As I’m thinking through this narrative, I suppose there’s value in starting by telling you a couple of things about myself.
First of all, I’m a geek. A nerd, even. If given the choice, however, I prefer “life-long learner.” I love to learn and explore new things. (One point of clarification, though: I’m not really a “fantasy” geek. You’re probably not going to see me in a costume outside of an elementary school, and I don’t watch or read a lot of sci-fi.)
Secondly, I’m unabashedly in awe of the natural world. While I’m blown away by the “big miracles” of things like birth, I’m also entranced by the tiniest natural processes: a flower in the lawn, a gust of wind, or the formation of a snowflake. Just wow.
Okay, enough about me.
Recently, I needed to leave the school I was working at to run over to another building and pick up some supplies. As I walked out the door into the early-afternoon sunshine, I realized I was about to walk into what I can only describe as a small swarm of birds.
There were probably 25 birds circling back and forth over the wide sidewalk in front of me. They flew almost silently, with only the occasional low chirp. I stood and watched, trying to figure out what type of bird they were, but I’m more of an orthographer than ornithographer. Their slightly forked tail and a flash of what appeared to be blue told me that I was looking at some type of swallow. I didn’t know at the time, but it turns out they were purple martins.
But why were they flying in circles over the sidewalk in front of the school? I stood a bit longer, thinking that it must have been food. I knew that swallows were insect eaters, but I just wasn’t seeing anything for them to eat.
And then I did.
Tiny insects, barely visible to me in the overhead light, were rising from the shrubs surrounding the sidewalk. They would fly in a nearly vertical, slightly zig-zagging path, emerging individually from the low junipers. I’d love to say that I tried to figure out what type of insects they were, but I’m more of an etymologist than entomologist.
“Snap.” “Snap.” Barely discernible, the sounds of bird beaks coming together started to make their way to my ears. Now that I knew what to look for, I watched as insects would rise from the ground only to be grabbed by one of the circling martins. At each confluence, I would see an insect disappear and hear a faint snapping sound.
As I said before, Just Wow. This went on and on as the insects kept coming. I knew what was happening, but this was the first time I’d ever seen it for myself. It was incredible. I marveled at the birds as they maneuvered within a tiny fraction of a second, wheeling at the outside of their orbit and adjusting their course to intercept a rising insect during their pass back over the sidewalk.
I have a rudimentary understanding of the science, but in my mind it was a miracle. One of the many all around us.
My story does have a coda. Despite it bumming me out, I’ll still share it.
After standing there for close to 10 minutes, I started to think about the school receptionist who must be wondering why I’m frozen just outside the door watching birds flying by. I had to share, so I turned, reentered the building, and approached her as she was talking to a parent. I waited for their conversation to finish, and with the enthusiasm of so many of the little people one finds within an elementary school, I quickly spilled the gist of what I had been observing outside. My excitement unabated, I was nearly giddy as I told my tale.
After listening politely, the receptionist went back to her computer and the parent walked toward the door, her visit to the school concluded.
As the parent made it to the door and exited, her eyes went down to the phone in her hand and never left it as she traversed the sidewalk. Even knowing it was there, she totally missed the miracle.