My love for birds comes from my dad. He has always been one to seek out wonder in the world around him, so it makes sense that he took a completely unnecessary ornithology class in college. I have early memories of sitting in a car in parking lots with him, partway through some errand or another. In the middle of an oil-stained landscape of tarred gravel, sketchy yellow lines, and exhaust fumes, he would point out the birds who found themselves at home in it.
He taught us to know their shapes and colorings, and slowly I learned which birds were more likely to pick up stale McDonald’s French fries with no fear of the nearby humans, which birds perched on the stacked-up shopping carts and bobbed their tails at rest, and which birds preferred to sit atop the street lights only to swoop down once the coast was absolutely clear. We played a treasure-hunting game, looking for birds and calling out their names before another sibling could beat us to it: Boat-tailed grackle! Brown-headed cowbird! Crow! Sparrow!
Dad passed on his love for nature, as well as the “Birds of East Africa” guidebook which sits easily accessible in my living room. Its dog-eared pages and starred descriptions show how often I try to identify a new bird, or show off one of the rarer ones I have happened to see. We also played the same identification game with trees, so I often find myself googling bark textures or leaf patterns to identify local trees. Or without provocation I’ll find myself asking no one in particular if African eucalyptus trees are different from the ones koalas eat in Australia.
I first noticed this same wonder and curiosity in myself for trees and birds (and insects and animals) when I met it in Wendell Berry’s writings. If you haven’t read any of his writings (or even if you have!), do yourself a favor and go read some by a stream or under a tree. He often writes on themes connecting community to landscape. Knowing the growing things of a place can ground you there—give you a sense of place, and a feel for the roots beneath your feet. I feel I know a place where I live if I can name its trees and crops, and if I know which of its birds are common and which rare ones deserve to be treasured.
I’m an expat. I live now on different dirt than I was raised on. The dust on my feet at the end of the day was made from centuries of birth, life, and death foreign to my experience. In many ways I don’t belong to this place and it doesn’t belong to me. My life here has shallow roots like the weeds that spring up almost overnight during rainy season and are easily swept away, withered and brittle, by the dust devils of dry season. There isn’t always much stable to hold onto in this expat life, so I cling to fragile community that comes and goes with the seasons. I get overly-attached to pets committed to me as long as I’m committed to be here, if for no other reason than for their needs of food and nurturing.
I dig deep, send out roots, drink in the water of this place, and wear its dust. And in the end, maybe that is why the creatures and growing things of a place bring me so much comfort; they root me to the land. They were raised on ages of instinct and adaptation shaped by the landscape. They take in the recycled water of generations. They grow on a bed of earth built piece by piece from the fallen leaves and withered grass and trampled dung of centuries. The life that grows and flies and crawls in this place has a much longer memory than I.
Recently I learned about one of these creatures that now has a special place my heart. My scattered roots had me reading up and preparing to celebrate Baba Marta day, a Bulgarian holiday to welcome spring. I missed an historic snow in Oklahoma, and the temperature gap between that winter blizzard and my dry season dust storm had me longing for a place with spring, with tender flowers peeking fresh blooms through the snow, and the smell of linden flowers and paths carpeted with fallen redbud blossoms.
As I read again about Baba Marta day and debated whether to make martenitsa to tie or medinki to eat, I read about the storks. Bulgarians wear a martenitsa bracelet or pin beginning on Baba Marta day, and they should take it off and tie it to a tree the first time they see flowering plants or a migrating stork returned from its wanderings. I remember seeing these storks frequently in Bulgaria, and even while the birds were gone for the winter, you could see their impossibly wide nests still adorning buildings or slender telephone poles anywhere in the country.
Further research showed that the same storks who travel to Bulgaria in March migrate south to spend Europe’s cold winter in Africa. Many even spend those months here, in Uganda. These migratory birds stuck a chord with me. I, who sometimes feel as if I’m always in a slow-going migratory pattern from one place to another, building my nest perched precariously in some of the most unlikely places, leaving for warmer skies when the wind changes, living without much footprint, moving back and forth making a life of travel and in-betweens.
I have a Gypsy wagon wheel tattooed on my body to remind me that I sojourn through this world, refusing to settle until I find the better, heavenly country that my heart desires. Jesus himself said that foxes have dens and birds have nests, but he had no place to lay his head. He trained his disciples to set out taking with them a walking stick, the clothes on their back, and a hope of finding a welcoming home to kick off their sandals and wash their feet.
But that picture of a wanderer isn’t the only one that comes from Hebrews 11. Our faith drives us onward to sojourn until we reach heaven. But that doesn’t mean our hearts won’t feel unsettled and long for home the whole time. Even as we recognize our fragility and homelessness, we stay in tents and make our temporary home as best we can. We look forward with assurance of our hope to a city—with foundations: roots into our earth that will be changed, but will very much still be here once heaven arrives on it.
The one who labors to dig those foundations and set the stone into the earth is our Lord himself, designing, preparing, and building a home for us. If we don’t carry that longing around burning like an ember in our hearts, we’ve missed the point entirely of our sojourning. We yearn. We long for our heavenly country with all of our heart, and as we wander and long, our God is not ashamed to be called by our name. He goes ahead to prepare a place for us.
My longing to make a home with roots is not wrong. Nor is my ease in picking up and traveling. Both longings are rooted in a need to reach my eternal home someday. And a believer who lives in one town their whole lives has just as much of a picture and a fierce longing for that heavenly home as does a believer who never lived anywhere longer than 3 years at a time.
Our Lord directed our gaze to the birds of the air, who do not plant or harvest, or store away things for themselves. If he can feed them and sustain their lives, how much more will he keep us? If a stork can be as easily at home perched on a lone telephone pole in a gypsy slum as in the grasslands of sub-Saharan Africa, it is only because the Lord creates in it a desire to make those places home and provides for its needs. If a stork can belong to both words, so can I. And if the Lord can clothe and shelter birds in their migrations between worlds, so can he for me.
“White Stork is the classic stork nesting on buildings in Europe, and wintering in grasslands throughout sub-Saharan Africa.”
“Princeton Field Guides: Birds of East Africa,” Terry Stevenson and John Fanshawe, Princeton Press, 2002, 26-27.