Thursday Dec. 29, 2022
The waxwings are back! In 2021, my mountain ash tree had very few berries on it, so the waxwings didn’t bother visiting.
This year, the tree had an abundance of berries. Bright red clusters weighed down the ends of branches, so many and so heavy I feared some of its branches would snap.
And the waxwings came back last week to feast on the frozen, partly fermented berries.
They swirl in the air by their hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- dense clouds of feathered wings beating the air into froth.
As far as I can tell, waxwings do not have a leader giving orders. No individual waxwing says, “Okay, all of you, we’re going to go strip Jim Taylor’s tree of its berries.” They simply arrive. And then, for no apparent reason, they leave. All of them, all at once. They whoosh off, perform a variety of aerobatic manoeuvres. The cloud of birds inverts itself, reverses itself, spins upside down and sideways, emulates a Mobius strip, and returns to my tree for dessert.
Their movements seem too coordinated to be the result of random chance. But, I gather, that’s exactly how it works.
For flocks of waxwings –also for schools of fish and some herding animals -- there are two simple rules.
One: never get too far from your neighbour.
Two: never get too close to your neighbour.
Thus, if one member senses a source of food, every member turns towards it. If one member panics, everyone panics -- until collective common-sense returns.
It’s the rallying cry of the Three Musketeers taken to an extreme: “One for all, and all for one.”
The two rules sound contradictory -- close but not too close, distant but not too distant -- but the waxwings’ cohesion depends on maintaining a balance between those opposites.
A single waxwing could probably benefit from ignoring the rest of the flock, by staying in my tree and pigging out on berries. But then he’d have to fly on alone, making him easy picking for the red-tailed hawk watching from a pine tree.
In numbers there is security. When the flock swirls like seltzer in a glass, the hawk doesn’t know who to strike.
Of course, the reverse is also true. When herring form a compact ball in the ocean, an orca can scoop up a meal in a mouthful.
Heed the birds
Although the rules governing the movements of waxwings and herring may seem arcane to us humans, I wonder if we don’t operate on the same principles sometimes.
One person demonstrating in Iran is a dead duck; 100,000 all demonstrating together make it hard for the Morality Police to single out leaders.
Conversely, when one person spouts racist or sexist views, a flock of like-minded people will coalesce around him. Even if they had been able to control their prejudices until then.
Following the leader is an almost intuitive act. No one likes to be left on the outside. But it’s always worth asking where this flock is going before joining it.
In our lives too, we teeter between opposites -- between finding an individual path, and losing ourselves with the mob.
Copyright © 2022 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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I received absolutely no mail about last week’s column. This is so rare that I’m wondering if I failed to send it out.
Reduced to a very few words, I was writing about today’s homeless people huddled in tents and under blankets, and comparing them with Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem. Luke’s text notes that there was “no room FOR THEM at the inn.” The inn was filled with their relatives. Everyone claiming to be related to David -- which would probably be most of the nation! – had to go to Bethlehem. But there was no room for a woman guilty of adultery under Mosaic law, or for a man who failed his legal obligations.
So there was no room FOR THEM.
And I wondered if the innkeeper’s wife perhaps sneaked out some leftover s from the feast inside to the couple in the stable. With no food, they might have been worse off than many in today’s homeless encampments.
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The lectionary gives me two choices of psalms for this coming Sunday, January 1 – Psalm 8 and Psalm 148. “No choice,” I thought, “Psalm 8 is one of the greats.” But then I looked at my paraphrases of Psalm 148, and I thought that they fitted this time of the year quite well. The shortest day of the year has passed; the days are growing longer again.
1 Come and join the joyful dance of life!
Celebrate each moment of increasing light!
2 When the sun comes out after the snow,
when the south wind blows the blizzards away,
all of creation creeps out of its caves
to soak up the welcome warmth.
3 All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
4 All things wise and wonderful,
5 The Lord God made them all.
6 The One Who Is defined their characteristics;
8 The rain falls, the wind blows,
the frost forms its delicate traceries,
just as they should.
Rain does not rise, nor frost burst into flames --
they know their form and function;
The Lord God made them all.
7 So join the joyful dance of life.
The fish of the sea can shimmy;
9 Peaks and ridges march in royal ranks; trees wave and grasses weave;
10 Cattle can stomp and marmots can whistle, Chickens can cheep and porcupines bristle;
11, 12 The whole earth throbs with the pulse of life;
The drums of life pound their passionate rhythm.
Princes and paupers, outlaws and outcasts,
all races, all colors, all ages, all species, swirl together like galaxies glowing in a summer night.
13 In God's great dance of life, there are no wallflowers;
Every piece of creation has a part to play.
14 We humans live and die;
our communities come and go,
our empires rise and fall;
But God's great dance of life goes on.
Apparently the print version of my paraphrases of most of the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary is now out of print. But you can still order an e-book version of Everyday Psalms from Wood Lake Publishing, email@example.com, or 1-800-663-2775
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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)
ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.)