I Am Gandalf

I am Gandalf.

I have lived in the same location now for 70 years, at my current home for 41 years.  41 years equates to many, many, lawn mowings.  I have grandsons now who occasionally help me and so it was that yesterday I was having my grandson Ashton help me set the lawn sprinklers.  As is common, unfortunately,  I had a problem with a sprinkler head.  I sent Ashton into the garage for a needed part to repair the sprinkler.  He quickly dashed off, at a full run… and he took but a few seconds to reach the house, the garage.  I was envious.  Today that same journey would take me several minutes.  Finding the sprinkler part, however, took Ashton a considerably longer period of time.  He had to identify the part correctly from the description I had given him.  But I was in no hurry.  The evening was perfect.  The temperature, the fading evening light, the slight breeze from the north… perfect.  And mostly….

The birds chirping overhead… several of them soaring across the lawn  - some gliding on the wind to a distant tree and coming in for a perfect landing on a beckoning branch where they, too, could pause to enjoy the evening.  I heard blackbirds, doves, sparrows, swallows, mockingbirds.  Each singing their own distinctive song.  

I listened contentedly; and knowing the daytime resting place of the great owl, at the top of one of the taller pine trees, I looked up, scanned carefully, and set eye on the great owl, not yet singing his song but rather patiently waiting for the sun to fall and night to set in.

Ashton returned, with the correct sprinkler part I might add.  I asked Ashton to stop and to listen, which he did.  “How many different species of birds can you hear?”, I inquired.  Ashton paused, listened, then smiled… “A lot, maybe 5, 6, maybe more”, he proudly replied.  We fixed the sprinkler and upon task completion Ashton quickly sped back into the house to return to his video game.  I didn’t return to the house.  As I said, the evening was perfect… and the concert of bird song emanating across the spring breeze held me in place.  I leaned back, against an old fence post… and watched, and listened.  Call it good luck, I think perhaps more like fate, my hesitancy to give up the spring evening and return to the shelter of my home turned out to be something far beyond the mere serenity and enjoyment of the spring evening I was expecting.  

Above me, I think no higher than 10 feet or so, sat a Dove.  I knew him.  I had long known him.  He and I have acknowledged one another’s presence for some time now.  Of all the birds who reside in my yard he is the bravest, or at least the bravest when it comes to tolerating my presence.  The other birds, be they sparrows, blackbirds, robins, acknowledge me as well but more distantly.  Only my friend the Dove will remain perched, even if unconcealed, when I wander beneath his resting branch.  We have shared many mornings, afternoons, and evenings together…. but we had never spoken with each other, there really wasn’t any need for words.  And so it came to be that luck, I think fate, came to me on this day.  It came unexpectedly, quietly, and yet as profoundly as any experience of my life.  

The Dove and I were silently and contentedly watching the evening progress, both of us more than willing to simply ‘be still’ when, oddly, another Dove, this one younger, sailed across the spring breeze, wings spread wide, to land and take perch near my friend.   The younger dove chose a higher limb offering more concealment.  I watched him land and I saw his eyes quickly dart from my Dove friend then down to me, below and leaning on the fence post, and then back to the elder Dove.  I could see that this young dove was somewhat inquisitive, confused, yet completely trusting in his elder’s judgement and his elder’s odd willingness to stay perched even though I was so close, just below their chosen perch.

So situated…  the Doves and I so near one another, I was able to hear their conversation, and understand them.  Or thought I could, anyway.  I am not fluent in the language of birds but I have a good eye for expressions, body language, and can, not always but sometime, discern at least the nature of the conversation if not every single word.  So I do not profess to interpret here without error but never the less believe this translation to be accurate enough for most, excepting perhaps the most stalwart linguists among us.

I did not intend to eavesdrop, and felt more than a little guilt in doing so… but I didn’t politely take leave and allow them their privacy either, I remained… as I said, the evening was perfect.  And the elder dove, my friend, didn’t seem to mind.  In fact, it was almost as if he felt he and I were more naturally ordered to this sharing of a spring evening than the younger dove who had joined us.  And I could tell that he felt the younger doves presence somewhat of an intrusion, but an intrusion that he, and I, graciously accepted.  It was the young Dove who began the conversation and he began it with a question directed to his elder. 

