So wrote Daisy Suckley, remembering how her cousin, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, settled his nerves while awaiting news of the outcome of the Battle of Midway in May of 1942. If successful, FDR recognized, Midway would be the second marker, after the Doolittle bombing of Tokyo, on the American road to victory over the Japanese Empire.
But there was the President, getting up at 2:00 a.m. to go birding: “Total for day 108 species,” he noted with satisfaction, signing his checklist “Franklin D. Roosevelt.”
Imagine the gotcha-glee of today’s reporters and bloggers if they were to nab President Obama watching birds during, say, the Charlie Hebdo horrors in Paris. Fortunately, only Daisy Suckley and a few others knew FDR was birding as he waited for cables from Midway. And, as Daisy noted, “It did him lots of good.”
Was there also a message for him from God? R.S. Thomas received one:
A message from God
delivered by a bird
at my window, offering friendship.
Listen. Such language!
Who said God was without
speech? Every word an injection
to make me smile. Meet me,
it says, tomorrow, here
at the same time and you will remember
how wonderful today
was: no pain, no worry;
irrelevant the mystery if
unsolved. I gave you the X-ray
eye for you to use, not
to prospect, but to discover
the unmalignancy of love’s
growth. You were a patient, too,
anaesthetised on truth’s table,
with life operating on you
with a green scalpel. Meet me, tomorrow,
I say, and I will sing it all over
Again for you, when you have come to.
For RS, watching for a rare bird to soar through the field of his binoculars was training in silence and patience, preparing him for rare and fleeting experiences of God’s presence in the natural world.
For FDR, on the other hand, birdwatching was a momentary stay against anxiety at a time when he was trying on the mantle of command, having discovered that he could not depend upon his generals and admirals to look strategically at the whole world.
Quotes in this post:
“In that far-off place” – Nigel Hamilton, The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941-1942 (2014), 275.
“A message from God” – “The Message,” Destinations (1985), 7.