For the Birds Radio Program: Hope Is the Thing with Feathers

Original Air Date: Sept. 12, 2001 (estimated date)

This was produced during the week following September 11, 2001.

Duration: 4′09″


At a time like this, once the initial shock subsides and anger and resignation and fear and sadness take its place, people find solace in the soothing rhythms of the spoken word. Sometimes even sad poems bring a strange kind of healing. As I watch the leaves turn colors, I’ve been thinking of Robert Frost’s poem, Reluctance:

Out through the fields and woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow,
When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question, “Whither?”

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Autumn is the season of sadness as the riches of summer fade, but somehow the rhythmic nature of the seasons brings hope as well. As Rachel Carson said, “There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds… There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature–the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.”

That trust in these natural rhythms is part of what gives us hope. Terry Tempest Williams assures us, “How can hope be denied when there is always the possibility of an American flamingo or a roseate spoonbill floating down from the sky like pink rose petals?” Williams also wrote, “I pray to the birds. I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the message of my heart upward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day–the invocations and benedictions of Earth. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.”

Finally, Emily Dickinson wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without words
And never stops at all.

And sweetest in the gale is heard,
and sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea
And never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

That was Emily Dickinson, and I’m Laura Erickson, speaking For the Birds.