Wrens, War, and the Humbled Self

Our wren is singing at dawn and dusk these days.  These days of early spring when differences are so apparent.  A few days of warming weather.  Then the biggest snowfall to hit the Hudson Valley in many years.  Electricity gone for seven days.  Reading by candle and oil lamp.  Drawing water from the town spring.  Going to bed at 7:00 p.m.  Finally the return of electric light!  The March sun growing stronger and the hours of sunlight increasing a few minutes each day.  The desire to put winter coats away for good, but knowing not to “rush the season” as my Mother used to say years ago.  And still there is snow to shovel.  Our moods and longings are pulled hither and thither.

Yet the wren is singing.  And the cardinal.   The mallards in the stream across the road seem eager for something.

The wren is busy building his mock nests of sticks and straw in various convenient places—under the eaves, in the mailbox, in other bird houses, in the branches of the wisteria vine around the old well, all over the place.  He waits for the female to come and join him.  When she does, he’ll take her on an inspection tour and she’ll choose the nest that suits her, and then she’ll gussy it up with feathers and fluff. And they’ll settle down. But now he is all a-building and a-singing. There is such longing in his song.

I read an interview with the writer Tim Farrington in The Sun, and he suggested an intriguing idea.  “Possibly the heart of our humanity is to want something we cannot achieve by our own efforts.” I wonder if the little wren’s “humanity” is characterized by the same desire.  He wants a mate, he builds his alluring nests, he waits, he sings come-hither tunes.  He has done all he can.  Farrington says that “acceptance, the mysterious grace of the humbled self’s accommodation to an unavoidable, unmanipulable deeper reality . . . is true surrender.”  I wonder if the wren, like humans, reaches that stage of surrender. Or maybe this is not true of wren’s nature.  Perhaps they don’t recognize the idea that there is something they cannot achieve by their own efforts.  And since they don’t recognize the fact that they cannot achieve something on their own efforts, they don’t surrender to it.  If a wren does not find a mate, does his longing go on all summer and into the winter months?  There is a lot we don’t know about wrens and other living creatures.  Each contains a center of mystery that is off-limits to our knowing.

Our drumming circle is exploring the spirits of warfare, battle, and armed conflict. (Yes, this is connected to the wren.) Since we are a nation fighting two wars and engaged in other military operations in various places in the world, and other nations and groups are engaged in armed conflict, it seems like an issue shamans should address. Shamans have always addressed the crises of their times.  So where are the gods and goddesses of war?  Who are they today?  Is there a spirit of warfare afoot?

War is often talked about as having a spirit or energy of its own, perhaps not controllable by humans. An old saying that came out of our Civil War is that “nobody wanted the war, and the war came.” This suggests there is some war-force that we cannot hold off by our own efforts.  In Mark 13:7 Jesus says, “When you hear of wars and the rumors of wars, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen.” In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Mark Antony warns that the ghost of Caesar will return and “cry ‘Havoc,’ and let slip the dogs of war.”

The dogs of war, rumors of war, the gods of war, the battle goddesses, the spirit of warfare.  Our drumming circle is wondering what role shamans should play in times of war.  Is there something beyond just praying for peace?  What in our unique shamanic perspective can we bring to our world when our nation is at war and we desire peace? We don’t have the answers yet, we are still exploring.

The Fifth Annual Men’s Shamanic Gathering (May 7-9) here in the Hudson Valley will explore this issue as well.  We plan to spend a day on the banks of the Hudson River across from West Point, the nation’s military academy, and ask the Spirits of River, Mountains, Valley, and Elements to show us what we should do or say or hope for. At any rate it seems that longing for peace might be one of those desires that we cannot achieve by our own efforts.  It may take spirit efforts as well.  It may require surrender.  Who knows?

So here’s the connection with the wren.  As spring returns and we are still at war, we might reflect on Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Dover Beach.” I’ve been thinking about the line “Ah, love, let us be true/To one another!” but here is the whole poem.

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Ah, reader, let us be true to one another as we listen to the great longing in the voice of the wren, in the voice of all nature, as we tune into the longing in our own hearts for peace or love or simply warmer days.  And if we must surrender, then surrender we will.  It just might bring us “the mysterious grace of the humbled self.”