A Bird Came Down the Walk
by Tim Garvin | Essay
In Alaska, as a young boy, walking alone in the forest, I sometimes came upon a place—perhaps breaking from the cover of blueberry bushes onto a vista of rocky seashore—that stopped thought with beauty. I would stand and feel a wordless need that this beauty must enter me and change my state. It didn’t, at least immediately, since I went about my twelve-year-old’s business, which was the murder of squirrels, but it left a cupped palm in my heart.
To report this experience in words is nearly as tasteless as the word pie is to a real one. Words are mostly bricks of mind in walls of thought. I put in the mostly though because sometimes words are more, which is what I’m thinking about. Sometimes they stand aside and with a little bow sweep us onward through the blueberry thickets toward a vista. Then words become poetry, which, like faith, though it cannot fully embody, does at least point toward the beautiful. Let me illustrate this with Emily Dickenson’s poem, A Bird Came Down the Walk.
A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,
And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass—
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass—
So far, you might want to summon the grandchildren. The angleworm is a ‘fellow’ and disarms gravity, as does ‘convenient’ and courtesy to a beetle. In the next six lines, she loses part of the childlike charm and makes a talky passage, a bridge, to what is coming:
He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around—
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought—
He stirred his Velvet Head
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
These lines are like working through fussy blueberries, a chore, but since I have read the poem before and know what is coming, I endure without protest. The strong scent of poetry pervades the next two lines:
And he unrolled his feathers,
And rowed him softer home—
There is lovely precision here. The unrolling of feathers and a bird rowing readies us for something sublime. Still, she hesitates through the next two lines.
Than oars divide the ocean,
too silver for a seam—
This is another bridge, rich but vague, and hesitates the mind like the indraw of breath before an uttermost sigh, which comes now, as she offers us the joy of pure existence:
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.
Has summer ever been better compressed and captured as in the phrase off banks of noon?
When I read this poem to others, those two lines sometimes thicken my voice. Like breaking from a thrash of blueberries onto a vista of sea, a veil vanishes and something splendid emerges.
And what is this thing that emerges? How to point to it with words and not summon a vast nuisance of dispute? Because I am convinced that the inner awareness that responds to beauty is that vague and much-abused term, the soul. And am instantly mired in controversy, where a multitude of fingers wag determinedly.
I won’t say much more here—but I will say a little.
First, it makes sense to think that if the soul is real it should be experienceable. Ideas about the soul may be useful for organizing culture and as a placebo for the fear of death, but beliefs too often collide and destroy, so their embrace is costly. Besides they are maddening general, like telephone advice as you try to escape a burning building. It’s always been the work of atheists to remind us of that. And while belief as a spiritual valet has its place, it is no stopping ground. Belief is an idea and is as empty of taste as the word pie. The stopping ground is the experience of soul.
I’m speaking now as a seeker, offering thoughts that as a young man I might have rejected, but also might have welcomed.
Here’s what I know from experience: gradually, often achingly gradually, the mind can empty and beneath its ignorant emptiness can emerge a knowledge not of our making, and with that a soothing, sometimes immense, delight, and love. We have always named this soul. And we have the authority to name it only after we have experienced it. It’s the nature of doctrine and belief, which are of the mind and without experience, to begin their clamor too soon, which disturbs the field. Soul is more often found in poetry than scripture. It’s more a taste than an idea.
In the end, there is no proof of the soul—of God—and for that we must be thankful. After all, if there were, we might stick it on a placard and start shooting the thick-brained unbelievers. There is a path though, and it’s always taste by taste. And the testimony of the experienced, however diverse, does converge in this: once you are in the universe you can’t get out except by the door to soul. Which is plenty of doctrine.