White Ibises: A Vision
By David Hartley Mark
Leaving the house for work this morning, I noticed a trio of American White Ibises—I did not realize at first the sort of birds they were, but a later online search revealed them as such (Eudocimus albus). They are a pure, beautiful white color, with bright-orange beaks and long legs. They spend their lives poking their curved beaks into the grass, hunting for bugs, in the course of which foraging they also aerate the soil, benefiting all of us.
I was mind-filled with my typical day’s events: drive to Route 7, invade the stream of traffic, put on NPR for World News, perhaps my CD of The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship, by Rimsky-Korsakov. Get to university in enough time before class to speak to the Dean—will he be available? Will that student get in her overdue paper on time, before the course officially ends?
Watch it, Hyundai! Schmuck nearly took my fender off, as I began to pull out of the driveway….
But the little group of birds made me pull over to the curb abruptly (as the Hyundai vroomed off, smoking—it probably needed an oil change; fried valves, or something) and seized my attention. The thin, graceful creatures were going about their business in a methodical way, walking in line, like lean, determined-but-leisurely, English Country Gentlemen out for a walk; what we call in Yiddish, ah shpatzir—a stroll. White, starched Morning Coats, long, orange bills. They were serio-comic, but acted in a businesslike fashion. They had no time to look about, neither at sky nor trees.
Having completed their in-depth examination of this quadrant of earth—pecking, pecking solemnly, in search of—what? Grubs, worms, caterpillars, insects for breakfast?—they, without turning, nodding or acknowledging the presence of their fellows, spread forth glorious, pure-white-wings and sailed off into the warmish, early-morning air in a graceful fashion, one after the other, like a flight of gulls.
Still, my Ibises—for they belonged to me, now—as much as sky and sunlight and sudden summons (from God, perhaps) to stop and notice what was going on around me, as the crushing schedule of a forthcoming day of teaching (which I adore) and punching in (which I abhor) loomed before me—my Ibises, I say, appeared far more sophisticated and cultured than gulls: they soared off, majestically silent, never begging a crumb of me; indeed, I was not part of their world.
O my Ibises! They are particular to our Florida, and I have grown to love their concentration, their single-mindedness, and the quietly efficient manner in which they go about their work and their lives.
Ibises have a long and illustrious past connection to us dull humans, part natural, richly mythological. The Egyptian ibis-god, Thoth, was a moon-god—his curved beak put the Egyptians in mind of the crescent moon. His worshipers considered him to have been the very heart and mind of the Creator-god, Ra, the Sun-god, and, as that Divine Voice, uttered the words which Brought into Creation every being and object in the universe, as well as the laws which govern that existence, including the courses of the sun, moon, and stars.
Thoth was also the inventor of writing, and the solemn and irreplaceable recorder of judgments about the dead, as author of that seminal Egyptian text, Per-t Em Hru, The Book of the Dead (Budge, n.d.). Besides writing and the alphabet, Thoth invented mathematics, drawing, design, and the arts, in his role as “scribe of the Great Company of the Gods”; indeed, he functioned as a sort of Recording Angel, perhaps parallel to our Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year’s Book of Life—was there some Mosaic or Solomonic "Book of J" borrowing here?
In the world of the Dead, Thoth was more powerful than even Osiris, who acknowledged him as an adviser. Thoth was also to function as Defense Attorney for the Egyptian Dead on their Day of Judgment. I have no doubt that he influenced the Exodus narrative, as well as later Israelites notions about the World-to-Come and, perhaps, Resurrection's mysteries.
As the little, white-winged trio flew off, dipping beneath the palm trees and landing softly, to continue their patient search for grubs and bugs, I considered also their patron-god Thoth’s role as Hermes, Greek messenger of the gods, even as Hermes Trismegistus, who conveyed knowledge of ethics and life’s mysteries to a searching humanity.
Did my Jewish God, in His role as Hashgacha P’rateet—Divine Providence—plan for me to encounter these little messengers this morning—perhaps to remind me that my own troubles and petty concerns do not amount to so much?
Yes, but more: my God was telling me that I—that is, we—can overcome, not alone, but only by working together with others. As my Ibises group, stroll, hunt, and fly in flocks, so are we mortals not meant to be hermits. We are born to enter into good-will communities of all sorts—whether through business, faith, or good and upright conscience—in order to conquer the ignorance, self-satisfaction, stereotyping, and race-baiting hatred that threaten to divide us all.
Only by reaching out to other people can we, like my little Ibises, achieve a singleminded peace which will beat back the darkness of closemindedness, terror, and ignorance, and, ultimately, benefit the world.
We have no other choice: we, like the ibises, have taken flight.