Hymns with wings.
Early this morning I was greeted by a seagull, flying, oh, 30 feet above me. She was hovering, apparently effortlessly, held aloft on a soft cloud of invisible air, and yet following me in the snail pace of my terrestrial walk. And she was speaking to me, sort of insistently, but friendly. I don’t speak seagull, especially Spanish seagull, but like the human contact on the rest of the trip, I got the jist of it. First, it was “buen camino”, the greeting that is common everywhere along the route: “Have a great trip” or “Safe journey”, or “Happy trails”. I’ve heard “Buen camino” dozens of times, and now I know what it sounds like in seagull. But she also seemed to be trying to remind me of the view from on high, the enviable view she gets to see most of the time.
I had a friend with a home near the ocean and he used to complain about the seagulls all the time. “Dirty birds”, he’d call them, equating them with pigeons as nuisances we could do without. But I’ve always thought of them as awesome, glorious birds. Some cool facts: Seagulls are one of the rare animals that are able to drink salt water. They have special glands (located above the eyes) which eliminate excess salt from the body. They are also very intelligent birds. They use bread crumbs to attract fish, they pick up crabs and drop them from on high to crack open the shell for the meat that lies within. How did they possibly figure that out? They even produce a rain-like sound with their feet to attract earthworms hidden under the ground. Some travel thousands of miles every year on caminos of the air. They have a wide repertoire of calls and tweets and body language for communication-hence my conversation this morning; they are monogamous and mate for a lifetime; they hang out in communities of other seagulls like good New Yorkers; and they can live for 10 to 15 years.
And of course they share the most amazing of characteristic of all bird-dom, which we once did as well: they fly. They let the invisible air loft them up, up, up into the blue, blue sky on hollow-boned wings that have all the same parts of our own earth-bound arms: humerus, radius, carpus, ulna, and fingers much like in our hand. But oh my, they fly, and watching them in the air is sometimes sheer poetry, wings that sing, and for me, the spectacle produces sheer envy. My one wonderfully recurring dream is of my body sailing the winds, arms outstretched, free, and the closest I have come to experiencing such seagull ecstacy came during my three freefalls from an airplane. I fully expect that when I freed of this exhausted corpus of flesh and bones, I will rise on an updraft of Spirit even more intoxicating and joyful than the one my seagull friends delight in.
But back to my companion of the morning. After a day of graced walking through beautiful fields and on hushed earthen paths threading through shaded forests, I arrived at Luarca, a small seacoast fishing village. There was some kind of a celebration occurring in the main plaza of the town, and there were couples, young and old, dancing under festive lights. I watched for a short while, but my exhaustion from the walk overcame my desire to stay longer. I found my lodging, got some food, and went to bed.
After a restful night, I was determined to scout out the town as the sun rose and the first fishing boats returned from their harvesting. That’s when she paused above me in the morning sky, hovering like a silent drone, and urged me to get a God’s eye view.
I looked up, and discovered the startling chiesa on the mountain above the village. Like a mindful mother, it appeared to be vigilantly watching over the sleepy-heads down below, children and parents alike, and of course the whole host of other surrounding life that was much more attuned to the dawning of a new day than its human cousins.
“Go up there, you lunkhead”, I heard my seagull friend distinctly say. “All the way up there?”, I asked, knowing what that would cost my body, with another day of labored walking ahead of me. “You heard me”, she said. And then she rose up on another shaft of magic breath and was gone.
Of course I mounted the mountain. And like all such journeys, the struggle brought a reward. There is always grace in the climb, and grace in the return.
Out there, the vast ocean filled with life beyond our comprehension. In the air before me, flocks of seagulls calling to one another and gliding through the currents. Down below, the humble, fragile structures of community that generation after generation have created and recreated in the great dance of life to which we are born. The miracle of this good earth, and all its creatures of the air, the sea and the land, there for me to look upon with the eyes and heart of the One who made it all.
Car enthusiasts have been proud to possess vehicles with honored bird names: Raptors (Ford), Trail Hawk (Jeep), Firebird (Pontiac), Skylark (Buick), among many others. On this Iberian Peninsula, during the middle ages, fancy birds were prized possessions. Kings were accorded eagles, falcons were associated with dukes, and sparrow hawks were for priests (no clue why).
I thank God for seagulls, Spanish and otherwise. For me, they are a “hymn with wings”, poets on high, and glorious reminders of our destiny to be pilgrims of the whole creation.