In December 1992, my wife and I owned a small farm in southern Alberta. I remember those idyllic times as some of my favourite. In addition to the business functioning well, our children filled the large home with all the delights and happiness we could expect. Eight-year-old Jesse had scored his first two goals in two games, and six-year-old Alyssa started to reveal her artistic abilities. Four-year-old Haley tried to mimic her siblings in all ways. What she lacked in skill she made up for in sheer determination.
That December, the days were clear and cold; the old homestead accented with clean, dry snow worthy of postcard greetings. Winter temperatures dipped gradually and kept the excited children indoors venturing out only when the fresh snow needed to be inspected and tasted. But the cattle, ponies, cats, dogs and fowl still needed to be cared for and watched. Even though the children always pledged to do their share of the work for their beloved pets, the task always fell to Dad. And the enjoyment of those wonderful days never made the effort seem difficult.
Mornings and afternoons consisted of feeding and monitoring the animals for good health and happiness: their good health created my happiness. The ability to notice irregularities in animal habits and health allowed for prompt care and quick recovery. I noticed the details in my animal world and responded accordingly.
On Christmas Eve day, I observed the two fowl species feeding closer to each other than usual. The small bantam chickens couldn’t have been more different from the Guinea fowl who were closer to peacocks than chickens, both in size and temperament. And though they roosted in the same building for safety and cold weather comfort, their habits kept them at opposite ends of the roost. The few bantams were always on the upper roost all the way to the right, the Guinea fowl always on the lower roost all the way to the left. Every night. And in the colder weather, my evening routine ended with me closing the coop door to bar the hungry coyotes and retrieve the watering pail to prevent it from freezing solid overnight.
In the early darkness of Christmas Eve, the bird behavior took me by complete surprise. On that one night, all the birds – bantams and Guinea fowl – were squeezed together, centered on the middle rung of the roost. As on every other cold night when I closed their small door and grabbed the pail, one or two birds would lift their head to look or make a small noise. But they did not shift from their unmistakable new positioning.
I’ve read similar accounts witnessed by older generations, so I wasn’t in disbelief. But I was impressed how those small animals could be influenced by….. by what exactly? How did our concept of the Christmas miracle two thousand years ago affect our birds here on the very edge of nowhere? Lord knows the only churches I’d been to in the preceding decade or two were for weddings, funerals and baptisms. And yet the powerful image I witnessed was very clear to me.
My beliefs have always held there is something after our passing, something truly spiritual and welcome. But I hadn’t been a regular attendee with the rest of Martin Luther’s flock for decades. Still I don’t dismiss what I experienced. And because I’d been journaling since 1979 on an almost daily basis, the writing is as fresh to me now as on that special night when I recorded the event. Perhaps my sister-in-law Marie put it best when she said it must’ve been a message for me, something for me to consider.
I think about that small miracle every Christmas season when the retailers begin their marketing campaigns. Our small flock only shared our lives one winter so asking for a repeat performance hadn’t been possible. But what the fire and brimstone preacher failed to convince me of, nature made very clear. The comfort I’d always embraced in my strong connection to nature became my path to spirituality. The natural world grew to be the cathedral of my religion, the spiritual path I follow towards what lies beyond. The wind-swept prairie, the quiet mountain forest, and the constant shifting tides are all connected and remind me there is something far greater than ourselves. And by influencing our small flock to have me consider the possibilities, I’m comforted to know there is more to life, and death, than we can easily see.