When you are small, which of God’s miracles is more miraculous than a sunflower?
It is a flower and it is twice as tall as you are; it is a plant but it is like a man - it has a big smiling face, it nods its head in the breeze, it is shining and golden and delights your heart.
And when it gets old, and all the little florets fall off the spiraling face, and it hangs its head, and its leaves grow stiff and crackled, and the seeds start to darken to little husked treasures in black and white; then it is even more magical, for the seed-eating birds of the world will come to your garden. They will flit from plant to plant, they will hop on tiny legs from leaf to leaf, they will cling upside down to a sunflower head and peck at the seeds – neatly husking them as they go – eating the seed as the scattering of discarded husks spreads on the soil below.
I remember that – best of all – the green finches came.
The rest of the year we never saw green finches, but when the sunflowers – a row of them at the far end of the vegetable garden between the broad beans and the ivy hedge – were bearing seed, I would sometimes see green finches.
I loved birds. I remember the birthday I got that big book, full of text and big colour photographs, called ‘Birds’. How could I have possibly deserved that?
And for years and years I had a big colouring-in book, each page a different bird with little numbers so that you could colour their plumage with the right hues.
Like everyone, I collected the bird cards from the Gregg’s Jelly Crystals packets and stuck them scrupulously in the right spot in the book you could get from the grocery shop.
But the birds I knew best were … the hens.
We always had six hens, and it was my job to look after them – to feed them each day and clean the henhouse each Saturday. In later years I rebuilt that henhouse on legs so it didn’t flood in torrential rain. Each day at five o’clock I would let the hens out to forage in the backyard. I would give them the left-over porridge from our breakfast that had been sitting in the pot in the kitchen all day for them. Hens love porridge. When they heard my mother scraping the porridge pot in the kitchen, they would start running enthusiastically up and down the wire-netting of their house, knowing they would soon be let out and that their beloved porridge was on its way.
The other thing hens love is grapes. Come autumn they would perform spectacular flapping leaps up to pluck grapes from the huge vine along the fence.
When the hens were out I stayed with them to keep them off the vegetable garden, to stop them from straying, to save them from William, the neighbour’s cat.
Then I would scoop the right amount of wheat out of the drum in the shed, and the hens would run after me back to the henhouse for a few handfuls of wheat, and I would shut them up for the night.
(Barney with 'the hens' as a little pre-schooler and some years later)
The first solo exhibition I had, I called ‘Ravens of the Sea’, from the Latin corvus marinus – the origin of the word cormorant: those birds which are are more commonly called in New Zealand, shags.
Barney at his first solo exhibition
This time also, the birds were my welcome companions on my journey.
There were small black birds with a red wing. I could not remember their name but I did remember colouring them in in my childhood colouring book. They seemed like old friends.
The swallows would fly hunting in flocks in the early evening when the insects must have been particularly plentiful and tasty. It signaled to me that our own dinner must be at hand.
There were terns who hovered on magic wings over the lake, positioning themselves with patient precision, making the occasional arrested swoop, catching themselves as their prey moved, before diving at speed, head-first, vertically into the waters to return with a silver trophy clasped in their beak from their brief journey to that other realm.
Some hushed nights as I plodded along beside the lake I would see the shadowy figure of the night heron standing poised in the shallows. Less elegant than his day-time cousin who graced the daylight hours with his heraldic presence, the night heron was a subdued and mysterious companion in the long hours of darkness.
Sri Chinmoy has spoken much about birds. His regard must be high since a large proportion of his art deals with birds – millions of individual avian portraits.
'Birds have a very special significance; they embody freedom. We see a bird flying in the sky, and it reminds us of our own inner freedom. Inside each of us there is an inner existence we call the soul. The soul, like a bird, flies in the sky of Infinity. The birds we see flying in the sky remind us of our own soul-bird flying in the sky of Infinity. While looking at the birds, feel that you yourself are a bird; you are your soul-bird flying in the sky of infinite light, infinite peace and infinite bliss.'
'These birds will be able to offer happiness to each and every human being - conscious happiness, illumining happiness and fulfilling happiness. The joy, the ecstasy, the delight they have and they are have a free access to each and every human being's heart.' - Sri Chinmoy.
They have traveled far and found their own true identity and the true identity of God - and found them to be one.
Allegories within allegories, metaphors within metaphors.
I carried on stumping along on my own arduous journey, and the birds sang for me.
Links:The Self-Transcendence Ten Day Race was founded by Sri Chinmoy
Details of the race - results, photo galleries and such like - can be found at the race webpage - 2006 Self-Transcendence 6 & 10 Day Races