I'd been told they were there. Indeed, I'd even been told exactly where to look. Take the boardwalk trail to the right, into the woods, and follow it around to the back. That was the best place to find them. And this, in its beautifully stark bareness, was the best time of year to try to get a peek. At least two had been spotted together on more than one occasion, I'd heard. I was hopeful that perhaps with a brief prayer of favor from above, I would catch at least a glimpse
And so it was that I drug my whiney, ill-tempered family out on a cold, damp, gray February afternoon to the very back of Innis Woods Metropark in my excited search for pileated woodpeckers. Ignoring their protests and complaints, I plunged forward into the forest with all three of them in tow, my eyes scanning the tops of deadwood trees, my ears pealed for the familiar cry or the rat-a-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat that would give them away. I was certain we would see something. Or at least I was hopeful.
Pileated woodpeckers (think Woody the Woodpecker from an age of kindler, gentler television), for those who are not familiar, are the largest of the North American head-banging, wood-pecking family. Over a foot and a half tall on average, with a wingspan of over two feet, this is not the average downy that comes to rest on your backyard feeder. Not by a long shot.
They differ from the downy, and many other smaller varieties as well, in the fact that they are a bit more reclusive in nature. While the average hiker might see several downys or red-heads or red-bellies on a marginally attentive walk through the woods, it's not often you see one of these really huge, really funny-looking, really cool birds. In fact, I've only seen them once in my 40 years (an event which greatly amused Tom's Aunt Rhoda on one of our trips to the beach, who could not figure out what on EARTH I was so excited about!), hence my anticipation once I learned of their easily observed presence nearby.
We searched for about an hour, making our way slowly and deliberately around the half-mile loop, but in the end it was to no avail. While we saw several other varieties and sizes flitting about and banging their heads, Woody eluded us, all but for his distinct call and his thunderous tapping. Hunger and spitting rain overruled my desire for a second time around the trail, and we headed home having heard but not seen what I'd gone out in search of.
As we stood in the back of the woods, hands cold and binoculars fogging over, scanning the treetops in the direction of the insistent tapping, it occurred to me the metaphorical nature of this quest. Much of this past year has been spent pursuing, looking for, that which I had heard of and could hear in the distance but could not see for myself. Now here I stood, literally looking for that which I could hear and had heard of, but remained unable to see it, despite my patience and best efforts. The irony was not lost on me. I began to question just what it was, exactly, I was supposed to see here.
Normally, this event would have left me disappointed, as many events do—particularly those that do not turn out according to my expectations. (Which would be, of course, most events, given my tendency to expect too much…) But in that quiet space, punctuated by their percussive interludes, I attempted within my heart to try on a different response for size.
The reality was the pileated woodpeckers were there. Of that, there was no doubt. I could hear them clearly, and I could distinguish their calls from all the others. The evidence of their presence was apparent. I could hear it. Just as I at times hear evidence of God, even when I don't catch a glimpse of it. I could choose to be disappointed that I did not see them (or Him), or I could choose to be content with knowing their presence was there and we heard it, and with knowing that if I am persistent, perhaps one day I will be rewarded with a glimpse.
It is hard sometimes to reconcile a belief system that maintains we "live by faith but not by sight" with a Savior who placed so much emphasis on seeing, both physically and spiritually. I have struggled in guilt for 40 years over my desire to see, to experience, that which I hear and hear of, fearing this was evidence my faith was lacking. In the end, I've concluded I don't think it's wrong to want to see, but more importantly I've concluded I can't devalue the hearing simply because it is not sight, nor can I say that His presence isn't there simply because I can only hear but not see. It is a perspective I can make fit, at least for today.
In the end, I did not see what I came in search of, but I did find it. Perhaps this shift is significant. Perhaps I can learn to value that hearing is experiencing. And perhaps, if I am persistent, I will come, in time, to experience fully the measure of all the fullness of God, and my faith and my sight will be one and the same.