I heard and then began to feel, in my chest, a deep rhythmic whooshing

A few years ago in a forest in northeast India, I heard and then began to feel, in my chest, a deep rhythmic whooshing. It sounded meteorological, but it was the wingbeats of a pair of great hornbills flying in to land in a fruiting tree. They had massive yellow bills and hefty white thighs; they looked like a cross between a toucan and a giant panda. As they clambered around in the tree, placidly eating fruit, I found myself crying out with the rarest of all emotions: pure joy. It had nothing to do with what I wanted or what I possessed. It was the sheer gorgeous fact of the great hornbill, which couldn’t have cared less about me.

The radical otherness of birds is integral to their beauty and their value. They are always among us but never of us. They’re the other world-dominating animals that evolution has produced, and their indifference to us ought to serve as a chastening reminder that we’re not the measure of all things. The stories we tell about the past and imagine for the future are mental constructions that birds can do without. Birds live squarely in the present. And at present, although our cats and our windows and our pesticides kill billions of them every year, and although some species, particularly on oceanic islands, have been lost forever, their world is still very much alive. In every corner of the globe, in nests as small as walnuts or as large as haystacks, chicks are pecking through their shells and into the light.

~ Jonathan Franzen, from Why Birds Matter, and Are Worth Protecting (NatGeo, January 2018)

Photo of Great Hornbill by Roham Sheikholeslami


  1. For some reason, this post just tickles the crap out of me this morning. It’s just what I needed to hear, “a chastening reminder that we’re not the measure of all things” Indeed.

    We have a big owl in the woods behind our house that is often ‘talking’ in the silent, pre-dawn hours when I take the dogs out. His calls never fail to stop me dead in my tracks. I am thrilled — and more than just a little unnerved — by his utterances, which suggest to me a wisdom far deeper and more ancient than I can fully grasp. I feel as though his revelations are a gift…a secret communion that we share while the rest of the world is silent. And he probably doesn’t even know I’m there….

    Liked by 4 people

  2. yes, we are but crumbs on the table. puts it in perspective –

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Yes, yes, yes! Pure joy. “It had nothing to do with what I wanted or what I possessed.” The human species is not the measure of all things. In such moments we get it. The beauty of that which is radically other brings us to our senses, to our knees, to joy, respect for, and humble delight in, the larger web of life we too often fail to see.

    You might be interested in several chapters of “Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness” (2017, Wipf and Stock) that share this perspective. Here’s a link for “Stillness at Blue Spring” — a moment of with the Manatees akin to the moment with the the great hornbill:https://books.google.com/books?id=1XfoDQAAQBAJ&pg=PA3&lpg=PA3&dq=Stillness+at+Blue+Spring&source=bl&ots=5ll44rgYIv&sig=EMeU6M-gSg2nDRBUq9f4oaOFM44&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi1y_GW1dfYAhVr5oMKHYZlBNgQ6AEILzAB#v=onepage&q=Stillness%20at%20Blue%20Spring&f=false.

    Thank you for this lovely post.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Reblogged this on Views from the Edge and commented:
    This piece opened my day. Maybe it will open yours… and you…also.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. montanalulu says:


    Liked by 1 person

  6. I would be so much less without the presence of birds.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. And we (humans) think we’re all that, and more.
    I love this, David. Helps put some perspective on the vastness.
    For about the last 20 years, I’ve been more and more interested in and appreciative of any and all things avian. There’s an on-going teasing I endure in our house about my crow friends. I love them. They’re smart, they have a vast, complicated communication system, they live in community, and more. I feed them almost daily and can hear them talking to each other from the trees as I broadcast the food. It’s one of those daily miracles we can savor.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Early walks with friend Dori, and dog ZiZi at Willamette Mission State Park….miles and miles of intersecting paths that hug the Willamette River flowing directly (after some meandering through and past Portland, OR) to the Columbia River. Dori and I have found a pair of nesting Bald Eagles…their location not to be shared. They are a young couple, mature but young. When both are “home” or even just the one white feathered head shows in the nest, whilst the other stands watch in a surrounding tree…directly along one of the walking paths….Dori and I halt, call the dog, turn around. There’s something sacred about that space they have claimed to raise their new family. A sacred space that, knowing they are “in residence”, doesn’t need our presence.

    The honour of just the knowing…..

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Lovely recollection.


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