For the Birds Radio Program: Spirit and Soul

Original Air Date: May 23, 2001 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: March 12, 2020; April 15, 2004; May 5, 2003

A poem by Mary Oliver and a bit of prose by Walt Whitman got Laura thinking about the differences between spirit and soul. (4:25)

Duration: 4′23″


Something about watching a new season unfold fills me with wonder about all kinds of things. This week I read a poem that resonated with me, maybe because of the season, maybe just because. It’s called “Some Questions You Might Ask,” by Mary Oliver:

Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
the wings of a moth in the beak of an owl? Who has it, and who doesn’t?
I keep looking around me. The face of a moose is as sad as the face of Jesus.
The swan opens her white wings slowly.
In the fall, the black bear carries leaves into the darkness. One question leads to another.
?Does it have a shape? Like an iceberg? Like the eye of a hummingbird?
Does it have one lung, like the snake and the scallop?
Why should I have it, and not the anteater who loves her children?
Why should I have it, and not the camel?
Come to think of it, what about the maple trees? What about the blue iris?
What about all the little stones, sitting alone in the moonlight?
What about roses, and lemons, and their shining leaves?
What about the grass?

Like Mary Oliver, I wonder about the soul, and about the spirit. For me, the spirit is the part of us that reaches skyward and toward the future, and the soul is the part of us rooted to the earth and our past and traditions.

For me, some birds embody the spirit and others embody the soul. Eagles and hawks, soaring ever skyward, are spirited, and their cold, glittering eyes seem the antithesis of soul. Hermit Thrushes, their ethereal songs reaching cathedral heights, seem richly spiritual. But owls seem soulful–creatures rooted to the earth, pensive and slow to accept change. And the silver threaded song of Winter Wrens, weaving its way through the trees, seems somehow exceptionally soulful, though this seems inconsistent, because both Winter Wrens and Hermit Thrushes both spend so much of their time on the ground, and both are the color of earth.

I know why I think of some birds one way or the other–Fox Sparrows digging through leaves of autumns past seem clearly to be soulful, while hummingbirds, restless and ambitious, taking on challenges as large as Bald Eagles, seem all spirit. But some of my favorite birds I just can’t label one way or the other. Chickadees and Blue Jays seem rich in both spirit and soul.

Someone once told me that chickadees don’t really have either spirit OR soul–they simply bear some morphological features and vocalizations that elicit a human emotional response unconnected with their scientific reality. But I’ve looked deep into the eyes of a lot of chickadees, and have seen a lot more going on inside them than I did inside the eyes of that person, so I’ve never revised my opinion on the issue. As Walt Whitman wrote, “You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and watercraft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness–perhaps ignorance; credulity–helps your enjoyment of these things.” I think it also helps our understanding of them. Spirit and soul are outside the bounds of psychology, biology and physics, but somehow I know that they are deep inside most of the birds I’ve known.