Most of us who are interested in birds have heard the question, “Do you love birds?” Vary the inflection and you will catch the puzzlement. I, for one, balk at such pigeon-holing, but perhaps mostly because that world love is so often misused. The word beauty is also too vaguely applied. Yet, we should struggle with these definitions. Both words seem central to the meaning of existence.
Once in a long while, someone comes along who has the sensitivity, and the poise, to say things convincingly and unforgettably. George Santayana, who taught philosophy at Harvard a century ago, had that mastery over words and ideas. He defined beauty as objectified pleasure. This may have said everything, but it may also require more spelling out, since the perspective is new.
A few years later, again at Harvard, Alfred North Whitehead, another import, taught that the term “life” has little meaning until we grant it purpose. Not an imposed purpose, but a self-generated purpose, a striving. The life process, he showed, borrows from the past, reshapes things in the present, and creates a definitive future; which then itself becomes past, an evolutionary accomplishment, ad infinitum. The very process of existence, whatever its origin, now lost in time, is a creative synthesis, a process of continuing creation. More pregnant than that one biblical event!
Reshaping things involves some appreciation of past accomplishments (what is), and some awareness of real possibilities (what could be). We are handmaidens to the creative process. All of us, that is: humans, beasts, microbes, and plants. This Whiteheadian process philosophy says that we make propositions about the possibilities, then seek to accomplish (objectify) them. We are like performers in a large orchestral symphony. And if the performance is harmonious we call it beautiful because we feel it so. We have neglected these two insightful philosophers.
Despite a few hundred years of exaggerated scientific emphasis on objectivity, this creative process is not intellectual. It is almost altogether aesthetic. It was going on long before human brains evolved. Indeed, our vaunted rationality often distorts the process. Witness our new knowledge of the atom: it is a threat to our continued existence! Our knowledge of chemistry, also less than a century old, is poisoning the world. Our skills in moving about the planet now homogenize life forms. We are destroying the insularity of habitats that gave most species their origins and their sustenance. We call the new competitors for space “invasive species,” almost oblivious to the fact that we set the stage and imported most of them ourselves.
Love, said Paul Tillich, is wishing you to be. It should be humbling that this gentle, philosophical theologian was declared an atheist by a trio of self-appointed, positivistic Inquisitors, here in America, a few months before he died! We are so haunted by the undercurrent of love in this corner of the universe that it serves us as a concept of God! Whitehead, obliged to Plato, saw God as the lure behind our strivings, necessary to the completion of the natural history of existence.
Every phylum in our catalogue of living things is an example of the exploration of possibilities accomplished by the evolutionary process, these last four billion years. All of us are variations on a theme, with slight but telling modifications of the DNA basic to all. From yeast to naked apes!
The birds that fascinate some of us are just one exciting tribe. Specialists in flight, though not alone in this, since the insects and bats are other specialists. But you hardly know what an accomplishment flight really is until you have seen one of the large albatrosses coursing a sub-Antarctic sea in a gale. Or a condor hissing down some cordilleran canyon in either of the Americas. Or, nearer home, a hummingbird hovering to observe you, close up!
Birds are often colorful, mostly wonderfully agile, specialists in making a living in varied habits, from sea-level to alpine zones. They sing and dance, often travel far. All the things we wish we could do better.
We love them because they are superlative exemplars of life’s possibilities. We need them to be, if only for the inspiration they provide, since the path is long, and we often lose our way. We idealize them of course, just as we idealize one another when we are in love.
The beauty we admire in them is in us. It is an awareness, however vague, of the accomplishments they exemplify. Santayana (at one remove), Francis of Assisi, Louis Agassiz Fuertes (the bird painter), they all saw it. For us birds are like the antipode of an electric spark, they at one end, we at the other. They too, the birds, are probably aware of this, in their own ways. We all see it if we look, though seldom in full focus..
And, of course, all those other tribes, from microbes to mammals, we perhaps more than most, are other exemplifications. It is tragic that we have been so slow in appreciating that we need these beautiful things to lure us to new accomplishments. Hope, love, and charity are nourished by the world’s beauty. This is almost all the faith we need.