On the front lawn There is a bundle of green and white feathers. A woodpigeon. A dead one. We have a lot of trees in our neighbourhood and a very busy road, which is not a good combination for wood pigeons. They are great big ungainly birds and before they have acquired a sense of self preservation the young ones are inclined to accidental jousts with cars. The cars seldom lose. This bird has just won the silver medal in a bout with a Toyota Camry and has retired as far as our front lawn before becoming considerably short of breath. I go out with a shovel and dig a hole in the flower garden, and go a pick up the carcase.
I love these birds. Their feathers have a rich metallic sheen, and the green and white of their plumage reflects back every shade of red - but just in suggestion, depending on how the sunlight catches them. They are preposterous in their clumsiness. They fly overhead with no pretense at stealth, making a sound like a pair of old fashioned manual hedge cutters with each laboured thrust of their wings. They land desperately on twigs and power lines and rock back and forth, gaining equilibrium and dignity over a minute or so as they come to rest. Tiny heads and huge bodies. No wonder they hit cars. They do have one impressive trick, though, which takes advantage of their generous girths. They painfully flap their way to the top of something very tall, sit there for a while catching their breath and then fling themselves at the ground in a breakneck dive. Just about the point of terminal velocity they pull out of the dive and allow their momentum to carry them back up into the air in a climb as steep as the dive. When they stall at the top of their climb, they point themselves downward, and without a single flap of the wings, do the whole thing again. They thus maneuvre their way across the forest canopy in a series of great U shaped sweeps. I'd dearly love to be able to do it.
There used to be thousands of them moving about in great flocks. The arrival of firstly the Maori and then the Pakeha soon put a stop to that. Wood pigeons are dim, tasty and conveniently family sized, so the flocks are long gone. They now get about singly or in pairs, and, for the past few years protected from hunting, keep themselves just above the endangered species line by dodging the depredations of cats and rats and motor cars. Or at least mostly. I look at this one lying stiffly on the shovel. Her feathers are still pure white and irridescent green. She is beautiful but very dead.
What is it that animated this body only a few minutes ago, and where has it gone? Thousands of her forbears have disappeared into the cooking pots of the settlers and the hangis of the Tangata Whenua and nothing now remains of any single one of them, not even a memory. I am aware that her dim little consciousness was smaller than mine, but it's only a matter of degree, not of type. One day, as I have recently been sharply reminded, I will follow her and her many ancestors and mine into a similar oblivion.
Although I know that I originate in eternity, will return to eternity and can participate in eternity in this time between, a day will come when nothing will remain here of me, not even a memory . Ernest Becker says that the knowledge of our death and our wish to deny its inevitability is the motive behind most human endeavour but I think that what we need is not to deny our deaths, but recognise it as inevitable. This is why Ignatius Loyola's spiritual exercises include meditations on our own deaths. So, I bury this bundle of meat and feathers and think about what is and what is not there on the end of the shovel. What is buried is temporary, like the consciousness that so recently animated it. If we want to find what is truly lasting, we will need to look elsewhere: not at those things which come into existence, are for a while and then fade away; the body and our own temporary consciousness. We need to look, rather, at that thing - accessible to us all but ignored by most of us - which is truly eternal.