The Transcendence Of Birds


Jonathan Franzen's recent collection of essays, Farther Away, chronicles his love of bird-watching. Morgan Meis homes in on the near-religious awe that Franzen affords the creatures:

You could say that Saint Francis is the patron saint of Farther Away. Francis was, as many know, a bird man. It was the passage in the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus tells his disciples to live like the birds that inspired Francis to give away all his possessions and put his trust in providence. Jesus says to the apostles, "Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they?" Having been convinced to live his life like a bird, Francis could sometimes be found in the hills of Italy preaching only to the birds. Franzen writes that, "For Saint Francis, the crested larks, whose drab brown plumage and peaked head feathers resemble hooded brown robes of his Friars Minor, his Little Brothers, were a model for his order: wandering, as light as air, and saving up nothing, just gleaning their daily minimum of food, and always singing, singing."

The ultimate lesson that Saint Francis tried to teach is clear to Franzen. It is "that oneness with nature is not only desirable but possible." But to become one with nature it is necessary to become fundamentally humble.

Laura Helmuth, on the other hand, called Franzen an "annoying" birdwatcher a few months ago.