Daydreaming in our backyard one afternoon, I heard something hit the side of our house, just a few feet away. Startled, I looked up to see a struggling sparrow, looking newly-fledged and adolescent-clumsy, fluttering off our deck and again hitting the siding. It seemed panicked, desperate, and only then did I see the cause. A blue jay dove at it and knocked it down onto the deck again, and again the little bird flew up, struggling across our backyard and over the chain-link fence into our neighbor’s lawn. It never had a chance after that—there was only mowed grass there, no shrubs, no tall forbs, no cover. The jay was like a heat-seeking missile, slamming into the small body of the sparrow and knocking it into the grass. The predator landed next to the prey and its head reared back and speared down, twice, three times. It was over.
Only a few seconds had passed. I was still in the grip of surprise and, truth be told, a little shock. I was witnessing something unexpected, lightening quick, something primal.
We are determined optimists, we humans. Especially those of us born into, if not wealth, at least a measure of security and loving care, taking for granted that there will be food on the table tonight, that doctors are there for us when we are sick, that we have a level of protection from the predators of the world, human and not. We see the placid surface of existence and dream about the future, aware at some level, but not dwelling on the fact, that sometimes things can change very quickly. Death is understandable—-just not ours.
Not everyone is as complacent as I grew up. I did my Peace Corps time, many moons ago, in the little East African country of Malawi. I got to know many of my neighbors as friends, and I observed things that left deep impressions on me.
In Malawi, it was normal and polite to ask new acquaintances about their families—Is everyone well? How are your parents? How many children are in your family? That last question was one that changed my view of existence. Very often the reply was something like, “We had nine children in our house, and there are five living now.” When I was fresh out of training and new on my site and heard this, I was caught unprepared. My first reaction was to express my sympathy, but I soon noticed that my new friends didn’t say this with obvious sorrow. Their faces didn’t take on a look of grief. They were simply stating a fact of their life. There were nine and now there are five. Five beautiful children live in our house and four have gone to God. God is good to us.
They saw the placid surface of life and lived there with great joy, but knew the murkier depths on an intimate level. They had no illusions, no self-deceptions, about how fragile it all is. They were too close to it, much closer than my kind was. Or so my kind pretends.
In the natural world, life and death are right there together every second. No creature comes into it with the expectation of living forever, or any expectations at all, but only the instinctive determination to live until life is done. I don’t know what goes on in the mind of a young sparrow struggling for its life, but I doubt if it’s telling itself that this just isn’t fair, that it can’t go now, because it has so much left to do! I expect that it’s struggling because that’s what life does, to fight on until the end. We are the ones, we two-legged, arrogant, products of millenia of this struggle, insulated by layers of “civilization”, who get so bloody offended by it all. Who dares do this to us? Don’t they know who we are?
We think we are different.
The bluejay began pulling feathers from the warm body of the young bird, getting ready to feed. Suddenly, the jay froze and looked to its left, and I glanced over to see a teenaged boy walking through the grass of my neighbor’s lawn, staring intently down at the screen of a cellphone. The bluejay held its ground until the boy was within about ten feet, then it flew up and away to a far tree. The boy walked on, never lifting his eyes. He never even saw the little body that he nearly stepped on.
We swim on the placid, calm surface, but sometimes a fin breaks through to let us know that something powerful and inevitable cruises beneath. Sometimes we see it. And sometimes we look elsewhere with great determination.