The Om of Thickets and Churries

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 23)

By Jack Phillips


Autumn threads composed by spiders.  Photo by Sarah Berkeley*

Autumn turns the gentle unfolding of the seasons into a tangled heap. It is a time of overwhelming activity in the woodlands and savannas of the Loess Hills: shedding and senescing, throwing seed and sprouting, popping up and spewing spores, feeding and weaning, hatching, rutting, mating, migrating, arriving, and hibernating. Thickets and canopies are filled with flits and fidgets as the sleepy birds of summer days, and new arrivals from the north, chitter-chit and churry, hammer, sing, hoot, honk, and chant their way to winter. The fibers of spring, woven tightly by the solstice, unravel into a fray of knots and loose ends by the end of October. If you tug on a loose end, you will soon get lost in a thorny thicket of endless connections.

That’s what happened to me this morning as I sauntered in a savanna woodland. I tugged on the churry-chur of a passing bluebird, but then a nuthatch broke that thread with a squeaky beep-beep-beep, so sharp against the soft musings of juncos. A waxwing picked up the loose end and wheezed a thin complaint. Then the churries, beeps, musing, and wheezing got tangled with some chanted lines in my head.

This chanting in my head started yesterday when our naturalist school planted a native tangle right in the middle of town. We were joined by a local Hindu community that has been planting with us for years, instructed by their guru to plant trees as a spiritual discipline. I was happy to harness that Dharmic admonition. We began planting this urban arboretum when it was a monosyllabic lawn. But now, ten years on, it has become a wildish swath where one might listen to a bird or compose a poem.

We gathered together when the planting was done, muddy knees and warm in the pumpkin sun. Everyone joined the circle to celebrate the connectedness of all living things. They chanted in sutras in a language unknown to me; the only word I knew was Om. But I recalled that “sutra” means “thread,” and through their chanting they were woven into the newly-planted thicket.

Their chanting stayed with me this morning as I sauntered through oak and bramble. Not knowing the words in the first place, I heard only the texture of the voices, mostly female and young, and the vowel sounds of honey and butter. I carried the chant under and through thickets of purple canes and thorny stripes and bristly reds, and sat down on a log.

A few minutes of sitting quietly brought flits and fidgets and the wild savanna sutras reserved for autumn. Bluebirds came with churry-chur. I was wrapped in amber vowels sung by muscle and breath belonging to this place more than we. The chanting in my head became birdsong in the bush; it was no longer a remembering, but a hearing; no longer a memory, but a moment. In every city and tangle and tongue, primal voices weave and bind together the lives of every living thing. That’s what the bluebirds did to me today.

trichaptum biformebillieshelton.jpg

Trichaptum biforme in November, Iowa’s Loess Hills. Photo by Billie Shelton.


*Photo by Sarah Berkeley used by permission.