||| We are nature telling our stories to each other |||
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We do not tell stories as they are, Anaïs Nin wrote, we tell stories as we are.
So, for instance, when I tell stories about birds, I tend to tell other stories too: 2020; pandemic; more time at home than I’ve had in years; sunrises at 5am; birdsong. And, even more, I think of phone calls to one particular friend to talk about the birds we’d noticed, their colors and habits and antics. Then that friend died, so the phone calls were no more. So now I think of him when I see birds.
You see how it works. We do not tell stories as they are, we tell them as we are. In fact, there’s a long debate as to where Anaïs Nin even got that phrase, but that’s another story.
Our On Being guest this week, Drew Lanham, is an ornithologist. Orn comes from an old Greek word meaning bird. This conversation brims with insight and delight, and as stories of bird-observing are told, stories of human-observing are also told. A professor at Clemson University, Drew Lanham has a life-long interest in birds, stemming perhaps from spending time with his grandmother, his Mamatha, growing up in South Carolina. He’d rise early, hearing wild geese and the barks of foxes.
The stories we tell about birds echo the stories we have created as societies, too. Drew Lanham speaks of the bobolinks — those “tuxedoed” blackbirds — whose migration patterns meant they stopped in the southeastern United States whether flying south or north. There, they’d land and feed on crops — crops on farms of white farmers. Enslaved Black people were made to stay out for hours to disturb the birds from the crops. And so the story of bobolinks is also a story of history and present societal reckonings.
This conversation took place this month, with a sense of relief at the end of 2020 and a sense of anticipation for 2021, yet no naivete about that. For Drew Lanham, there’s an intrinsic connection between joy and justice. Some days, he says, nothing seems right. But then there’s the little brown bird that’s always so inquisitive, that sings reliably. In that moment when he’s watching the wren, he’s not thinking about anything else. "Joy, in part, is the justice we give ourselves," he says. “We have to recognize the joy that the world didn’t give us and that the world can’t take away, in the midst of the world taking away what it can."
Listening to this conversation between Drew Lanham and Krista, it’s evident that he doesn’t just watch birds, he attends to them. He watches their habits, he notices their colors, he listens to their songs (and his mimicry is exquisite, as you hear in the interview). Drew Lanham provides comfort for those of us who don’t know the names for birds. That’s okay, he says. First, watch the bird, observe its beauty. When, and if, we get to know the name of the bird we love, then we’ll remember it well.
In talking about nature, we often fail to recognise that we ourselves are part of nature, too. This rich conversation provides a prism through which to observe: birds, yes, but also us, those other beasts of nature. We are nature telling our stories to each other, and in this conversation, we hear a call to new stories.
Pádraig Ó Tuama
host of Poetry Unbound
P.S. — We are thrilled to launch the trailer for Season 3 of This Movie Changed Me this week, too. Watch out for it in your podcast feeds. Season 3 is, as the Americans say, a doozy: with magnificent movies being talked about by magnificent people.
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This Week at The On Being Project
Our Latest Episode
On Being with Krista Tippett
‘I Worship Every Bird that I See’
The revelatory way of seeing the world, and life in our time, of ornithologist Drew Lanham.
This Movie Changed Me
“Season 3 Trailer”
Our podcast about how movies teach, connect and transform us will be back for its final season on February 2. Join us every Tuesday for a new conversation about identity, possibility, and self-discovery as told through the movies Lady Bird, The Color Purple, The Way We Were, Real Women Have Curves, The Fly, Blockers, Selena, and Love & Basketball.
Preview the final season of the podcast about how movies teach, connect and transform us.
Listen| “Love for A Song” written and read by Drew Lanham
“Nature asks only that we notice—a sunrise here—a sunset there. The surge, that overwhelming inexplicable thing in a swallow’s joyous flight or the dawning of new light that melds heart and head into sensual soul in that moment of truly seeing—that is love.”
Watch | An excerpt from “The Home Place” by Drew Lanham
Watch our video designed around this reading on our YouTube channel.
Listen | “The Great Northern Podcast” featuring Drew Lanham
Our partners at the 2021 Great Northern festival, who brought Drew and Krista together for On Being, have created this podcast full of conversations and extras around the festival, which runs from January 28th - February 7th.