For the Birds Radio Program: Spirit and Soul

Original Air Date: Sept. 3, 1999

Which birds appeal to our spirit, and which to our soul?

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Long ago, one night at bedtime my son Tommy asked me what the difference is between the spirit and the soul. I wasn’t quite sure how to answer. I turn to nature to heal both spirit and soul, but how are the two different?

My most spiritual moments come as I look up into the sky, where my imagination places heaven. Snow-capped mountaintops climb to unreachable heights as inhospitable to human breath as the depths of the ocean. Clouds—wisps of crystallized water floating above the air—give shape and form to our dreams—our castles in the sky. The warm, glowing sun is achingly beautiful as it rises in the morning and sets at night. The luminous moon has such powerful gravitational force that it pulls even the ocean toward itself, giving us the ocean’s tides. The uncountable stars are each their own sun, hot and gaseous but so remote to look like diamonds, glittering cold and hard. All of this appeals to my spiritual need to rise above the situation, to fly away from earthly shackles as I seek out such distant, lofty beauty.

Birds in flight seem unfettered by the responsibilities and even the gravity that binds us to the earth. They fly easily at altitudes too high even for Sherpas, appealing to our spirit to come fly with them. Roger Tory Peterson wrote:

Birds can fly where they want to when they want to. So it seems to us, who are earthbound. They symbolize a degree of freedom that we would nearly give our souls to have.

Why give up our souls? I think it’s because it is our souls that keep us rooted, responsible, down-to-earth. Birds are as bound and shackled by instincts and physical needs as we are by responsibilities and heavy bodies. But being bound to earth is hardly a bad thing. As Robert Frost wrote, “Earth’s the place for love. I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” Hermit Thrushes may sing their ethereal songs at cathedral heights, but they return to the earth that so richly matches their plumage to nourish their bodies and raise their babies.

The most soulful moments I have come at the shores of rivers and lakes and the ocean. I can sit for hours, mesmerized by the sparkling surface, hypnotized by the rhythm of the waves, searching into the unfathomable depths. A visit to the ocean is filled with soulful pleasures: Finding starfish and conch shells and other treasures in tide pools, watching Sanderlings scurry along the edge of the waves like tiny clockwork toys, seeing schools of fish suddenly appear and just as suddenly disappear back into the depths. Movement in water is slow and graceful, beautiful yet entirely different from airy flight. Cold-blooded water animals are hard for us to connect to emotionally—fish stare out with unblinking eyes that never look into our own. Yet warm-blooded aquatic animals—dolphins and whales, seals and penguins, loons and otters—all tender with their babies, their families, and sometimes even with us humans—seem soulful animals indeed. Even the most aerial gulls and terns, ethereal white against the blue sky, beckoning to our spirits, come down to earth to raise their young with a tenderness that pleases our souls.

From guardian angels with feathered wings to doves symbolizing peace, birds embody both the lofty heights to which we aspire and the down-to-earth devotion so satisfying to our souls. What else on the planet so perfectly intertwines soul and spirit together?