Shelter: Noun, a place providing temporary safety from bad weather or danger
As I sat down to write about my shelter experience, two bluebirds landed on the walnut tree outside my window, drying their wings from the rain. I always get excited about the return of my bluebirds, cleaning out their nesting boxes and adding new ones. Sometimes I worry that they won’t return, but then they do, bringing with them the promise of another spring. Today, though, I can only tell they’re bluebirds by their shape and size. Due to the gloomy weather this morning, they look like grey birds.
It turns out bluebirds’ brilliant blue color is an illusion; or at least, not a real pigment. The structure of their feathers absorbs all other colors of the spectrum, gathering up only the blue waves and reflecting them back into the sky. On sunny days, they look like sapphires. On grey days, they pretty much look grey.
It’s ironic that the dark days of the Corona Virus arrived just as the rain finally remembered California. I’m grateful for rain, but the worldwide gloom is palpable. We’ve been ordered inside for an indefinite period of time in hopes of slowing the rampage of the virus. We’re restless and worried. Somberly, we wait, as if for a tsunami.
But the bluebirds -- historical symbols of luck and happiness -- have returned. Even on this dreary day, when the bluebirds are not blue, they remind me that spring is here. They’re shaking off the rain, scoping out the real estate, making plans for the future. Which seems like a good plan to me. We have to get through this rough patch to get to brighter days.
Yesterday I took a long walk, trying to outpace my gloom. I came around a bend and saw my favorite Valley Oak, just beginning to leaf out. It’s mossy old branches stretch skyward, like arms reaching up in prayer, and low, nearly swooping the ground.
I’ve read that the Chumash trained some ancient oaks to grow low, for easy acorn gathering. I ponder this as I walk by. But Gus, our lazy St. Bernard, who cares neither for history, nor acorns, only wants to rest under this tree.
Instead of urging him along, as I usually do, I decided to rest a moment with him. I looked at one of the low branches that seemed exactly bench-height, and sat down. Sturdy but springy, it supported me easily.
For a moment I worried about loitering there, as I was on private property. But I was tired, and my nerves too ragged to care. So, I settled on the mossy branch. And then I had this moment. It felt like the tree breathed with me.
It was, of course, only the swaying of the branch. It was the wind, plus my weight, plus the springiness of branch, but it felt exactly like when I was 16, loping through a field, bare-back, on my old mare, feeling her chest rise and fall beneath me, breathing as if we were one. It startled me at first—this sensation that I was on a living, possibly even breathing thing, but then it was lovely.
Small, unseen birds filled the oak, twittering and singing. A spring breeze lifted my hair. I breathed in the scent of grass and wildflowers. I closed my eyes. I felt safe from the storm.
Enclosed in that circle of branches, I suddenly understood the meaning of the word shelter. It isn’t meant to be permanent. It is meant to offer rest and safety, until the conditions are right to journey on. For that moment, the oak tree was the best of all possible shelters. And even though it was just a feeling, who’s to say that this oak did not, in fact, inhale and exhale along with me, exchanging, instead of only C02 and O2, but also, my great anxiety for its great calm?
I cannot sit on a tree branch forever, though. And bluebirds can’t stay forever in their nests. When the babies are safely grown, they’ll return to the woods and the sky. But for now, shelter is what’s needed.
It is the same for us. We’ve been asked to “shelter in place.” But more than just physical shelter, we need emotional shelter. Using the scaffolding of our lives, and the sturdy canvas of our gifts, we each have tools. Maybe our gifts are time, compassion, skill, talent or humor. Maybe it’s cooking, music, art, scientific minds,leadership, courage, ideas, or whatever it is you were sent here to share—all of these are the soul of shelter.
I find regular refuge in the words of Sylvia Boorstein, and Annie Lammot, who cobble together both shelter and light with their work. I find refuge in the funny photos and songs that artists put out. This is our job for now. Create shelter. Offer shelter. Accept shelter. Be a candle, while we wait for brighter days.
A bluebird’s dazzling color is not, in fact, a mere illusion. It’s the breathtaking result of their design and structure, combined with light. It’s their small superpower. We have superpowers too. We only need light for them to activate. Hold on for the light. Better still, become the light.
Welcome to Streamriffs.com, a place for fellow creek- walkers and nature lovers. Lori Fisher Peelen lives in California with her family.