The Wisdom of the Woodpecker

This afternoon, a downy woodpecker that frequents our suet feeder flew full tilt into the sliding glass door that leads from our dining room to the deck. Maybe it was being chased by a hawk, or perhaps a gust of wind blew it off course. All I know is that the bird hit hard and dropped like a stone onto the wooden deck, where it lay just on the other side of the glass with its black and white wings outstretched as though still in flight.

The woodpecker was alive—I could see its sides moving in and out with breath, its eyes blinking rapidly, and its head turning ever so slightly. I was immediately concerned for its safety, wondering not only if it would survive the impact, but also if the stray cat I’d seen earlier in the afternoon was still in the vicinity.

I’ve watched other birds recover from such impacts and they all follow a similar routine. At first, they barely move. They simply lie where they have fallen, refusing to budge until they are ready. Eventually, their breath returns to normal and they reengage with their surroundings. Given enough undisturbed time, they swivel their heads, flex their wings, and go from lying to standing upright. Then, in one graceful and fluid motion, they fly off, seemingly none the worse for the encounter.

As I’ve investigated my own traumatic past in the last two years, I’ve come to feel a real kinship with these shaken birds. I’ve learned from them that healing takes time. It takes being with a body that’s too jolted and shocked to do anything but absorb what’s happened. It takes bearing witness to inner turmoil while simply breathing, blinking, and staying with the moment. In the worst of times, it takes seeking out someone else to sit with me, as I do now, standing guard over the woodpecker.

In my case, there was a human agent behind my childhood sexual abuse, but I’m not sure the effect was any different on my physical and psychic being than if I’d smashed into a window at top speed with no warning. If I had known what the birds know, I might have acted differently in the wake of the attack. But I was four years old and knew nothing about how to integrate what had happened. To escape the terror of the moment, I dissociated, split off from my body, and watched from a safer, quieter place. Soon after the event, I buried the experience so far down in my psyche that it didn’t surface until I was 62.

Hovering over the woodpecker, I thought about how hard it has been for me to get back to a place of embodiment and ease. Years of yoga, psychotherapy, choosing again and again to inhabit this body, feel these feelings, and bear witness to all the clues arising from my difficult past. A half hour after the woodpecker hit the door, it swiveled its head enough to see that it was very near me. It looked away, drew its wings close to its sides, raised its white belly up from the deck slat on which it had rested since the accident, and stood up. And just like that, it was off, flying across the yard as if nothing had happened.

I have come a long way in my healing journey. These days I’m more at ease in my body and mind, and happier than I can ever remember. But I still identify with that bird on the deck, letting the shock drain from its body, needing time to heal from an unexpected collision. I silently cheered as it took flight, taking in the message that my own release from trauma is not just possible but a sure bet, if I give myself the space to let my body catch up with my history and find my own path back to resilience. The image of that bird barreling away from the house at top speed inspires me as I continue my journey.

Danna Faulds, poet and yoga practitioner, has published six books of poetry and a memoir, Into the Heart of Yoga: One Woman’s Journey.

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