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January 12, 2012

Up on Hawthorn Hill: Of birds and faith

— I watch birds quite a bit. Every five days or so I send in  a report to Cornell as partof its annual Project Feeder Watch program. The data, collected from volunteers from all over the country, enables scientists to track population trends. I would spend quite a bit of time checking out the visitors to our feeders anyway. Participating in the feeder program makes a personal pleasure that much more meaningful. It is rare that aesthetical and scientific endeavors work in tandem.

In actuality, there has always been an artistic, inventive dimension to scientific inquiry, so the pairing of the two is not that far fetched at all. Of late, however, as I have grown increasingly weary of  political campaigns and theself-serving tendency of candidates to constantly remind us (as if we could forget!) of their religious affiliations and their so-called values. One of the many virtues of bird watching is that one is constantly reminded of the incredible diversity that characterizes the avian nation.

Among the most consistent visitors to our feeders every winter are woodpeckers,  juncos, blue jays, goldfinches,and chickadees. Every other winter, a flock of redpolls hangs out, although none have shown up as yet. From time to time a pair of purple finches, a titmouse or two, and possibly a red-bellied woodpecker will show up.

But their visitations are unpredictable. At least once or twice a winter, a sharpshinned hawk will grab a blue jay for dinner. Otherwise, one day merges into the next rather seamlessly and feeder behaviors for the most part are quite civil. My point is that these very different species find ways of sharing a food source without fighting, without vilifying one another, and without questioning one another’s commitment to a higher power. There certainly is no faith litmus test! I doubt if a blue jay gives any thought to a junco’s spirituality.

All that matters is getting equal feeder time and access. What appeals to me about birds is their absolute indifference to what makes their avian brothers and sister tick. Now, wouldn’t it be nice if we could be equally tolerant of one another?

There seems to be a need by some to not only extol the virtues of their own particular faith system, but to assume that the rest of us somehow come up spiritually short or ethically challenged should we see things differently. The arrogance inherent in such attitudes is both repugnant and, at the very least, counterproductive.

To arrogate to oneself a spiritual superiority that summarily dismisses other faith or belief systems as unworthy is patently foolish and, well, silly. Each of us comes to our core values through a multiplicity of routes. I have come to mine through parents, teachers, friends, books and life itself.

While I do belong to a church, my core values were formed, shaped, and inculcated outside any formally structured orthodoxy.

Most importantly, I see no reason why anyone else should be burdened with some sort of manifesto on my part as to what is and what is not accepted. Much of what we have in common has nothing at all to do with an individual’s religious affiliation or absence thereof. My atheist, Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist and Christian friends are equally good people who love and care for their children, care deeply about one another, and envision a world that values peace and justice for all.

So it seems to me that when running for office, politicians (I agree with Plato who cannot for the life of him figure out why anyone would want to be one or befriend one!) ought to be seeking ways of celebrating diversity. One of a democracy’s core elements ought to be the construction and maintenance of a society that values its diversity as much as its commonalities. When I vote, an individual’s religion is irrelevant. Rather, I want a thoughtful person who seeks remedies to common problems with grace and charity. We need to rediscover the value of community, of working together to resolve the inevitable, and inviting, differences that will always characterize us.

RICHARD DEROSA’S recently published book “Hawthorn Hill Journal: Selected Essays,” is available at Augur’s  Bookstore and Cooperstown NaturalFoods in Cooperstown, and The Green Toad Bookstore in Oneonta.