Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Hiddenness: I Saw a Corn Crake!


The elusive corn crake

by Nancy Corson Carter

From May 30 through June 8, 2013 my husband Howard and I joined a band of 42 pilgrims gathered by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation. This pilgrimage was to the small Hebridean island of Iona. This tiny island, measuring only about three miles long and one mile wide, lies off the west coast of Scotland. Here, the Celtic monastic community, alive in the fifth and sixth centuries and not dispersed until the 13th century, participated in a unique flowering of art and education, based on scripture and upon Gods revelation in Creation.


The shared intent of our pilgrimage, entitled Earth Care—Earth Prayer,” was to:

• listen deeply for Gods invitations to pray and care for our wondrous Earth

• open to the spiritual treasures of holy Iona, the Iona Community, and our

 own pilgrim community

• deepen our awareness of the Holy Ones radiant Presence, and to

• praise God.


What I found on Iona reminds me of Isaiah 58:11: You shall be like a watered garden, like a deep spring that never runs dry.” That verse gives me courage when I am close to despairing in my avocation of Earth-caring; it correlates with a deeply refreshing companionship that I felt on Iona—because of the land itself, its creatures, its hallowed history, and the pilgrim circles within and beyond our gathering. Even though I use the first person in this meditation, I am always aware of a great, encompassing we.”


J. Philip Newells The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality was a welcome companion to this pilgrimage. His commentary about John Scotus Eriugena, a ninth-century Irishman, particularly encouraged my receptivity to revelations from all forms of life on the island, even birds I had never heard of—the Corn Crakes!


[Eriugena] taught that God is the Life Forcewithin all things. Therefore every visible and invisible creature,he said, can be called a theophany.All life manifests something of the One who is the essence of life. . . . Through the letters of Scripture and the species of creaturethe eternal Light is

revealed. (xxi)1


Though Eriugena was accused of pantheism, it is clear that he saw creation not as God in itself, but as Gods dwelling place; he said each creature is a manifestation of the hidden,” or in Newells words, a showing forth of the mystery of God” (67-8). That so many Celtic saints are associated with creatures of Earth, sky, and sea affirms human creatureliness as a relationship to cherish and honor rather than to deny. Indeed, it is a gift at the heart of who we are" (71 ff). If we open ourselves to reciprocal caring with the whole creation, we will discover much that we might otherwise never know.


Hiddenness” is a word often indicating secrets or withheld information. However, it makes me think of seeing through a glass darkly” or the cloud of unknowing.” “Hiddenness” may suggest mystery yet to be revealed as we continue on our journey.


I found the theme of hiddenness by entering briefly into a somewhat comic relationship. Soon after our arrival on Iona, I became aware of a mysterious bird called a Corn Crake. It is also known as a Landrail; its Latin name is onomatopoetic for its rather grating call: Crex crex. In a little photographic display in our hotels central corridor of unique creatures which sometimes visited Iona, I first saw a Corn Crakes image. It looked to me like a long-necked light brown chicken with gangly legs and feet, a bit, Im sorry to say, like a rubber chicken. With the guidance of one of my fellow pilgrims, I quickly learned to recognize the strange grating utterances of the males. Its said that they can be heard a mile away. In the early breeding season, they sound often during the day and intensively at night—one bird may call more than 10,000 times between midnight and 3:00 am. (A Gaelic name for this bird is Cleabhair coach or mad noisemaker.”) But the strange thing is that while they call insistently for mates in voices extremely hard for humans to miss, they crouch so low as they creep along through the open meadow grasses that they rarely even ruffle a stem. They really seem to be invisible.


My husband Howard, a friend, and I were walking the path by the field below the Iona Cultural Center when I saw a Corn Crake pop up on the stone wall about 50 feet ahead of us. I knew what it was because Id studied the photo, and I excitedly pointed and exclaimed Its a Corn Crake!” Its a Corn Crake!” Our friend hadnt studied the hotel photo; he was doubtful, but I knew. The Corn Crake made an awkward jump into flight, crossed the path ahead of us, and skimmed over the opposite stone wall. We scurried to catch another glimpse, but it disappeared without a trace into the grassy field. Soon we heard the familiar call, but wed had our one look for our visit even though we tried hard for a repeat sighting.


Corn Crakes are rare enough that birders go well out of their way to come here so that they can add them to their life lists. These aficionados come by cruise ships as well as by ferries, and they often tote cameras with enormous lens, yearning to snap a photo or two. Were not sure why, but weve heard that the localsname for them is twitchers”? We saw many of them clustered hopefully around the fences of the fields where the hidden birds made their loud, unmistakable calls. One lady said shed been steadily looking for them, but that she had managed to see only a few legs.”


A review of the general habits and recent past history of the birds in this region demonstrates why its rare to see even those few legs.” The Corn Crakes travel from their wintering grounds in Africa to arrive on Iona for breeding usually by late April, leaving before the end of September. Friends from our hometown who visited the island in late July didnt hear them at all. Corn Crakes were once widespread in western and central Europe, extending east as far as Siberia, but they were lost from most of the UK after the 1930s. Local ecologist John Clare writes that Iona, and to a lesser extent the Ross of Mull, are now two of the few places in the British Isles where Corn Crakes nest in any numbers.”2


Conservation measures and reassessment of large and apparently stable populations in Russia, Kazakhstan, and western China have restored them to the category of Least Concern on the IUCN Red List, but they continue to be carefully monitored. The focus of conservation efforts in Europe is to change the timing and method of hay harvesting; later cutting gives time for breeding to be completed, and leaving uncut strips at the edges of fields and cutting from the center outwards reduces casualties. Hayfields with limited cutting or fertilizer use (which I assume includes those on Iona) are ideal.


