February 10, 2006

Ia Ora Te Natura

Taking a walk in the neighborhood yesterday afternoon, I spotted a dead bird in a front yard on Duval at 38th Street. It had a still beauty about it: its feathers were black and glossy, blending to brown at the throat, and I thought at the time that its contour curved like the keel of a sailboat, with its head tucked under. It blended in with the bare brown soil and wood chips it lay on, and it flew me to the same sterile plains of thought that dead birds always do:

• I don’t sense any continuing life, any spirit, coming from that corpse
• I haven’t felt it at the deaths of human beings I’ve known either
• That’s going to be me in a scant few decades at the longest
• Some people point out that we all merge into the rest of the universe, but if I really face the truth, that thought doesn’t give me much comfort; I’d rather be me than anything else
• What am I to do?

Then I thought, “I’ve had this train of thought a thousand times before, since adolescence. What’s new? How can I take this thought further? ‘There’s nothing here’ seems shallow by now. Maybe it’s true and maybe it’s not, but a mere intuition aroused by the sight of death doesn’t prove anything. What is being concealed from me – or revealed in a way I can’t understand? Can I think my way through to it?”

The only thing to do is to keep walking, so I did that, head down in thought (scroll down to paragraph 8 at linked post). A couple of blocks later, still thinking about the bird, I saw the following inscription engraved into the sidewalk, obviously made with a stick or other implement when the wet cement was laid down years ago:


I stopped. I thought it might be Italian or Latin, maybe Greek; something about nature, and “ora” might refer to praying. By the way, my favorite place on earth is called Ia, also spelled Oia: a Greek island village I stayed at a dozen years ago and will stay at again this coming May. And looking at the inscription, I thought to myself, Holy flukin’ elimination, if this turns out to be a sign then I don’t know what. And I had to cut my walk short and rush home and do a Google search.

On the way I passed the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, a beautiful building in limestone and glass. I’m fond of Episcopalians: both my wives have belonged to that denomination, and my father-in-law is an Episcopal priest. Most of the church services I’ve ever been to have been Episcopal. Passing by the long, low window of their ground-level dining room, I felt like, “Man, if I’m getting some kind of sign, and this is part of it, I’d better throw myself through their window and prostrate myself on their floor.” Fortunately I didn’t, I walked home fast and made that Google search.

The lines turn out to be in Tahitian and they’re easy to find online, because they’re from the lyrics of a Jimmy Buffett song, "One Particular Harbor." The translation, by Mike A. Hall of the University of Georgia, “Church of Buffett - Orthodox – ‘Music Director’ Athens Branch,” reads:


“Nature lives.” The dead bird on the same stretch of pavement, and my wish for a new way to think about it.

The obvious interpretations are:

1. Coincidence. The writer of the sidewalk message did not know me, but he or she did write it in the hope that someone would read it and be touched, and so I’m responding to that impulse but not through any uncanny or mystical guidance. Dead birds are fairly common sights, and the conjunction of bird and inscription could be predicted at a certain level of probability. To think otherwise is to succumb to the understandable human flaw of seeing patterns where they are not.

2. Saying “mere coincidence” is all very well, but at some point anecdotal evidence becomes overwhelming, unignorable, and to dismiss it we have to assume that present science knows everything about the nature of causality, the structure of time, and the possibility of connection between apparently disparate events. And we know that present science is actively engaged in demolishing exactly those easy mechanistic reassurances of nothingness.

Well, ladies and gents, what thinkest thou? Which is more likely: that belief is credulity, or that disbelief is willful blindness? And are there other, less obvious interpretations?