Reading Rilke by the Kickatuus

(Becoming a Naturalist, Part 30.)

by Jack Phillips

canopy at pahuk

Canopy by the Kickatuus. (Photo by Robert Smith.)


With all its eyes the natural world looks out

into the Open. Only our eyes are turned

backward, and surround plant, animal, child

like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.

(Rainer Maria Rilke, 8th Elegy.)


With each step deeper into these woods I am out of step with everything else that lives here. I feel the ground and beat my heart and vibrate my nerves and slide my eyeballs across the green firmament above and beyond it blue. I move in each of my parts at a different rate but not very much at all with the rhythm of this place, as much as I desire it. The Kickatuus beside and above us flows innumerable currents with each cycle and riffle, blood and run somehow finding the pulse that makes the river and watershed One. I wonder if my friends are feeling it too, but refrain from bringing it up lest they nod politely in my general direction. So furtively I pull Rilke’s Duino Elegies from my pack to sneak a few verses. We are supposed to be birding.

Last week a Pawnee man walked where we walk this morning. These waters and the bluff above are sacred to him. It is here that the world of his people began, it is here that animal wisdom was shared with humans, it is here that humans were welcomed into the circle of creatures. My friends and I walk around the edge of that circle, ever outside looking in, ever longing to look from the inside out with animal eyes. Or at least I do. The Pawnee man came from Oklahoma to pray the night into dawn.

Every human tribe once belonged to the primal circle of creatures, but now our clumsy presence makes an intrusion. Better that we would spend our time here in contemplation and of this we are reminded by an angry great-crested flycatcher after having interrupted his sexual affairs. We walk on to the very edge of the river and are chastised by a man-bird once again, having interrupted a kingfisher’s fishing for himself and his mate. He patrols this territory and finds himself busy this time of year with husbandly duties and a sacred circle to tend.

Kingfisher hovers

between spirit and story

between throat and fish.

In fact, it was right here that Kingfisher discovered a murdered boy drifting by. At Kingfisher’s intercession, the animal elders of the sacred circle elected to revive the boy. He was brought into the cosmogonic cave and taught the wise and medicine ways that humans have now forgotten, with the possible exception of last week’s Pawnee man and his people. Our species is bad at keeping wisdom and wildness. Not like a bird, in Rilke’s verse, “which knows both inner and outer, from its source.” Or even a gnat, for whom “everything is womb.”

What the kingfisher knows (and even the gnats that bite my eyelids) belongs to each of us in our creatureliness. Listen! Secrets whispered to us in the womb speak to us now in wild places. Rain falls and falls harder as we slip and climb up Pahuku, island hill, sacred bluff. Skinned and soaked and muddied, we shelter under a great-grandmother oak at the summit. She has been known to the Pawnee for many generations, growing within earshot when the first stories were told.


Taking shelter under Pahuku oak. (Robert Smith.)