“I have seen you do this since last spring, holding sternly to your place of rest even when this man below comes near.  How is it that you don’t follow your instincts and seek safer surroundings?  How is it that among all the doves, among all the birds actually, you choose not to flee?  Is this wise?”

The elder dove paused before replying, and I felt that even he, for a moment, questioned his own wisdom.  But then he calmly, and succinctly, gave answer to the young dove- “I have never known this man to be a threat”.  

I could see that this reply was not sufficient to still the young dove’s inquisitiveness, and it took some moments for him to further pursue his inquiry.  “How long have you known this man?”

“Always”, was the elder dove’s reply, and his answer came quickly.  “As long as I have lived he has been here.  Even my father knew him, and even my father’s father, and my father’s father’s father”

The expression and body language of incredulousness from the young Dove was easy to perceive.  The elder dove’s answer utterly bewildering, indecipherable.  And it was some time before the young dove was able to put his thoughts together and further pursue what now consumed him with curiosity, and mystery.  

“But how can that be?  He was here when your father’s father’s father lived?  Surely this cannot be.  He would be ancient, perhaps as old as the trees themselves”.

The elder dove looked kindly toward his young friend, a soothing demeanor emanating from his expression, his posture, his countenance, knowing that his next answer would completely confuse his young friend and perhaps even frighten him.

“I have come to believe….”, and he paused some time  - - looking across the lawn, the trees, and even into the heavens, “that he is even older than the trees themselves”.  To no surprise the young dove was stunned into silence, unable to contemplate such an overpowering mystery.  Only his eyes able to further the conversation, pleading for the elder dove to continue, to explain.

The elder dove continued - “I once did something quite foolish.  This was long ago, back when I was perhaps your age.  I was watching the man riding the screeching animal that eats the grass and I could not stop myself from allowing my curiosity to overcome our natural instincts.  I took flight, high into the air, and to the top of the tallest pine tree near where the great owl spends his day”.

The elder dove’s admission so disturbed the young dove that he spread his wings and shook each feather in a spasm of nervous reflex, as if he could shake off the fear that the elder dove’s words had sent coursing through his veins.

The elder dove saw the effect his words had on the younger dove and felt regret, and sorrow, to have troubled his young friend so, but he continued -

“As you know, the great owl is the eldest of all birds, but he speaks to no others, neither bird nor mammal.  I knew my life was in danger by invading the realm of the great owl in an attempt to speak to him, much less question him.  My impertinence could cost me my life and yet… I was powerless to resist my need to ask, to find an answer.  So consumed was I with curiosity I was willingly risking all.  I cannot tell you how I was able to summon the courage it took me to speak to the great owl, but somehow I heard myself asking him my question…. it was like my questioning words did not come from me but rather from afar, and I was merely listening.  

I asked of the great owl, how old is the man?

Knowing well the impertinence of my boldness I expected the worst…. but the great owl did not move, other than a widening of his eyes, and seemed to either not hear me or perhaps considered both my presence and my words unworthy of reply.  I dared not question further, speak further, and the great owl eventually turned slowly away from me, obviously uncomfortable with my presence, and I began to realize the risking of my life to ask about a man, a man who had nothing to do with my life, would be for naught.  I had risked all, for nothing.  There are things we are simply not meant to know.  And so I perched near the great owl, who had his back turned to me, and wished this had all been a dream and I had not been the fool that I surely was.  Each moment seemed too linger as I mourned not only my rash behavior but also in the realization that my curiosity about the man would never be satisfied.  I cannot say how long I remained perched, suffering this indignity, when I felt, more than saw, the great owl slowly raise his head.    And then, to my surprise, and quite honestly frightening me to the point where I nearly took flight… he spoke.  He did not turn toward me to speak, he was still turned away, and then quietly, almost in a whisper, he answered….

My father’s father’s father knew him.”

The young dove, long since mute from incomprehension and amazement as the elder dove spoke tried, desperately, to fathom the tale the elder dove spoke to him… but he could not.  A creature even older than the great owl?  It was beyond the young dove’s ability to understand.  Befuddled, confused, the young dove was finally only able to mutter a declaration, “Then he is, older than the trees I mean.”.

