On a Wing and a Prayer

I live in a conservation community near the Savannah River. Since moving here,  I have walked out my back door and seen many things that nature has on offer. A sleek black snake draped from a tall plant over the edge of a wooden boardwalk, luxuriously sunning himself and oblivious to me. A Cooper’s hawk, silently settling into the tree in front of my kitchen window, then picking off an unsuspecting baby mockingbird with deadly accuracy, snuffing out its life with a powerful clawed foot, then soaring away with him as I watched agape. A fat beaver, lazily sloshing about in the shallow water of a creek tributary, looking up at me, inquisitive, then swimming slowly off toward the creek, broad leathery tail rippling the water behind him.

I saw a beautiful sight early one morning on the way to work. It is one that always makes me smile.

There they were, two beautiful creatures with compact heads, long, straight, thin necks, plump bodies and powerful wings. They flew side by side, wings almost touching, like the pairs of Marine Corps fighter jets I’m used to seeing rocket by overhead when I’m at the beach on the coast of South Carolina. Less than thirty seconds later the main body, the vee formation we’re used to seeing at change of seasons, chased the pair and no doubt were trying to get the whole group back together.

Geese fly in this characteristic formation for very specific reasons. Among them: the ability for all of the geese in the formation to see each other, to watch each others’ backs, as it were; the need for only one member to bear the brunt of flying point, against the most wind resistance, at a time, allowing others in the party to expend less effort; to provide for an easier “middle ground”, the center of each arm of the vee, where members can expend the least energy and rest a bit; and the ability to rotate from one of these positions to the other and round again, working hard at your turn but then regaining strength and preparing oneself for the next round of effort.

This flying formation, copied by squadrons of fighter jets, allows these beautiful birds to fly for hundreds or even thousands of miles, helping each other along the way, attaining a common goal. Now, what happens if a bird gets sick or injured, such as by a hunter who wings it? That poor fellow must sometimes turn away from the formation, banking and descending and heading for the ground to a safe haven, where he will either get well and rejoin his fellows, or where he will die. Does he do this alone? Of course not. One or two of his fellows follows him down, never leaving him. They are there for him to help him rejoin the group at full steam, or they are there to help ease him out of the world. If the latter occurs, they rise back up and catch up to their kin, ready take their places back in the formation and keep flying. Even when one is lost, the group sustains itself, and life goes on.

I know that many of you who read Musings are hurting today. Some of you have seen friends and family leave the safety of formation, follow their loved ones, only to deal with the awfulness of death. You may be trying to help them rejoin the group and fly again. Some of you have been that injured member who must stay behind. Some of you have been shot out of the sky by life’s cruelties, grounded for good and dealing with pain and suffering. You are hurt, angry and wondering why. Some of you are crippled in mind, some in body, some in spirit.

The things we can learn from nature in these times of trial are elegantly simple and profound. We can learn to take our turn at being the one who must face the gale force winds head on, cutting the sting of the rain and making it just a little more bearable for the ones who follow behind us. We can learn that there is a time to let go of the control and drop back to the safety of the bosom of the formation, letting the ones who fly point and the ones who bring up the rear do most of the hard work, while we regain our strength in the center. We can allow ourselves to heal. We can learn that there is a time to be close and to support a fallen comrade, but that there is also a time to say goodbye and to let go. It is after that goodbye, in its hushed quiet or in its regal and terrible pomp and circumstance, that we must decide to once again spread our own wings, rejoin the group that still labors, and fly on. We cannot stay on the ground. That is not our nature. We are built to soar. We are built for community.

It is programmed deep within these beautiful birds to cut drag and resistance to a minimum, and to experience life to the maximum.

In their misty morning flight they silently teach us, if we will only listen.

2 thoughts on “On a Wing and a Prayer

  1. Exquisite… I’ve read your work on KevinMD for a long time. I just recently signed up to receive Musings. Good decision on my part. 😉 I learned a lot today about birds flying in formation, and us, too. This piece is worthy of printing (which I did), and I’ve now created a folder for just your stuff. You’re in good company with the other physician-writers whom I revere and read. Thank you for making time to write.


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