The Consciousness Question

Nature, nurture, and the hundred billion neurons in between

The "Empty Nest"

A symbol of loss and a change in state of being

Two years ago, a very smart and plucky Titmouse—a smallish, but dapper, grey-black and white-flecked bird—built a nest clinging precariously to a half-inch wide ledge above the lintel of the outside door to my study and well-protected from the elements by the projecting porch roof. It was but a couple if feet above my head as I came in from outside to enter the room.

At first, she flew out every time I came across from the house, but once the nest was built and the eggs laid, she gradually came to accept my comings and goings and would sit up there, staring me down, so to speak. Last year she raised two families, each comprising four chicks—each one of which came to accept my movements with complete equanimity.

Now, in this second year, she’s using the same nest and repeating the "laying" pattern. By late June, all the first batch of four youngsters had become airborne. But a few days later she was back and proceeded to raise a further four fledglings, the last of whom, after a few awkward balancing movements on the rim of the nest, took off yesterday, as if to the manner born, which of course it was. This same young Titmouse had watched me patiently as I daily opened the study door—silently wishing him or her "good luck" as I did so—before launching itself confidently, into the air; instant flight, no lessons required.

Now I feel a strange kind of loss every time I go into my study. It is as if I had personally participated in the rearing of the fledglings with the approval of the mother bird; as if we had formed some strange kind of cross-species link; that she had somehow known I was no threat to her presence, but was indeed actually an ally, wishing her and her brood well. And, oddly enough, when I sat down at my desk on the first "empty nest" morning, I remembered some lines we had to learn in elementary school from a poem called "Nature" by Jones Very: "Birds leave gravity behind/To know another realm of Being/Sensing when a friend is nigh/For I am known to them."

In my youth, once the children had left go start their own lives, parents often referred to home as the "empty nest," the word "nest" symbolizing the idea of home as a harmonious, intimate dwelling-place. And to use the phrase "the bird has flown" referred to the fact that some family member had left home.

But back to the birds themselves: Isn’t the ability to fly, to defy gravity and take to inhabiting such an insubstantial and ethereal element as air somewhat extraordinary in itself? Think of the Chilean Petrel, capable of flying up to 20,000 feet where fast flowing air currents will take them North to Arctic breeding grounds 5,000 to 7,000 miles away. And think of those Storks who migrate from Austria to the South Sahara and then return to the same rooftop nest in Europe—a round-trip averaging 6,000 miles. So when we talk of ourselves as "taking flights of imagination" from time to time or of someone as being prone to "flights of fancy," we are taking the winged flight of birds to symbolically allude to our own mental "wings"—the means by which we are transported beyond the hold of time and place and the physical reality of things presented by the five senses to that numinous and rarified realm of imagination. That mind/brain stratosphere where creative, scientific, and philosophical states of awareness have historically been attributed to some intuitive level of human sensibility closer to the power of "spirit" than to straightforward sensory processes.

Consequently, birds, in taking to the air, have long been seen as symbolizing such abstract levels of human thought and imagination that reach beyond the "facts of life." The dove, for example, symbolizes love, peace, and gentleness; the hawk, war and aggression; the eagle, vigilance; the black raven, death; the white swan, elegance and grace; the albatross and stork, endurance; ­and the owl, wisdom. Some 3,000 years ago the Egyptians used the head of the ibis on the body of a man to denote Thoth, the god of wisdom, while nestlings – not yet ready to fly, are seen as the "innocents."

My birds, the Titmouses, came to symbolize for me the selflessness of parenting and of the love which is part of it: Albatrosses mate for life and sleep heads on each other’s breast; magpies would seem to conducts "funerals" around fallen fellow magpies. Consequently, I have always been attracted to birds of all kinds: The selfless nurturing of their young and their intelligence and flying skills enabling them to escape being earthbound and navigate in space have always triggered deep archetypal feelings of wonder and reverence.

And I will never be able to understand those human hunters who find satisfaction—even pleasure—in bringing their winged bodies fluttering lifeless to earth.

Some 2,400 years ago Plato, the Greek philosopher, put all this in a nutshell for me in one of his Dialogues: "For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses…"

Graham Collier, author of What The Hell Are The Neurons Up To?, is an exhibiting landscape and portrait artist in Britain, an artist-philosopher in America, and a frequent Antarctic voyager. more...

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