The Singing Monk of the Crum Woods
Today the wood thrush returned to the Crum Woods. I have been waiting for this event for months. I moved to a house in the forest five years ago, and at that time, I heard a strange and wonderful bird call in the tree canopy. The song of the wood thrush is a melody unlike anything I had ever heard. Liquid, flute-like, perfectly pitched—the thrush vocalizes a kind of duet with itself in which it simultaneously produces two independent musical notes that reverberate with each other. I have read that Tibetan monks can also sing two notes at the same time, a baseline and a melody line in contrapuntal balance, so now I think of the wood thrush as the singing monk of the Crum Woods.
In the spring and summer, I wake up, and often go to sleep, to the vocal pleasures of a bird that I cannot see but whose delicate harmonies pleasantly haunt my dreams. Like God’s Spirit, I know the thrush is there—I hear its lilting cadence from dawn to dusk—but I’ve only seen one wood thrush during the time I’ve lived in the Crum Woods. I creep around the forest floor looking skyward, hoping for a sighting, but it always escapes my gaze. Instead, I keep my window open at night as a vector for the thrush’s call. Bathed in its music, it is hard for me to distinguish be- tween waking and sleeping, between twilight, midnight, and early morn- ing. At dusk, the thrush is in my ear until I fall asleep; I dream of its call throughout the night; and I wake up after dawn gently moving through the deep of its sweet-sounding counterpoint.
The wood thrush lives in the interior of the Crum Woods and consistently refuses the lure of my feeder. Thrushes prefer just the right habitat blend for sustenance and breeding: running water, dense understory cover, and moist healthy soil full of fruiting plants and insects to eat. In the heart of the forest, foraging in the leaf litter among large deciduous trees, the thrush makes its nest out of dead leaves, mud, twigs, and sometimes found manufactured materials such as paper and plastic. Like other neotropical songbirds, it is threatened by habitat loss through continued development of its home range. It is also endangered by brood parasites, such as brown-headed cowbirds, which lay their own eggs in wood thrush nests, crowding out the host’s eggs and hatchlings. The perdurability of the thrush in the face of these obstacles gives me hope in a time of despair about the world’s future. Henry David Thoreau says, “The thrush alone declares the immortal wealth and vigor that is in the forest Whenever a man hears it he is young, and Nature is in her spring; wherever he hears it, it is a new world and a free country, and the gates of Heaven are not shut against him.” For me, Earth and heaven come alive with mystery and wonder when I hear the thrush’s ethereal song. In my own particular bioregion, the thrush opens to me the beauty of the Crum Woods as a vital habitat—indeed, as a sacred forest—whenever I am graced by its stirring music.
To call the Crum Woods a sacred forest may seem odd if one is using traditional Christian vocabulary. Historically, many Christian thinkers avoided ascribing religious value to natural places and living things and restricted terms such as sacred, holy, and blessed to God alone. Central strains of classical Christian opinion desacralized nature by divesting it of religious significance. While the Bible is suffused with images of sacred nature—God formed Adam and Eve from the dust of the ground; called to Moses through a burning bush; spoke through Balaam’s donkey; arrested Job’s attention in a whirlwind; used a great fish to send Jonah a message; and appeared alternately as a man, a lamb, and a dove throughout the New Testament—Christianity, in the main, evolved into a sky-God religion in which God was seen as an invisible, heavenly being not of the same essence as plants, animals, rivers, and mountains. As the theologian E. O. James writes, the Christian “God of heaven . . . was always regarded as transcendentally distinct from the rest of creation, physical, human, biological. . . .
He was the Sky-god par excellence because, in scholastic terminology, He was ‘He Who is.’5 The Welsh “St. Denio” hymn I sing in my church pro- claims the same sentiment: “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” Hidden and imperceptible, God exists in a far-removed place divorced from the ebb and flow of mortal life here on Earth.6 Moreover, God the creator alone is holy, so goes this line of thinking, and everything else in creation, derivatively made by God, is an extension of God’s blessed and benevolent handiwork—but not independently good and holy unto itself.
But in the Earth-centered narrative arc of the biblical stories I recover in this book, this devaluation of nature as devoid of sacred worth is conspicuously absent. Even at the outset of the Bible, God is not an invisible sky-God “transcendentally distinct from the rest of creation, physical, human, biological,” as E. O. James avers, but a fully incarnated being who walks and talks in human form, sprouts leaves and grows roots in the good soil of creation, and—clothed in feathers and flesh—takes flight and soars through the updrafts of wind and sky. An astoundingly rich variety of natural phenomena are charged with divine presence in the biblical ac- counts, with God appearing alternately in human and plant forms—and in animal form, as I will highlight here.
To this end, let us start with the winged bird-God of creation, the central figure in the Bible’s inaugural creation story. In the beginning, the Earth was formless and empty, and God’s Spirit swept across the dark waters of the great oceans. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void and darkness covered the waters. And the Spirit of God [rûach elohim in Hebrew] hovered [merahefet] over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:1–2). The noun rûach elohim that is used by the Genesis authors to identify Spirit is grammatically femi- nine, while the feminine-ending verb form that is employed to describe the Spirit’s movement is merahefet, alternately translated as to “hover over,” “sweep over,” “move over,” “flutter over,” or “tremble over.” This feminine, avian noun-verb cluster describes the activity of a mother bird in the care of her young in the nest. One grammatical clue to the meaning of this dynamic expression can be found in Deuteronomy 32:11, where God is said to be a protector of Jacob in a manner akin to how “an eagle . . .
Praise for When God Was a Bird
“Seldom do I read a book with such verve and audacity as When God Was a Bird. Mark Wallace has given us a treasure, almost in the form of a parable, because if God is manifest in a bird―the Holy Spirit as dove―where else might God be found? And what might that radical, even creation-wide incarnation of God mean for us today? Highly recommended.”
―Brian D. McLaren, author of The Great Spiritual Migration
“This book brings forth a luminous animism for all to see, previously hidden in the scriptures and traditions of Christianity yet embedded in the body of the Earth itself. We are all indebted to Mark Wallace who has given us a masterpiece of eco-theology rendered in the most elegant and accessible poetic language. A gift for years to come!”
―Mary Evelyn Tucker, Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology
“Mark Wallace argues that ‘Christian animism’ is not a contradiction in terms. In doing so, he opens new lines of exploration and insight that have the potential to spark fundamental changes in the ways animists and Christians think of each other and themselves. An important contribution.”
—Norman Wirzba, Duke Divinity School
About the Author
Mark I. Wallace is Professor of Religion and Environmental Studies at Swarthmore College and core faculty for the U.S. State Department’s Institutes on Religious Pluralism at Temple University. His books include Green Christianity: Five Ways to a Sustainable Future and Finding God in the Singing River: Christianity, Spirit, Nature.