The Miraculous
The unexpected encounters with the ineffable, the Mysterious

"Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul."   
Emily Dickinson

       A miracle happened last month, though many people may not have recognized it as such. But ask any ornithologist: a bird thought to be extinct for 60 years suddenly reappeared. Ironically, it is a bird whose presence is so stunning that among its various nicknames is that of “The Lord God Bird.” The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker has a wingspan of three feet and it carries an aura so intimidating that many past and present who have encountered this magnificent bird are moved to tears.

    I suppose if one had taken a poll of ornithologists a year ago on the probable survival of this creature in some remote forest about 98 or 99 out of a hundred would have said that it was extinct. They would point out that its habitat of old-growth forests in remote Southern swamps has been largely destroyed. The last one sighted in Florida was in 1924 in a cypress strand in the panhandle. It was summarily shot, stuffed, sold and put on display at the University of Florida.

     One or two hopeful souls out of the theoretical hundred ornithologists might have replied “maybe” if queried about the Ivory-Billed’s existence. However, their colleagues would probably have labeled them as complete romantic saps, and as likely to believe in the Tooth Fairy or Sasquatch.

     Now in 2004, in a swamp in Eastern Arkansas, the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker has been observed several times, and it has been photographed.

     Does this qualify as a miracle? Well, it sort of depends on your point of view. As C.S.Lewis points out in Miracles, those he refers to as naturalists--that is those believing in nature and evolution--do not believe in miracles, and ergo, they cannot occur. Lewis would see most scientists as falling into the naturalist camp. Science is all about observing, recording and predicting normative events. Exceedingly infrequent events are usually ignored. The general public might view these rare occurrences as miraculous but to empirical science they are not even worthy of being studied.

       I learned about empiricism and the scientific method in college. My Master’s Degree is in Experimental Psychology. In the mid-1960s, those of us in New Mexico State’s graduate program in Psychology were thoroughly indoctrinated in the philosophy of empiricism. Basically, empiricism is amassing data and then letting the data speak for itself. Theoretical points of view emerge from analysis of the data and there is no room for anecdotal evidence or for hypotheses that cannot be supported by data acquired thru careful observation or experimentation. And the sloppy sentimentality reflected in studying events like miracles is totally out of the question.

    Dr. Merrell Thompson was the head of the Psychology Dept and he was a scientist of impeccable credentials. He studied basic learning paradigms. His subjects were white rats in T-mazes and his very elegant experiments were highly thought of in psychology research journals. He was the empiricist par excellence, but as I found out he was as subjective and as prejudiced as any dewy-eyed romantic.

    One afternoon in a graduate-level seminar we were presenting articles that were “abstracted” from journals. Basically, an abstract was a summary of the article. Most of us abstracted articles whose content and conclusions would please Professor Thompson. However, one brave (or perhaps foolish) soul abstracted an experiment on extra-sensory perception (ESP) from J.B. Rhine’s laboratory at Duke University. Dr. Thompson sucked on his pipe and listened patiently. When the student was done he said sarcastically, “Well, that’s very interesting.” He paused and then added, “You know, even if they proved ESP existed, I still wouldn’t believe in it.”

    My mouth dropped open--and so did my mind at that stunning revelation. The data be damned. Here was the most pure empiricist I knew revealing a prejudice so strong that even the data could not change his belief. 

    So what does that have to do with the mystery of the woodpecker apparition in Arkansas? Hope, as the recluse of Amherst stated, is the feathered thing which perches in the soul. The thought that a bird believed extinct for 60 years suddenly reappearing brings me hope today--just as the thought that ESP was a real and unexplainable phenomena beyond the scope of Dr. Thompson’s narrow empiricism brought me hope in 1964. I fervently wanted to believe that there were more things in heaven and earth than was dreamed of in empiricist’s philosophy of science, and this was at a stage in my life when I was an avowed agnostic.

       The ensuing four decades have confirmed what I was taught that afternoon:  that even the purest of empiricists have a point of view tempered by their value system and  many scientists have as myopic a view of the cosmos as the average Fundamentalist who believes in the literal six days of creation. Science is great for birthing the technology which provides us better cars, refrigerators, television, fertilizer and treatment for various illnesses, but it is mute when it comes to providing answers to the mysteries of God and human existence.

    C.S.Lewis pointed out that our existence itself is miraculous. But since those believing in nature do not believe in miracles, the miracle of our existence is reduced to something mundane and explainable. Lewis wrote the book Miracles in 1947. Today, over five and a half decades later, science and all the world’s naturalists and cosmologists have still not come up with a satisfying explanation of the big why of you and me.

    As I was preparing this article another miracle of sorts involving nature was reported. An AP story dated 5-26-05 reported that a graduate botany student discovered a flower thought extinct for 60 years. The Mount Diablo buckwheat was found in a remote section of a county park 30 miles east of San Francisco. It resembles a baby’s breath and a photo accompanied the article. The Mount Diablo buckwheat was described as the “holy grail” for botanists in that area. The botany student that discovered it was in such shock that he stated that he “pretended” it wasn’t there and went about his other work. One wonders if the cognitive dissonance engendered by the miraculous caused this student to in fact hope that it really wasn’t there.

    On the other hand, experienced and amateur bird watchers are now seeing Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers everywhere. Just as one spectacular UFO sighting inevitably sets off a rash of sighting, so Ivory-Billeds are now appearing all over the country.

    In a South Daytona Beach mobile home park an experienced 75-year old birder recently spotted one eating mulberries. He was careful to explain that it was not its close cousin the Pileated Woodpecker. They have vaguely similar red, black and white markings but the Ivory-Billed is several inches larger and of course it has an ivory bill and not the dark bill of the Pileated.

    Most of the sightings are very likely Pileated Woodpeckers. But what’s wrong with that?  Is it a crime against science if the sighting of something feathered and rare is the bearer of hope?

"There lives the dearest freshness
deep down things; 
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and
with Ah! bright wings."
Gerard Manley Hopkins

All articles and other written material on this site are copyrighted by Carl Geo. Austin and can be reprinted for commercial use only by the written permission of the author. 
Copyright © 2008 Carl Geo. Austin, all rights reserved.