"What the Bird Knows" / a prose poem

a poem of mine in the new book DAWN SONGS: A Birdwatcher's Field Guide to the Poetics of Migration, edited by Jamie K. Reaser and J. Drew Lanham

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In this prose poem, I lean on an ancient Chinese Buddhist concept of “the world of red dust” (a poetic metaphor for the strife, strain, and suffering brought on by the addictive, compulsive, and obsessive qualities of worldly pursuits of wealth) and the juxtaposition of these energies to the balanced, sane, and natural qualities of a Nature-oriented, contemplative rhythm of life (as symbolized by the bird in the poem, and hinted at by the hermit in the epigraph).

This poem appears in the newly released book DAWN SONGS: A Birdwatcher’s Field Guide to the Poetics of Migration, edited by Jamie K. Reaser and J. Drew Lanham on Talking Waters Press. The book has “left the nest” as of yesterday and is available on Amazon, Indiebound, and your local bookseller.


“What the Bird Knows”

The hermit doesn’t sleep at night,

in love with the blue of the vacant moon.

The cool of the breeze that rustles the trees rustles him too.

– Ching An (1851-1912)

What can busy red dust men say about a bird? Do any of them consider birds at all? The red dust men are always rushing around counting and stacking their coins. They don’t know about colors and wing-shapes, songs and calls, migration routes or the placement of aeries and roosts on high. I can hear the busy red dust men barking on and on about the Dow rather than the Dao, with no thought of the millions of birds migrating through the skies over their sleep-filled September night. 

Red dust men aren’t like us who glow, quiet, in the silent blue night of pine winds. We sit up half the night with old poems and rice wine, faithfully keeping the moon company, waving farewell as warblers and thrushes begin their departure. Busy red dust men are loaded down with worries and frenzy, projections and details.

Details aren’t bad. Details can be good. They help us learn. Learn about life. Learn about death. When to plant tomatoes. Details are among the teachings of the Bird Tribes. They invite us to pay soft-attention. Learn a few songs. That’s a gray catbird! That’s a cerulean warbler! Learn the color of crowns. That’s a ruby-throated hummingbird! That’s a dark-eyed junco! Learn a few markings on wings. That’s a nighthawk!

But some kinds of details are always from the outside. The outside. The outside looking from the outside. To really know a bird you can’t be one of those busy red dust men, rushing and scurrying, eating up the world like a deranged termite. To really know a bird, you have to slow down. You have to slow down to Bird Time. You have to slow down to the rhythm of the feathered ones. To really know a bird you have to become one; and to become one you have to embrace the bird-part of your own dreamingbody – the part that sees and sings and knows how to fly, the part that knows the holiness of idleness, the part that is intimate with clouds and up-drafts, the part that is aware-but-fearless, the part that knows of spiraling and tumbling, the part in-tune – always-in-tune – with the vast bounty gained by sitting silently in the rain.

Talk to a poet about all this. They’ll tell you, I’m sure, that to know a bird you have to become a bird and to become a bird you have to enter the bird. You have to enter the bird to know what the bird knows. You have to shift your shape to understand ancient bird philosophy. To know a bird, to really know a bird, you have to embrace what the bird knows. When you do, then you are free.


Some of the advance praise of the book:

“Reaser and Lanham have brought together a cornucopia of talent to celebrate the lives of birds in Dawn Songs. Each piece in the collection extols the lives of feathered travelers, from falcon and swift to murre and warbler, simultaneously imparting rich tidbits of life history and the joys of being an observer. This new twist to a field guide makes learning about birds a lyrical adventure.” – Susan Bonfield, Environment for the Americas

“Dawn Songs is unlike any bird book that I have ever encountered. In addition to challenging us to learn about the habits and behaviors of migratory birds, the Reader’s Guide explicitly invites us to study the human animal – to be keen self-observers! How? By cultivating attentiveness, patience, curiosity, and wonderment with the other-than-human world. Nature is inclusive of human nature. yes... We are all kindred spirits.” – Christopher Uhl, Penn State University, author of Awaken 101

“Lyrical, mesmerizing and inspiring; these words apply equally to birds in all their globe-circling glory, and to the luminous works of prose and poetry in Dawn Songs that celebrate migratory birds, that agitate and advocate and sometimes mourn on their behalf, and which open our hearts and ears to their majesty and beauty.” – Scott Weidensaul, author of A World on the Wing

“Too often we forget to simply celebrate the natural world. I didn’t know I needed a poetry collection about bird migration, but it turns out the beauty and wonder captured by the poets featured in Dawn Songs were exactly what my soul was longing for.” – David Mizejewski, National Wildlife Federation

“The poems and short essays in Dawn Songs affect us the way birds do: They lift our spirits, they make us sad, they rekindle memories, and in doing so, they make us more aware of our own lives and the lives of others (human and non-human). Dawn Songs also makes us care more about a natural world that is so essential, so resilient, and yet so vulnerable.” – David S. Wilcove, author of No Way Home: The Decline of the World’s Great Animal Migrations


PLEASE KINDLY SPREAD THE WORD ABOUT THIS NEW BOOK RELEASE: Proceeds from Dawn Songs benefit the American Bird Conservancy's Conservation and Environmental Justice program


To learn more about upcoming events and activities surrounding DAWN SONGS, visit the DAWN SONGS Facebook Page.