Bird feeders and ballot boxes

6 Nov

Red-bellied Woodpecker on the Election Day fence – or at least the balcony rail.

Not that I needed reminding, but I couldn’t help take it as a sign, the red-bellied woodpecker that settled on my bird feeder.

I don’t mean “sign” as in ominous omen. The black raven might have quoth “nevermore” in the “midnight dreary,” but this rare visitor’s plumage suggested something more positive – an action to be taken.

That message? “Get out of your easy chair and go vote, why don’t you?”

Yes, my woodpecker is more wordy than Poe’s crow, but my hallucinatory birds are more prose than poetry.

But, in case you’re wondering about now, there is a connection – my polling place is Broadmeadow Brook Audubon Wildlife Sanctuary. The first time I did so was four years ago, when, of course, Barack Obama won the presidency. Pulling up in front of the visitor center that morning, I felt like I had won, regardless of what my candidate went on to do. Instead of a dingy school, a line wove past a garden and into a bright sunlit lobby; I shared the voting space with a turtle in a terrarium. His head extended straight ahead, as still as death, not tipping whether he leaned to the left or the right.

Nor did my woodpecker indicate any particular political stance. There is that whole redhead/red state correlation, but then why is he in Massachusetts? Besides, the relish at which he was eating the feed makes me think that he thus supports redistribution of wealth, although he would prefer a rather unconventional currency for the payouts.  Furthermore, he’s far less monopolistic than the ubiquitous and greedy sparrows. The issue of sexual orientation when it comes to civil union? Well, is he even a he? I don’t rightly know.

The silliness of my musings was a welcome relief from the sobriety of this election morning. I woke up worried that we might move not closer to compassion today, but farther away. Then came another, more self-centered, observation – when it comes to the four-year measuring stick, it’s not only the state of the union that, as always, comes up short.

It’s also me.

While I work community service into every course I teach, that’s stuff I’m paid to do. Even with the occasional mission trip, I know I could do more volunteer work on my own time. Way more.

More to the point, like a lot of volunteers, except for election days, I don’t get directly involved in the political process. Even though I’m reasonably outgoing, I’m not one for door-knocking and phone banks, for sign-holding or street-marching – that’s not the work my disposition gravitates toward.

Which makes me like most people. I once heard a presenter at a conference cite a study showed that while volunteering in college makes students more likely to volunteer later in life, it doesn’t make people any more likely to vote. Asked why, the presenter speculated that volunteering was much more satisfying – you experienced a concrete result from your efforts. Your vote literally doesn’t make the difference in any election – unless you count committees – but volunteering does.

The problem comes when the mind’s camera pulls back from the tight shot of our personal action to the broader context. The truth is that what the government does matter – and in ways that dwarf our individual charitable acts. The persons and parties we choose on Election Day can work in a dynamic partnership to help people on the margins solve their own problems – or it can undercut everything we are doing now.

My larger problem unsolved, I could at least vote. I donned my own plumage – considerably duller than that of my feathered friend, although I do have a red cap – and headed to the Audubon. I stood in line by the butterfly bushes, breathed in the sweet mulch, shuffled past images of deer and birds. I bantered briefly with women at the ballot table – one of whom remembered me from Assumption – but the line was far too long for them to linger. They’d been volunteering since 6:30 a.m., and will be there until “it’s all over” that night.

Then I took my paper ballots and headed to the only open table, filled out my ballot and only then took in the bird poster above my station. I was surprised when I saw, of birds on all the posters in the voting places of the world, my very friend from this morning – or at least one of his/her relationships.

This one grasped the bottom of a feeder, tilting it with his weight, hanging on as if waiting to see what would happen next.

As for me, my most important political duty performed, I walked out the back door, passed below the feeders and wandered into the woods. The day was sunny but the air cold, still in the high 30s. Far more leaves below my feet than above my head. Winter coming on. Still, I smiled at the spanking new rope railings and plaques, the signs in both English and Braille, for sighted and blind alike. All done, I guessed, not by paid laborers, but devoted volunteers.

The weird thing is, somehow it mattered. Ohio might go blue or red that night, Florida might do whatever crazy thing Florida does … but either way I feel a little better not just for voting, but voting here.

Perhaps it’s all voting in the end, voting done year round – with our ballots, our hands, our feet.

Beaks? Not so sure.

Stone crossing at Broadmeadow Brook on a cold but sunny Election Day.

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