In a recent botany class I took for fun, I learned the taxonomic Family, Genus and Species of about 60 different woody plants. This month I also attended the annual Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, a mecca for migratory bird enthusiasts and avid birders, who devoutly greet the some 5 million birds who migrate through our state each year. In all my efforts to identify plants and birds using dichotomous keys and beautifully illustrated books, I wonder about the process of naming. In Genesis, Adam names the animals. But what’s in a name? Is naming an act of relationship? Or, is it one of dominance and control? Keying out plants was sometimes frustrating, and I did more reading than observing the actual plant. But, as I learned the new vocabulary of plant anatomy and was able to identify more and more plants and their habitats, the landscape took on a more transparent feeling. It was like adding letters to an alphabet, or the slow process of getting to know someone. In some small way, knowing something about a plant connects me to it. And lately, I have been desperate for connection to myself, the earth and to God. So, while the process of naming plants was frustrating and hardly very spiritual, as I learn more and more plants, their habitats and uses, I feel surrounded by familiar faces. Naming has also allowed me to be present to the creatures before me, as a miraculous manifestation of the Ground of Being, the one become many. So, to name something, to recognize it, is to enrich my vocabulary for the face of God. He was once a white-robed, bearded male in the sky; now s/he is a dizzying diversity of plants, animals, rivers, rocks, lichens, mosses, invertebrates, fishes, and birds.
As I learned to identify birds and their calls, the incomprehensible chatter and flitting of a dusk sky became a grammar of winged fellow creatures. The general descriptor ‘Bird’ became the myriad Northern Flicker, Yellow Warbler, Sand Hill Crane, etc. Since the GSL Bird Festival birding has becoming a kind of walking meditation. The other day, I was standing on a flat boulder on the west bank of the Provo River just outside of Heber, Utah; I was mesmerized by the rush of water as it meandered slowly southwestward. The body of the river I was in had been restored to an undulating meander, and was surrounded by ponds and wetland. I focused on my breathing as I scanned the sky for flying objects. An Osprey appeared suddenly, hovered in place and dipped out of site beyond the trees. In a small pond in sight of the passing freeway, a beaver swam through the shallows. A buck froze with the whiff of my scent. I heard the haunting call of Sand Hill Cranes in the distance. By actively searching for birds, I am that much more present and mindful to all creatures. I am not so distracted by my thoughts as I would be if I were simply hiking, thinking about my to-do list for tomorrow. This is the focused meditation of the mystics that opens to door to God. As I walk, I feel the quality and temperature of the air passing through my nostrils as I go from shade to sun, I hear the sound my shoes make on the gravel and I anticipate any warble or dip in the air. I feel a deep sense of calm. What beauty there is to behold in the some 8.7 million creatures on this earth, each unique, each striving to live, and each a manifestation of the miracle that is life. Eight point seven million names for God, the Ground of Being.
Back in my truck, a man with his fly rod ambled by not noticing me. Loading his gear, he mumbled some unrecognizable words in melody and then broke into a more clear singing voice:
“Oh, it is wonderful that he should care for me, enough to die for me.
Oh, it is wonderful, wonderful to me!”
I smiled to myself and began to sing along to this familiar hymn. I felt a deep happiness that this (most likely) Mormon man was connecting his deeply held spiritual beliefs to a quick after work fishing trip. But I hope he also realizes that just as his temple rituals and church meetings teach him how to become closer to God, the fish that slip through his fingers, the river he stood in, the plants on its banks and the birds overhead are closer to God than he thinks!