Stepping Back from the Edge

I was 27-years-old and I’d taken a railway train up the Jungfrau, in Switzerland, and arrived at a cold, cloudy plateau. I walked out along the icy pathway, ducking under yellow warning tape meant to call attention to the precipice just beyond. I continued towards the edge. Down below was a soft fluffy bed of clouds.

            Here in my mid-twenties, shouldn’t I have been more settled? Happy? Instead, the marriage I was in was a constant battle. I wasn’t on speaking terms with my family. Most days I went to work exhausted. My job in publishing paid poorly, though it included trips to supervise the printing of art books. That’s why I was in Switzerland.

            Falling would be like tumbling into a deep soft bed, into a long mercifully dreamless sleep. I took a step closer to the edge. When I thought of my life, I couldn’t see any reason to turn around; I couldn’t imagine any path into the future that I was interested in following.

            At just this moment a small bird flew out of the dense cloudbank. It landed at my feet. I stared at it: What was a bird doing way up here? And then, I was astonished to notice that the bird had a briefcase under its wing. It cocked its head and looked up at me.

            “You still have a lot of business to take care of,” is what I heard.

            What?

            I stepped back from the edge. And then I took the next train back down to Zurich.

            While I have always loved animals, since that moment on the Jungfrau I have been particularly enamored of small birds.

            This summer, I witnessed young bluebirds taking their first flight. The parents were in a far tree, calling softly.  A feathery head popped out of the nest box hole and then suddenly, the entire fledgling bird was out, fluttering directly towards the bedroom window where I stood watching. It landed on the window frame just above me, paused, then flew onto a branch beside the parents.

            What must it feel like to that small bird, to be suspended in the air on the flapping of wings that had never before supported its body? To launch itself into an experience that, until that moment, it had no way of anticipating or comprehending?

            How can so much intention, curiosity, and intelligence be packed into something so little?  Most mornings, Alan and have our breakfast out on the porch, and we are immediately joined by four chickadees. They land on our phones, heads, coffee cups and breakfast plates.

            According to Diane Ackerman, author of The Genius of Birds, chickadees have brains that are proportionately as large as the mammalian brain.  And their brains change in size and composition, allowing them to learn new things:

            “Something remarkable happens in the hippocampus of these scatter-hoarding birds on a routine basis. New neurons are born, adding too—or replacing—the old ones ….This changeover of neurons has forever altered how we think of vertebrate brains, including our own. We now understand that this ability to change and renew neurons and the connections between them provides the brain with the potential to modify itself—to learn, at timescales ranging from milliseconds to minutes to weeks.”

            One chickadee, an 11-gram bit of fluff, regards me this morning with its dark onyx eye and its mysterious intelligence. Then slides down the spoon into my cereal bowl and selects a tasty-looking bit of oat flake.

            Six months into coronavirus, it feels sometimes like this period of isolation and constraint is never going to end. Recent wildfires have added a sense of relentless bad news, claustrophobia and worry.  If I look at social media, it seems impossible to imagine that we can step back from the edge, that things will ever change for the better.

            But watching birds, I am encouraged. Scientists have learned that their brains change and adapt to circumstances—and that ours can, too. Seeing young fledglings take off into the unknown, I have hope that maybe we are capable, in our thinking and behavior, of leaving behind what has become too small for us and soaring, comprehending the bigger picture. And if I think back to the bird on the Jungfrau—that one with the briefcase—I understand that difficult times come and go, and that the future can be much brighter than we’d ever dared to hope.

            But for that to happen, we all have business to take care of.            

(Reference: Ackerman, Diane. The Genius of Birds, pp. 42, 53-54. New York: Penguin Books. 2017) Stepping Back From The Edge was published in the Summit Daily News, August 23, 2020.

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