When I sit under a tree, I’m tempted to focus on only one of my five senses. I can feel the grass at my feet or the bark at my back, but hear nothing. Or I can look at the bank of the lake and spot turtles, but smell nothing. Today, I can only listen.
I ate a fresh blueberry a few moments ago, but the taste has faded amidst the sound of a woodpecker tapping the trunk of my tree. And although I look up to try to find him, my eyes see nothing but light shining through branches. I take one lap, two laps, around the tree—the Thomas in me refusing to stop the search until I see proof—but I know that he is there. The nature of the sound reveals its source, so I force myself to sit back down and listen.
Although much thought has been given to woodchucks and how much wood they would chuck, few have inquired the same of the woodpecker’s pecking. I know nothing of quantity, but I do know that a woodpecker pecks wood for two reasons: to build a home or to attract a mate. At first, the idea of attracting a mate by banging one’s beak against bark sounds insane. Then, I think of the attraction methods practiced by human males in brash bars, and the woodpecker suddenly becomes sane in comparison.
But, to my novice ears, this woodpecker sounds like a homebuilder. The steady tap tap of this parental provider reveals the attentive, almost artful, care with which he selects each mark made on the tree. He chisels, more so than hammers, and whiskers of bark fall at my feet with a gentle grace that could only come from a carpenter’s care. Then comes a knock knock and a pause, and I hear nothing. I, maybe more like the woodpecker than I realize, await a reply. Then again, knock knock. Two taps and a pause.
I look up in wonder, and I see him. The woodpecker sits on a branch with his head bowed against the tree and his beak pointed down. He looks sad—almost apologetic for what he has done—and I imagine the bird asking the tree’s forgiveness for what he will continue to do. “This is my body,” I hear the tree say, “broken for you.” But once more, knock knock. Yet, both the woodpecker and I know the tree has already answered. The door is already open.
And so the woodpecker picks his head back up and continues to carve. And I listen. Prayer, I’ve decided, is like a knock knock joke with no punchline.
Cover image by Hans Veth.
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