition to the vision of Ezekiel that is part of the lectionary readings for today, Jesus parable of the mustard seed in today’s Gospel reading mentions also speaks of birds: “yet when it is sown and it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Jesus is teaching his disciples about God’s realm. Jesus’ parables use our human propensity to watch birds and observe their nesting as a way of helping us understand the expansiveness of Gods’ love for all of creation. God’s love grows as dramatically as a tiny seed. And when it grows there is much more than the original seed. There is shelter and shade and protection and a place of rest.

Today marks one year since we led our final worship service as pastors of 1st Congregational United Church of Christ in Rapid City, South Dakota. In some ways the year has gone by very quickly. I think we expected that we would be settled and adjusted to a retirement lifestyle by now. It hasn’t worked out exactly as we had planned. The pandemic changed everything, but beyond that, we were unable to fully envision what retirement would bring. Like the mustard seed, it is producing more possibilities than we were able to envision. We are still wondering exactly where we will find our more permanent nest and what our role in this new phase of our life may be. Along the way, the words of the teachers and prophets inspire us to pay attention to the other creatures in God’s creation. The trees are growing and the world is changing and there is room for all in God’s realm.

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