In a book titled “Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue” by Paul Woodruff, the second paragraph begins with these words: “Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control—God, truth, justice, nature, even death.”
Last week, after reading an article in the Press Democrat, my husband and I drove to a private school not far from Healdsburg to view a sight that I had never imagined. It was a lovely evening, shirtsleeve weather with a slight breeze. Rio Lindo Academy, a Seventh Day Adventist boarding high school, has a lovely campus with brick buildings, wide green lawns, and a sweeping view over acres of vineyards. We parked across from an older structure, its plaster walls dull and cracked, the windows dusty, a building long abandoned except for storage purposes. At one end, there was a large square chimney, the object that drew us to that place.
We were among the first arrivals, but obviously we had come unprepared, arriving empty-handed except for my husband’s camera bag and gear. Several couples had set up lawn chairs and there was a family, dad pushing a stroller with a small passenger and mom carrying a tiny baby. Another couple followed them and quickly spread a blanket and set down pizza boxes, the aroma wafting our direction. Soon more people arrived, couples, others who were alone, more families, and sometimes groups of five or six. The lane was lined for more than a block with people sitting or standing and children running and playing. While there was quiet conversation and the laughter of children, mostly people watched that chimney.
After about a half-hour, someone said, “Look, here they come.” Far above us we saw a few dark shapes against the sky, small birds, fluttering and circling in the air. They came down towards the chimney, circled it and then flew away. Minutes later, another group did the same, followed by another. We waited and during the next half hour, the groups grew larger and finally they began diving closer and disappeared inside the chimney. More and more came, hundreds of tiny birds swooping into the chimney. Finally there were thousands filling the sky, a living tornado of whirring wings, circling and descending out of sight.
One of the school’s staff walked through the crowd and passed out a paper that talked about the school on one side and described the birds on the other. I read that they are Vaux’s Swifts, known in some places as “chimney swifts” for their habit of using chimneys as their resting place, especially on their migration routes. The paper stated that some years there are as many as 20,000 birds that stop by the school campus, with 360 entering the chimney every minute during the most active landings.
Several days passed and Sunday morning came. As we were preparing to walk out of the house and get in the truck for the drive to Guerneville for church, the phone rang. Someone called to tell us the whales were running off Bodega Head, “So close,” she said, “they’re touching each other.”
After street church that afternoon, we made our way to Jenner and turned south towards Bodega. When we arrived we found that the cliffs above the ocean were lined with people, much like those who had gathered to watch the birds. We made our way to the edge and within a moment or two, I cried, “There’s one, Zack,” pointing to a large black shape that rose just above the waves. As long as we stood there, we could see them, their presence heralded by an arching spray of water, then an immense shadow that broke the surface, then disappeared.
Looking at the people gathered there and remembering those waiting so patiently in Healdsburg, I thought about how these small events had pulled each of us away from our regular routines. Dinners postponed, televisions turned off, work set aside, we had come to watch these mysterious, magical occurrences, events beyond our understanding and certainly beyond our control. As the last birds disappeared into that chimney, there was a sound that swept across the crowd, like a breeze ruffling through leaves, a deep sigh of appreciation, perhaps even of awe. On the cliff above the sea, again and again, I heard one person and another call out, “There’s one—I see one!” This world is full of amazing things, all of them part of the gift we have been given, the wondrous gift of being a small part of this intricately beautiful creation. Sometimes all we can do is stand in reverence, filled with an awe that goes beyond words.
blessings from Country Woman