Today—a near miracle - Geneva College, a Christian College in Pennsylvania (PA)
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July 1, 2016

Today—a near miracle

A long, long sighting of a pair of pileated woodpeckers picking away at a telephone pole at Sahli Nature Park here in Beaver County, PA, where I'm ensconced for the morning for some quiet study. Pileated woodpeckers?—They're named for their brilliant crimson crests: North America's largest surviving native species.

It's 10 AM. I'm sitting in a picnic shelter near the lovely pond on this cool Thursday morning, amid a grove of maples and spruces, working on the Hebrew text of Psalm 49.

First I hear a "tap-tap-tapping," like a small geologist's hammer against some agate-bearing rock. I look to my left, towards the pond, and see him, enormous, and brilliantly crimson-crested. Black wings and back, speckled white. Neck black with brilliant white flashing like stylized lightning bolts. Face white, with horizontal black stripes covering each eye, like facepaint in some special ops movie. Length, stem to stern, is about 18 inches. Wingspan I'll guess at well over two feet. He's about 80 feet away, on the wooden electrical pole about 2 feet up, on the left, pecking away. He's close, about as close as people ordinarily get to these these elusive creatures. My birding binoculars make it even better.

In ten minutes of lumberjack labor his whole head fits into the hole. Then another arrives, darker now, with less flashing on her neck and face. A female? She'd been out of my line of sight, chopping away amid the thick pine boughs above the shelter. Now she joins him on the post, about 10 feet higher, same side of the pole, both in profile to me. The darker one's preening, wing outstretched, bending her head, fussing with her feathers, like some Hollywood starlet before curtain call.

The first one single-mindedly taps away, tap-tap-tapping, wood chips flying. He briefly explores some other options, flits to the ground, but soon leaps up to the pole and resumes his former post. Eventually the two cling to opposite sides of the pole. Then the upper one moves down, opposite the first. They're now pecking away from opposite sides, two sharp-billed heads like alternating jackhammers, hammering away at the pole. That pole seems doomed.

I turn away to write line or two on my psalm. When I turn back, both are gone: 10:20 AM. Did the new misting rain drive them away? Or did they spot me? I favor the rain.

That's about 20 minutes of sighting, as I sit in the covered shelter, safe from the rain, studying an ancient Hebrew text about human mortality. Wondrous. It's my best sighting of pileated woodpeckers ever. Never have I seen two together, and never have I observed even one for so long.

Here are a few lines from that 49th Psalm, relevant for this moment:

16 Do not be overawed when others grow rich,
when the splendor of their houses increases;
17 for they will take nothing with them when they die,
their splendor will not descend with them.

Those 20 minutes are now hours past, and I am enriched. At death, says the Psalm, the rich leave all their wealth behind—as do we all, "rich and poor alike" (vs 2). All our riches remain in this mortal world until a greater glory comes to resurrect the world.

In that final redemption, all rich memories not only survive, they thrive.
I think I'll remember those rich, rich twenty minutes forever.

by Dr. Byron G. Curtis
Professor of Biblical Studies, Geneva College

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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