The elder dove compassionately considered his young friend, knowing that his curiosity was equal to his own.  

“I have watched the man my entire life.  I have heard the stories my father spoke of him, the tales my grandfather told of him.  I have seen him carry young saplings and place them in the soil where they take root and begin to grow.  That young tree over there by the small pool of water was placed only the year before you were born.  My grandfather’s father told that the man even set into the soil this very tree on which we now perch.   I have seen him, as have you, walk across the grass placing those oddly shaped things from which soon comes rain.  The rain not from the sky but from those objects he sets into the grass.  The water flies into the air and then falls… soaking the soil, and soon thereafter forcing up and out into the open the worms that we feast on; that all birds, of all species, feed on, except the great owl, of course.  I have even seen him climb the trees, not to the highest branches but high enough to reach many of the perches we use daily, and occasionally near the nests of some of the birds - and yet, he never takes the eggs, he never feeds on them the way our enemies do.  He will often come outside at night and lie on the grass facing upwards, as if asleep, but not asleep.  He will often come near my perch and watch me, as he’s doing now, watching both you and I… yet he has never tried to approach me, to harm me or molest me in any way.  I don’t know who he is.  I don’t know how old he is.  I think he has simply always been.  I think, perhaps, he has no beginning, and perhaps no end.”

Then the elder dove fell silent, not speaking, and for a long time.  The younger dove fell silent as well… having heard enough to keep his curiosity burning for a lifetime.  They both perched quietly as night drew near.  Eventually the elder dove turned to his young friend…. and knowing that he had failed to answer his young friends questions sufficiently, knowing that in all likelihood he would never be able to answer his questions… he eventually relaxed, and a great calm came over him, a great peace, and he offered all the wisdom he felt he could impart to his young and inquisitive friend - 

“I do not fear him”.

The sun had set, and my back grew tired from leaning on the fence post.  I raised myself into a fully erect position, stretching, working out the kinks in muscles now grown very old…. and neither elder dove nor the young dove fluttered a wing as I did so.  I took a last glance up, they glanced down, then I turned in my slowly sauntering manner much, much, slower than Ashton,  and began walking toward my home.

I had never thought of myself much like Gandalf… an ancient mortal wandering the earth - performing magic, mystically bringing to the surface the banquet my avian friends enjoyed.  I had thought myself merely a simple being, even if incomprehensible to others like my friends perched above.  As I said, I have known this elderly dove for a long time… and I knew his father, and his father’s father, and I believe I now know his son…  for who else would have dared to approach the elder dove as the young dove had with so many seemingly nonsensical questions?

I have lived in this location for 70 years.  My Dad lived here his entire life.  My grandfather?  Yes, he lived here as well.  My dad, well, my Dad new my dove friend’s father’s father’s father’s father’s father…. and my grandfather knew… well, you get the idea.  I can’t help but wonder….

The birds who live in my yard.. surely those whom I meet today are offspring, direct relations, to the birds who nested in the trees towering over my grandfather’s home, and whom my grandfather knew.  We, the birds and my family, have shared this location for over a hundred years.  Throughout their generations they have certainly handed down their own tales, their own legends, all the way back to my grandfather’s day… and perhaps even before my grandfather's days… after all, they have roots that run much further into the past than I do.

I wonder, will the young dove further pursue the elder dove’s quest for knowledge?  Will he step out of character as well and ask, and in doing so perhaps discover an ancient tale of days that preceded even my grandfather’s days?  Perhaps even to a day when no men wandered the earth below?  

It will be 5 days or so before I once again mow my lawn and then set my sprinklers.  When I do the birds will be ready, knowing the time to feast has arrived.  And my Dove friend?  He will be there, same tree, perhaps even the same branch.  I will be there as well, under the tree… I always am.  I would like to ask my dove friend a question… and perhaps one day I will find a way to do just that.  Perhaps, just perhaps, on a future evening much like the one last night… when all is still, and the sun slowly sets, and a cool breeze brings comfort and reflection to man and bird alike, I will find a way to ask my friend.    I would like to ask him if his ancient ancestors knew my grandfather… surely they must have.  And I would hope his answer to be a simple one ,  “Yes,  and they did not fear him”.  

© St. Paul's Parish 2019