A pigeon builds its nest on the highest branch of the willow tree outside my house. It flies up and down carrying twigs of all shapes and sizes: short, long, thick, thin, straight, curved. A little while ago, a heavier sprig gave it more trouble and it struggled for several minutes before it managed to lift it off the ground. I can't see the nest behind the leaves, but I can imagine its labors: the slow weaving together of all those twigs until they form a web and, eventually, a solid foothold for life.
I could watch it come and go all day. It has no fancy moves, no discernible grace. Pigeons and their nests are not precisely charming or colorful. And yet there is something in the bird's comings and goings that calls to me powerfully. What moves that pigeon to keep swooping down for those twigs? What drives it to work tirelessly hour after hour, day after day until that formless pile becomes a refuge worthy of what it's about to receive?
It would be easy to speak of instinct, of biological imperative, of genetic inheritance. But none of that means much to the part of me that watches in amazement, brimming with sympathy and connection. I too once built a nest to welcome my little ones, I think. I too chose the materials carefully, lodged it upon a sheltering branch, waited patiently for the ripening. It was an act spurred by mysterious forces; motivation and awareness seem too shallow a description. How I see myself in that pigeon flying up with heavy beak, so thoroughly focused on the one task that matters.
And then there's the willow. After developing a steep inclination to one side it has recently started sprouting low branches in the opposite direction in a futile but heroic attempt at balance. How many times do we grow brave branches to try to counterbalance our weaknesses? And if those branches don't do the trick, is the aspiration any less worthy? I find it impossible to walk by that tree without seeing in its efforts a palpable form of intelligence, a tenacious leaning towards life, a purpose; and, at the same time, to feel moved by the insufficiency of that effort. In fact, that dogged will to thwart the inevitable echoes in me above all else.
Maybe it's naive to see myself in the branches, in the tree, in the pigeon. If it is, let me say with Richard Buckminster Fuller, that inspired inventor, "Dare to be naive!" I utter that phrase to myself like a mantra every time I start doubting these impressions because I know that the well from which they spring is deep. I know that to be astonished by the force of life, by that mystery that keeps us striving and sometimes thriving, is probably our most important assignment. I know that treasuring the invisible string that links beak to branch to eyes that see and heart that rejoices might be a form of reverence, a wordless sort of prayer.
Then I remember Mary Oliver, who in her poem 'Messenger' asks,
Am I no longer young, and still not half perfect?
Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished.
And so I stay. I look at the buckled tree, at the pigeon in its tireless rounds, and I smile at the mystery, at the effort, at the grace.