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A Community of Creatures

By Madeleine Dodge, Community Fellow

If we were sincerely looking for a place of safety, for real security and success, then we would begin to turn to our communities - and not the communities simply of our human neighbors but also of the water, earth, and air, the plants and animals, all the creatures with whom our local life is shared.

-Wendell Berry

I am not a trained birder, nor even an amateur one. I can only name about five birds from memory and most of the time one bird registers no different from another in my mind. But there is one bird call I know so well, I hear it in my sleep. And yet, until recently, I didn’t even know its name.

I first heard the distinctive sound of this mystery bird when I started the Farm and Food System Fellowship in May of last year. Amidst the many chirps and whistles that flood the woods surrounding the farm, a particular call always stood out. It begins with a few, piercing, clear tones that quickly accelerate into a rapid trill. It is an almost mechanical sound, though decidedly sweet in quality. At first I only heard it every few days. In the morning, on my way to the bathhouse, I would turn my head towards the patch of trees, hoping to catch a snippet of its song. Working in the field, I tried to parse through the many different sounds of the running creek and the chickens clucking until I could hear that distinctive trill. But soon, I couldn’t stop hearing it.

Now, beginning my second season at the Allegheny Farm, I find that this bird is nearly everywhere I go. The other day as I was listening to the bird sing its repetitive song, I found that I almost felt mocked by the sound. I could so emphatically pick out this particular bird call but couldn’t say which bird it was or even point out what it looked like. So, I finally pulled out the Peterson Field Guide to Birds and started looking. I could eliminate a few birds right off the bat, like the turkey, crow, and hawk, but once I got into the songbirds, I knew I would have to dig a little deeper to find the match.

Since I only had a single sound to go off of, I found trial and error to be my best strategy. As I flipped through the guide book, I was stunned to discover just how many different bird calls there were, even amongst birds that were so similar in appearance. But despite my fascination with the wide array of species that are likely singing just beyond my doorstep, I couldn’t help feeling as if I was never going to be able to name this elusive call. And then I turned the page, googled the name, and listened to the call. There it was— a field sparrow.

I believe that you begin to participate in community the moment that you turn towards those things that have been darting back and forth in your field of vision and ask the question, “What is your name?” Until then, you are merely on the threshold, watching community take place without implicating yourself in its comings and goings.

When I first moved to Highland County, a part of me thought that community would just happen to me. I thought proximity and physical presence would be enough to grant me access to that shiny, glittery thing I had heard so much about. But what I’ve learned is that I was, and often still am, merely observing the communities I live in without participating in them. And while this period of watching and learning certainly serves a purpose, there comes a time when you must step out and take the hand of another.

Square dancing at the Highland Center

About a month ago, the annual Maple Festival had its long awaited return to Highland County. Due to the pandemic, most community-wide events had been put to a stand still for the past two years, so this was the first time in two years that people gathered to taste maple syrup, share pancake dinners, and square dance.

I had never been square dancing before and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t hesitant to join in the first dance. But as soon I was swept up in the crowd, changing hands from one person to the next, I didn’t have time to feel self-conscious about my ability to follow the steps. Each dance began in pairs, but there was always a moment at the end of each song when everyone would join hands to form one, large circle that with each person, began to turn in on itself, spiraling closer to the center. And in this circle, each individual had the opportunity to see every other person in the room and feel the momentum of their collective movement pulling them around the room. It was impossible not to be in awe of the force of this human community—its history, resilience, and systems of support.

The circle turns inward. Photo courtesy of Michael Bedwell.

There is an excerpt from a Wendell Berry poem that captures the essence of the dance that each individual finds themselves in when they step into community:

“we clasp the hands of those who go before us, and the hands of those who come after us; we enter the little circle of each other’s arms, and the larger circle of lovers whose hands are joined in a dance, and the larger circle of all creatures, passing in and out of life, who move also in a dance, to a music so subtle and vast that no ear hears it except in fragments.”

-Wendell Berry, What Are People For

The more time I spend here, the more I realize how little I know about truly living in community. I consider myself lucky to be able to participate, even if only in the smallest ways, in this place that knows how to do it so well. As I move into the next season of living in Highland, I am keeping my ears open to its music—be it the bright pluck of the fiddle or the brisk trill of the field sparrow.

Photo of musicians, Juanita Fireball & The Continental Drifters. Photo courtesy of Michael Bedwell.

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