Musings on migration

Six months ago, my husband and I and our children moved from Southwest Florida to Minnesota. It was the perfect time of year to leave Florida. We’d been in Ave Maria, right in the heart of the Everglades, for four years, and I can assure you that there is a reason for snowbirds. The winters in Florida are gorgeous—just perfect—but the summers in Florida, especially in the middle of a swamp, are just about unbearable. The heat, humidity, and bugs are enough to send anyone running. Of course, after our stretch of negative-thirty degree wind chills this winter, I find myself thinking about our sunshine state a little more these days.

Moving to Minnesota is a coming home for me, as this is where I grew up and went to school. For my husband, it is also something of a return because he spent six years up here for his bachelors and masters. And, this is where we met and married, so it holds a particular treasure for us. Nevertheless, although Minnesota has always been our home base, Florida—southwest Florida—now holds a special place in our hearts. It was my husband and my first home (we moved there a week after we got married), the place we started our family, and the place where we made our first family friends. It’s also the place where we discovered and fell in love with the birds.

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Ave Maria, we lived in a townhome development called Middlebrooke. Just behind our building was a wetlands restoration project, and what we, and our neighbors, agreed was the best view in town. You could bird watch from your bed. Ever since taking Christopher Thompson’s “Stewardship and Sustainability” course during my masters program, I have recognized my ignorance of the natural world and wanted to remedy it. However, to love the natural world, you have to know the natural world, and to know it, you have to stop and pay attention to it. How do you do that? Well, for me, it took having a child. For some reason, I could never slow down long enough to get to know the created order until our first son was born. As he grew, I wanted him to know the names of the things in the natural world that surrounded him and to delight, as God does, in the inherent goodness of creation. I started to notice the birds on our walks, so I began to look up their names and point them out. As I began to name them, something rather extraordinary happened. I began to delight in them. And as I delighted in them, I wanted to know more and more.

For the ignorant like me, Southwest Florida is the perfect place to begin learning about birds. It’s the primary education in bird watching and identification. The birds in our backyard were wading birds—in other words, big birds. Great blue herons, little blue herons, tricolor herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, glossy and white ibis, sandhill cranes, woodstorks, the occasional roseate spoonbill, and our personal favorite, the green heron. Besides the green heron, secret and solitary as he is, all the other birds are easy to distinguish, and see, for that matter. Their habitat is wide shallow water and grasses, so they don’t get hidden in forests of leafy deciduous trees like up north.

I miss our big Florida birds. I saw a great blue heron fly overhead once during the summer, and we saw sandhill cranes in the fields on our way to Mass one Sunday. But, I no longer get to peer out my window in the morning and be greeted by our regular great blue and great egret, or get really excited when the black-crowned night heron sneaks a rare visit. Nevertheless, these birds sent me off to Minnesota with a great gift: a delight and a yearning. A delight in their beauty and a yearning to know them and love them. A yearning to know and love the glorious and grand world that we live in. And, a yearning to contemplate and meet Him who created it—through them.

While I will say that I find it harder to bird watch up here than it was in Florida, I am enjoying discovering a new personality of birds. Slowly but surely, these northern birds, too, are becoming my friends. They’re also forcing me to start to learn their voices and not only their appearance. And I find a lot of comfort in hearing their songs and throaty chatter, even if I can’t see where they are. Just the other day, my son and I were playing in the snow after the big snowstorm, and I heard the sweet song of the chickadee. You’d have thought it was spring.

Why do I tell you all of this? Well, as I myself have intimately experienced, there is disconnect in our modern era between man and the natural world. Speeding by in our cars, surrounded by concrete walls and paved roads, we can easily miss the glory of the world around us. More than just a “pretty sight to see,” our encounter with the natural world informs our understanding of ourselves, our world, our faith, and our relationship with God.

St. Thomas Aquinas understood and affirmed the inherent intelligibility of the created order. The world is utterly luminous, he believed; it is pregnant with meaning and fertile mysteries. The universe, brought into being by the eternal Word, is both ordered and good. God, himself wisdom and goodness, refracted his Word in creation and filled the world with intelligible meaning. The key to the reality of human life is that nothing in the intellect comes except through the senses, that is, through the encounter with creation, with things. We are formed by our encounter with the material world because, as the Catechism tells us, “our human understanding, which shares in the light of the divine intellect, can understand what God tells us by means of creation.” God, by making us in his image, enables to hear the eternal Word echoed in the chants of creation. We, in silence and in still, must behold, must listen, and must drink of the gift of goodness God shares with us in creation, allowing it to draw us to him from whom all good things come.

There is no question that there is disconnect in our modern era between man and the natural world. Surrounded by concrete walls and paved roads, we can easily miss the grandeur of the world around us and forget the essential role that it plays in forming our understanding of ourselves, our world, our faith, and our relationship with God. I myself have missed it for years.

And yet, we are called to have mastery over this glorious world. How does our mastery begin? With the same action that God took after creating it: delight. We have to develop a God-like stance before the natural order, a posture that gazes upon the created order and proclaims it “very good.” We have to appreciate reality as dynamic and to look upon the earth as good and not merely convenient.

St. Thomas Aquinas understood and affirmed the inherent intelligibility of the created order. The world is utterly luminous, he believed; it is pregnant with meaning and fertile mysteries. The universe, brought into being by the eternal Word, is both ordered and good. God, himself wisdom and goodness, refracted his Word in creation and filled the world with intelligible meaning. The key to the reality of human life is that nothing in the intellect comes except through the senses, that is, through the encounter with creation, with things. We are formed by our encounter with the material world because, as the Catechism tells us, “our human understanding, which shares in the light of the divine intellect, can understand what God tells us by means of creation.” God, by making us in his image, enables to hear the eternal Word echoed in the chants of creation. We, in silence and in still, must behold, must listen, and must drink of the gift of goodness God shares with us in creation, allowing it to draw us to him from whom all good things come.

The “Book of Nature” is our first tutor because “in encountering the beauty and splendor of the untamed order, one encounters the Logos, the second person of the Trinity, who is its source and summit.”[i]

By Kelsey Wanless for Catholic Rural Life – April 23, 2018. Ashley received her Masters in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. She and her family now reside in Minnesota.