Sunday, March 23, 2014

Not Zen 103: Job Well Done

A colony of cerulean arbor birds, distantly related to bower birds, decreased in their numbers over the generations. Finally, there came at time when two great waves of sickness swept over the island where they lived.  At the close of the second wave, six of the seven remaining birds fell dead.

The arbor birds had long ago seen a diminishing of their once-great powers of flight.  But they were not yet flightless.  The remaining bird flew to other islands in the sea.  On those other islands, the remaining arbor birds had also fallen to sickness.  There were no others of his kind that he found alive, only a few bones.  For a year, the lone arbor bird searched.  Then he returned to his home island.

There, he decided to wait for lost members of his flock to return.  Wild birds had come in from outside of the island chain before.  It could happen again.

To occupy his time, he built nests.  That had always been his calling.  Now he let it consume him.  Weaving complex patterns of reeds took a great deal of energy and concentration.  Fortunately, materials were plentiful.  Feeding took hardly any of his time.  When he built an especially fine nest, he said to himself,

"Should a female return, she will admire my artistry and craftsmanship."

No female came.  In fact, no bird of size visited the island, only warblers, finches, wrens, and gulls.  Years passed.  His hopes waned.  He explored the uses of color in woven flowers, which produced vibrant blues and pinks but did not last, in living plants, which did endure, and in the red and purple dyes produced by local mollusks, which were easy to find and stayed where he put them.

His nests grew large and stately.  He produced walls that shimmered violet and indigo in the sun.  He wove images of birds into them, at first himself, cerulean in color as he observed his form in calm waters but also his friends and family as he remembered them.  He interleaved the shapes of gulls and wrens into other homes.  Eventually he included images of star fish and other beach creatures.

"Even if it's only a male who returns," he told himself, "at least that male will see the beauty of all this."

More years passed and the arbor bird grew heavier with food and age.  At the height of his powers, he had ventured to each island once a year to see if anyone had visited.  Now he didn't bother.  He spent the time on his art.

His nests were no longer homes, in truth.  He experimented with shapes and styles, laying some of them open to the sun in a way he wouldn't if he'd meant for them to shelter eggs.  That let him construct structures with flowers that bloomed in the middle, that showed different patterns of light and dark at different times of day, and that glowed phosphorescently with algae he kept alive with a rivulet of water.

He built a flowered home for a great colony of ants.  He wove patterns in the leaves of trees.

"Should I stop?" he wondered.  "No one will ever see any of this.  I can admit that now.  But the forms are beautiful.  And making them lets me feel good."

In his old age, he took to flying again each day.  He moved from place to place around the perimeter and through the heart of his home island.  When he saw a particularly good work of art, he would alight on a high branch and watch it for a while to let joy fill his heart.  Sometimes he would chuckle at his early efforts.  Sometimes he would shake his head at a creation that was particularly fine or mysterious.  He could surprise himself, on rare occasions, when he found a structure that he'd built but didn't remember.  What had he been thinking?  Why had he woven a pattern so complex?  Why had he built a structure so small, so simple, yet not a nest?

One day, he sat and studied a piece of art that changed with the sunlight.  At sunset, he said to himself,

"This is enough.  Even though this will fade, even though I will die, to have done this is enough."


  1. It is truly beautiful when we can please ourselves with something we have created. I think many times we are trying so hard to please others that we review our creations harshly and keep improving on them until they no longer resemble the vision we had, yet they can still be lovely in a new and different way.

  2. It's important to look back on past creations from time to time, to learn. We can see better who we were. Even art only seen by ourselves can connect us to the transitory beauty of the world.