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February 21, 2013

There's a lot we can learn from the doves

Cooperstown Crier

---- — We live in a noisy, unreflective world. Our contemporary discourse is characterized by the conspicuous absence of quality.

The allure of quality was first brought home to me years ago when I first read Robert Pirsig’s book, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” I think of it often, especially within the context of the acrimony and meanness that define public discussion and discourse these days.

There is one point in John Stuart Mill’s essay “On Liberty” that bears mention here. Open, thoughtful, and respectful discussions are crucial to the health of any democratic society. I reread Mill this week seeking some help in resolving in my own mind the tension that exists over the fundamental question of the rights of the individual versus those of society. That is the subject of a forthcoming essay. A democracy infected by uncivil public discourse suffers from a self-inflicted disease which might very be its undoing. I do not think we are there yet. But we do seem hell-bent on playing the brinksmanship game.

Which takes me to sitting doves. The other morning while on the way to the kitchen to fill up the tea kettle, one of many procrastination strategies I use, I noticed eight mourning doves nestled comfortably in the snow at the foot of a maple tree. They sat there within inches of one another absolutely motionless. I must have watched for five minutes, perhaps longer. I was mesmerized by their total devotion to stillness. As one who craves stillness and quiet and the solace it provides, I felt a palpable kinship with these lovely puff balls so at ease with themselves and one another. As one who has always been uncomfortable in crowds and when in close quarters with others, I thought of how wonderful it would be to be able to spend time with others of my species talking less, thinking more, and experiencing together the deeply profound spirituality that silence allows. I am not about to enter a monastery where speech is prohibited. What I do dream of is a world where speech, when it occurs, especially in the public arena, is both civil and tempered by an ethics of conduct based on mutual respect and a toleration of difference.

I have no idea what doves think about when they hold these silent meetings. I suspect they value thought. I am sure that there is some sort of intra-species imperative that calls for stillness and silence. Watching them sit so still for so long filled me with envy, as well as a sense of kinship. Having always preferred silence to its alternative, I am convinced that these sitting doves have something to teach us. I have never attended a Quaker meeting, but from what I have read and heard from Quaker friends, their meetings are similar. Anyone who has something to say says it. If not, quiet reigns. It is said that talk it cheap. That it is. In many ways it is too cheap. Spewing speech is easy; contriving thoughtful speech is harder. If, as one poet puts it, “Speech is the dress of thought,” then we ought to put more effort into the crafting of out linguistic wardrobes.

Over the past several days, as I have watched the activity at and in the vicinity of our feeders, I have noticed doves sitting on tree branches close by checking things out. I get the sense that they enjoy perching and quietly taking the world in around them. The only movement I detect is the inevitable slow swivel of the neck if a chickadee or woodpecker happens to land nearby. Their indifference bespeaks of a concern with bigger issues.

It bears mentioning that group behavior while feeding takes a different tone. The plumpest member of the group, a male, seems to feel that the table is set for him, and his buddies should keep their distance until such time that he is sated and ready to alight on a nearby branch to digest his meal. They seem willing to defer to him and find plenty of food nearby to satisfy their appetites. Altercations are brief, to the point, and communal calm is restored immediately.

The serenity displayed by that circle of sitting doves reminded me of what is possible for us. Seems to me if doves can sit quietly when in close proximity to one another we might think about emulating them. Perhaps some quiet circle sitting, maybe while nestled in a warm nest of snow and tempered by silence might just enable us to communicate with one another with less rancor. It is worth a try.