Note: In the following essay and poem, Rhodes advances the conversation between science and faith in two distinct ways: first, she describes the way that the practice of science can be very much like the creative work of poets and artists, as both begin with careful, even loving observation of the natural world. Second, she shows that both the natural world and our scientific engagement with it are sources of new, rich metaphors that help us understand and dwell in our dual identity as both creators and creatures.
To watch birds being banded is, for me, to step inside an extraordinary space I recognize as being both an artist’s studio and a scientist’s lab occupied by God the Creator. The recognition is a bit like the sacred glimpse we get in reading Proverbs 8:22-30, seeing the Creator joyfully at work. I’ve observed bird banding twice: once at Steele Creek Park in Bristol, Tennessee several years ago, and again in May, 2010, at Seashore State Park in Virginia Beach, Virginia. The first experience led to my poem, “Banding,” a white-heat composition that left me too excited to sleep, for it was one of those rare occasions when the rod you throw down turns into a snake, and you encounter a power that feels miraculous. Indeed, writing this poem became an act of worship.
The second experience led to a different sort of response, more of a factual report. Here it is, (slightly revised) from my website blog dated May 15, 2010:
“Just back from the banding station at Seashore State Park. What an incredible experience. The ornithologist, Peter, and his aides, Mindy and Dannie, must have bagged 100 birds--including a yellow-billed cuckoo. I'd never seen a cuckoo--very impressive bird with his checkered tail like a racing flag. There were warblers of all sorts--black poll, magnolia, common yellow throat. There were catbirds and redstarts, marsh sparrows and thrushes. Peter would open each white cloth bag and carefully insert his hand to capture the bird. It was like Christmas morning, each sack with its gift of a bird. He would first band it, using the correct "ring" size, unscroll the wing to measure it, blow on its breast so as to see how fat or thin it was--this was measured on a scale of 1 to 4--he measured the tail, checked for ticks, determined the age by various markings and feathers. The bird would be passed to Dannie for weighing and held by the feet upside down into a cylinder set on a scale (some baptism!), and then, glory, released! All of this data would be entered into a computer there in the field.
Then came a surprising moment when Peter, seeing his aides had left the station to check the nets, handed me his book and said to write down the figures he would be dictating. He rattled them off as he inspected his birds, along with abbreviations I didn’t understand, and I know I made a mess of it all, but what a thrill to feel like a REAL scientist doing REAL field research.
Once home, I looked up all the birds I had seen by going to the Cornell "All About Birds" site (ornithology lab) to learn their songs with hopes of recognizing some of the ones I've heard. I can say with confidence that I can recognize the songs of an Eastern wood peewee, a Carolina wren, an osprey, and a Northern parula warbler, to name a few. But as for the thousand others...I have a 'veery' long way to go!”
A few thoughts occur to me as I consider both banding experiences. There were facts and technical details to be learned each time. There were the birds themselves with their gorgeous crowns and streaks and flashes of color, their helplessness in the hand of the bander—the birds, astounding fliers, who have never understood how much I admire them, how much joy their songs and antics bring to my life, how I sometimes wish to enter their world. And finally, there were the names, so varied and intriguing—the white-throated sparrow, the nuthatch—and the great pleasure of solving the puzzle of who it is sporting that eye-ring or fluting so mellifluously. All these facts brimming over bring me ever closer to the flash of creation and stir within me an excitement and a yearning which writing a poem both intensifies and satisfies.
by Suzanne Underwood Rhodes
The nets of God hang in every wild place
to catch the unwary migrant,
one with the skull still soft, the journey barely started,
another to fall from the sky on the ten thousandth mile,
but when he holds one of those small terrified
bodies like a jewel between his thumb and forefinger
and unfans the wing to measure it, secretly admiring
the bars he conceived to catch his own hungry eye,
and the little claw foot he rings with a coded band
that numbers the feathers and weds him forever
to the pulse in his palm that recalls his own heaving heart
the day he flew into a net and hung there thirsting
in the woods where only a wasp moved,
flicking cobalt wings—
when he lets go, when he flings what he has marked
into emptiness, he follows the speck with his eye
to South America and farther, to white unmapped fields
known intimately in the minds of those who fly.
from What a Light Thing, This Stone (Sow’s Ear Press, 1999).
The photograph of a warbler caught in the ornithologist’s net was taken at Virginia’s Seashore (now First Landing) State Park, May 14, 2011 by G. Wayne Rhodes during the second banding project described above.