Last week sometime I was watching Planet Earth II. I have watched the original Planet Earth more times than I can recall. Having new material to go through has been an exquisite pleasure.
A scene began following a Golden Eagle through the Alps in the winter. David Attenborough, the famous BBC narrator, explained that at this time food is so scarce that the eagle must spend almost all of its time searching or else starve. I watched as the thing circled around and around in majestic arcs, all the while scanning the ground for its salvation. I leaned forward, looking for that faint movement that would be some rodent or other animal scampering across the snow. Rilke whispered to me,
“I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world…
I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
And I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
A storm, or a great song?”
Surely a bird of prey such as this must be what he had in mind when he wrote that.
Then Golden Eagle and I both then spotted a bright mark of orange against the whiteness. The breath caught in my throat as I narrowed my eyes to make it out as the eagle dove towards it.
“Carrion” David boomed.
I didn’t know eagles ate dead flesh, but the narrator explained that in winter there is no other choice. Another poet whispered in my ear.
“Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.”
This is the strangest and most incomprehensible line from my favorite poem by Wendell Berry. It has been troubling me for over a year now and so now my attention to what was happing on the screen drew to an even greater height. I needed to know the answer to the question that seemed to have no answer: what is carrion saying to me? Could this dead fox somehow be humming to the tune of Rilke’s “great song?”
At first the eagle easily chased away some smaller birds and began her feast. I felt a pang of sadness at the loss of the fox and remarked to myself how odd that Planet Earth might have just as easily been following the story of that lovely animal. Watch for yourself what happened next when the Golden Eagle was joined by other eagles after the same carrion.
This turned my stomach. This truly is the way of nature, though, isn’t it? Fight or die. Kill or be killed. It’s the law of the jungle.
The eagles fought viciously, ripping each other to shreds while the carrion just lay there. But what was it saying? “Please, have mercy. Don’t eat me!”
No, that wasn’t right because the thing was already dead. I’m sure it would have used its fox teeth and claws to fight or beg if it could have.
So then maybe it was saying, “I failed. I succumbed to the cold and the winter and the lack of sustenance. Now I am just meat for another, or else destined to sink back into the snow and decay when the thaw comes.”
Surely this isn’t what I’m supposed to hear from carrion. Why would Berry tell me to listen to this voice? I felt a sense of despair and wondered– Are we all animals? Sharpening our teeth and claws? Stocking up on cannon balls?
There is nothing in carrion but the way of nature and that is not the way through life that I am trying to choose.
I turned off the TV and went to sleep.
A few days later I was at a yoga class at my gym. I like to select a line of Berry’s manifesto every time I exercise so I have something to think about if my mind starts to wander. “Ask the questions that have no answers” and “love someone who does not deserve it.” have been past favorites. Cynically and without hope of enlightenment I chose this time, “Listen to carrion.”
Most of the class went by without much contemplation. The teacher played more upbeat exercise music than what many yoga classes seem to have. It wasn’t until the end when she put something slower and more peaceful on that my mind returned to the puzzle, vaguely at first and then with more intensity as she instructed us to lay in Shavasana and relax. The irony was not lost on me as I lay there on my back, arms limp at my sides: I was in a pose that literally translates to “corpse pose” while I was supposed to be considering carrion.
What is carrion saying?
Is it singing? Shouting? Sighing? Is it crying?
“Fight or die. Try to survive. Please myself and get others to please me, too. Fend for myself.”
Being the Easter season, it soon occurred to me that Jesus must have looked something like my body now looked when they laid Him in the grave. That is truly a horrible thought – God as a corpse. God as carrion, like a bloody fox. Jesus was destroyed by people living the way of nature. We who would choose Barabbas over divine love incarnate.
What is carrion saying?!?
And then like steel straight through my heart I heard it, finally:
“This is my body, given for you. Take, eat.”
This. This is the way of grace! The Holy Spirit spoke to me through carrion and the song that is to come is the song of Resurrection.
This is the great song that has echoed through creation since the beginning of time. We circle around and around the calendar, and in doing so around and around God. Winter is harsh and food is scarce. We search desperately in this life for bread and therefore for life. We long; we mourn; we even fight when cornered. We remember that we are dust. But the Lamb gives himself willingly as a sacrifice so that we might survive to the spring and the resurrection of the body and soul.
I once heard a priest say that the liturgical calendar is like a spiral staircase. With each circle that we take around we ascend a little higher and closer to God. We circle and we climb up the steps of that primordial tower all the way to heaven.