I do not put much energy into birding until I move out of the city and into a small rural town across the lake from New Orleans. My yard is filled with a great variety of trees, and the birds quickly find the feeders and bath. I have large windows and can walk almost anywhere in my house and see cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, mourning doves, and their many colorful companions. One day, I am startled to see a small group of indigo buntings, passerina cyanea, who have arrived in their turquoise suits, deciding that my yard is a suitable dining establishment. The next day, they are gone, making their visit all the more special.
I tell people about the buntings, and they tell me that I am lucky to have had such relatively rare visitors; indigo buntings come to our location just once a year, and they never stay for long. But, more experienced birders tell me, the real prize is to have a visit from passerina ciris, the painted bunting. The male has bright red under- parts and a bright red rump, a green back, a blue head and a red eye ring. He likes to make his home in south Louisiana, but he is painfully shy and rarely seen. He is often described as the most beautiful bird in North America and is therefore referred to as the Nonpareil.
I move to a neighborhood that is a designated bird sanctuary and set about hanging feeders everywhere: tube feeders, platform feeders, hummingbird and oriole feeders, bluebird feeders. I get married, and my husband and I plant fuchsia petunias for the hummers. We watch in amusement/frustration as the wrens and brown thrashers kick our newly applied composted mulch all over our front porch. I count over twenty different bird species in my yard, but there are no buntings of any kind.
I decorate our house, make living adjustments, throw myself into organic gardening and try to cope with the creeping suppression of my immune system brought on by hormonal changes. I grow bored with my job and angry that my body has suddenly betrayed me. My husband and I deal with the medical problems of our beloved older cats, who - unlike me - suffer without complaining. My mother dies, and I confront my own childlessness for the hundredth time. I go to London, my mother's birthplace, and throw some of her remains into the Thames. I am sad in a way that only estranged adult children are when their unreachable parents die.
Then I realize that I am having what pop psychology calls a "midlife crisis," and I find someone, a spiritual director, to talk to about it. She gets to know me intimately and tells me that I am the most "connected" when I am in my garden with my roses, cannas, lilies, butterflies and birds. I sense that she is right, but I don't know what it is that I am connected to. I continue to talk, tend my garden, feed the birds, replenish my hormones and search for my missing connection.
It is Good Friday. I decide that I should do something symbolic, so I plant the miniature Japanese rose, Nozomi, whose name means "hope." It is the last day of the New Orleans Museum of Art's Haitian exhibit and I do not want to miss it. I drive the twenty-four miles across Lake Pontchartrain, watching gulls and egrets dart around the Causeway pilings. The egrets' whiteness makes the boats' white sails look dingy. I drive another seven or eight miles to the museum, whose parking area is full of cars, despite the religious holiday and despite the city's overwhelming Catholicism. It is a beautiful clear spring day. Lining the museum's walkway are huge oak trees bearing clumps of Spanish moss that sway ever so slightly over the lagoon like hastily hung swamp scarves. I enter the building, pay my admission fee and head toward the exhibit.
My reality changes abruptly when I enter the first exhibit room and hear the drumming. In the vaudun ("voodoo") culture of Haiti, drumming is sacred, and the spirits are attracted by the sound of their favorite rhythms and the sight of their favorite objects. The drumming comes from a sound system, and it is of a trance-like intensity, setting the tone for this virtual walk through spiritual Haiti. Haitian art and artifacts are everywhere: paintings, carvings, sculptures, costumes. There are drums, assons (sacred rattles) and paquets congo, little bottles with arms that serve as protection. There is an assault of bright red, blue, yellow and green - on the walls, on tables, hanging from the ceiling. In another room, there are television monitors showing demonstrations of vaudun dance and vaudun religious ceremonies, all performed to the incessant drumming which has now begun to create for me an unconscious context that is different from the one that I brought with me when I entered the museum.
I gasp when I enter the flag exhibit room. It is dark except for one small spotlight situated under each flag hung on the wall. In vaudun, flags are used in the temple to attract and please the gods, or loa. The flags are beautiful, multi-colored banners made of satin, velvet and rayon, and decorated with beads and sequins. The effect of a large grouping of these drapo is overwhelming.
Finally, I go to the altar exhibit. In Haiti, it is as common to have an altar at home as it is to have one in the temple. Vaudun is the people's religion, and a clever people they are. Enslaved by the French in the seventeenth century, Africans living on the island were able to continue practicing their religion by incorporating into it a great deal of Roman Catholicism, the religion of their captors. In 1804, they staged the only slave revolt in history that created a nation. The synthesis of Catholicism, ancestral West African and Central African religions, however, remains intact to this day.
In vaudun, there is one supreme god or creator, Bondye or Le Bon Dieu, but there are hundreds of loa, the spirits who link the human with the divine. These loa include ancestors, the souls of twins, and divine incarnations of nature or even human emotion. The Rada represent West African deities, and the Petro - who are more aggressive and violent - are Haitian dieties. Like the Cuban Santería with which we are more familiar, the vaudun altar consists of a variety of Catholic saints, as well as images of loa and the offerings made to them.
The altars at NOMA are filled with beaded, sequined and fringed items, and the offerings include jewelry, perfume and whiskey. The loa are described in wonderful detail: "She has a bad temper and likes to drink too much," or "She is more pleased with you if you offer her some cigarettes." It is hard to leave this room full of colors, textures, drumming, and all-too-human divinities who sound more like characters that I used to meet in the city's neighborhood bars. The exhibit curators realize this, and as I exit, the first thing that I see is a sign that says You Are Now Back In New Orleans. As a bonus, or lagniappe, as we say in Louisiana, right outside the door is a mini-exhibit of photographs of New Orleans voodoo temples and voodoo practitioners.
I leave the city and drive back over the Causeway, happy that I have seen this remarkable exhibit and unable to fully come back to the "real" world. I am grateful for the long journey over water so that I can try to re-enter the self that I think belongs to me. I again become awarethat it is Good Friday, and I feel injected with some spirit essence that I find both fascinating and fearful.
I drive to my house and park in the driveway. It is early afternoon and very quiet. As I walk up my front steps, I see something very bright with many colors on the concrete by my office window. I move closer, and I think that my experience at the Haitian exhibit is causing me to hallucinate. It is a painted bunting, passerina ciris, and it is dead, though thoroughly intact in its exotic beauty. I don't want to touch it, so I go and get my husband, who is saddened by the sight of the bird, and who promises to move it for me.
I enter my house stunned. My heart is pounding. The Nonpareil has tried to visit me; he is deceived by glass, and loses his life to a head injury. It is Good Friday, and inside my own head, there is just an incessant, plangent drumming.
Diane Dees Tobiason is a psychotherapist and writer in south Louisiana.
Her work has appeared in Mississippi Magazine, Eclectica, QuickStorm and
other publications. She is the author and co-webmaster--with her
husband--of www.princesscafe.com, a virtual rock and roll restaurant..
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