As though the Corn Crake were emissaries of approaching transition, I have begun to understand the idea of hiddenness personally. A friend recently gave me Henri J.M. Nouwens The Inner Voice of Love, and I was somehow led (like the little Puritan mouse that nibbled to the Bible passage God intended to be read) to open to one of his spiritual imperatives” titled Keep Trusting Gods Call”:


As you come to realize that God is beckoning you to a greater hiddenness, do not be afraid of that invitation. Over the years you have allowed the voices that call you to action and great visibility to dominate your life. You still think, even against your own best intuitions that you need to do things and be seen in order to follow your vocation. But you are now discovering that Gods voice is saying, Stay home, and trust that your life will be fruitful even when hidden.(89)3


Without ignoring the irony of the admonition to stay home,” I ponder what a difficult lesson Nouwen suggests. My Type A over-active Martha (vs. Mary) self constantly confuses me with guilt over not doing enough” and a lack of discernment over what is mine to do. I pray for clearer knowing, for a deepening trust that God is leading me to find. Again, I turn to Nouwen, whose book seems written expressly for this stage in my life, a stage” that could be called later life” or elderhood.” He counsels that


…you have not fully acknowledged this new place as the place where God dwells and holds you. You fear that this truthful place is in fact a bottomless pit where you will lose all you have and are. Do not be afraid. Trust that the God of life wants to embrace you and give you true safety (15).


So here I am—I venture that God might see me as goofy as the Corn Crakes appear to me, yet I yearn to be lovingly encouraged to fulfill my own creatureliness. Its a large hope, and I am always looking and listening for allies on this journey. I have been reading Václav Havels Letters to Olga, written from prison where he was sentenced in 1979 to 4 ½ years of hard labor for his human rights activities in Czechoslovakia. In the middle of his incarceration, he writes of a growing mood” of contemplation,” which he defines as the manifestation of a deeper, more spiritual relationship to the values of the world and my life” (204). What Havel says about this mood” strikes a chord for me as I explore the hiddenness” the Corn Crakes have roused me to ponder:


It is an experience of the manifestation—the vivid presence—of an otherwise hidden, yet all-determining dimension of the spirit, that is the presence of faith, hope and the profound conviction that there is a meaning(205).


The very fact that Havel has found this understanding in prison inspires me with the power of the human spirit to meet despair-inducing adversity with hope, daring to probe beyond surfaces to deeper meaning. Its a bit of a stretch, and I do not wish to appropriate his hard-earned wisdom glibly, but I like to think that Havel and I and the Corn Crakes are kindred spirits, expressing in quite different languages our kinship with the community of all Being. Finding even glimpses of what such hiddenness may mean is a gift as I travel a new path from middle age into later years.


When I think of the wholeness of Creation which Celtic Christianity claims as Gods intention, my thoughts go to places where it is now disrupted by threats of extinction. Within the context of a sacred universe, the loss of any form of life diminishes all of us; it takes away something from the whole book of our meaning.” As an educator, a seeker, a pilgrim, and one committed to advocacy for Earth care, this is of great concern to me.


Among the animal species, we are perilously close to losing such treasures as the California condor, the Bactrian Camel, the Hawaiian Monk Seal, the Mountain Gorilla, the Iberian Lynx—all are included among the25 most endangered species on Earth,” and this list names only ones we know about.


Extinction is not the hiddenness Ive been discussing so far, though it may be useful to compare them. Extinction as we now use the word, is a death, an ending of some life form that prevents its continuity. Extinction as a conceived crisis of species being torn from the fabric of creation surely must be one of the worst sins. In this case, it may mean that we humans have acted with the arrogance of hubris, not

admitting the possibility of anything hidden or unknowable as we pollute, mine,

toxify, clearcut, kill, and otherwise abuse Creation as a resource” for our use.


On the spiritual level, however, the idea of hiddenness shows us the absolute unknowability of the universe, let alone the unfathomable intricacy of the Earth itself. Stepping out into the depths of spirit, we are called to walk in a way that may be visible only one step at a time. Hiddenness requires a surrender to mystery that precludes any attempt to cleverly devise a map and run ahead; we must wait and trust invisible Being.


Iona itself was threatened when it went up on the auction block in 1979; luckily the Fraser Foundation purchased it back from the Argyll Estates and presented it to the nation. The National Trust now owns much of the island. In 2000 the Iona Cathedral Trust passed the abbey, nunnery, Reilig Òdhrain, and St. Ronans into the care of Historic Scotland.


I began this meditation with a fascination with Corn Crakes, but the more I thought of them, there in the great matrix of Celtic Christianity, the more I felt that they expressed important aspects of the spirit of holy Iona: that too was invisible but strongly present. It had been threatened but it survived. I did see one Corn Crake, but Im still trying to decode its message, a beguilingly quirky yet resonant one. What is hidden draws me onward in a mysterious adventure!


Nancy Corson Carter, professor emerita of humanities at Eckerd College, has published two poetry books, Dragon Poems and The Sourdough Dream Kit, and three poetry chapbooks. Some of her poems, drawings, and photos appear in her nonfiction book, Martha, Mary, and Jesus: Weaving Action and Contemplation in Daily Life and in her memoir, The Never-Quite-Ending War: a WWII GI Daughter's Stories.


 SPIRITUALITY (New York: Paulist Press 1999), pp. xxi, 67-8, 71ff.
2 John Clare, Iona and Mull CORNCRAKES ( Mull, Scotland; Moving Stationery Ltd.,
2010), p. 1.  This pamphlet is also the source of the photo included.
3 Henri J.M. Nouwen, THE INNER VOICE OF LOVE (New York: Doubleday, 1996), p.
89, 15.
4 clav Havel, LETTERS TO OLGA (New York: Knopf, 1988), p. 205.

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