I'm not much of a one for saints but I've always liked old Francis of Assisi. He did what Walt Whitman only conjectured doing.
"I think I could turn and live with the animals," wrote Whitman, but having written those words he turned his back on the animals and dwelt - emphatically - in the world of men. Not so St Francis.
The one thing we all know about him is that he is always painted with a flock of birds perched on his arms like a pigeon-bedecked tourist in Trafalgar Square - or rather a former tourist, for the London authorities have conducted a pogrom against pigeons, branding them rats with wings, fouling the public mind against them, vilifying and banishing them, forbidding the feeding of them, because, well, because authorities just can't stand people being happy. But still, that's how they paint St Francis, arms out in avian crucifixion, delighted by the feathery transgression.
(I have a photograph of myself in Trafalgar Square aged 20-something, drunk, festooned with pigeons, bird seed held in each outstretched hand - vendors made a living from the trade - and grinning like a clown. Grinning too in that same photo is my mate Laughing Simon, a six-foot-five-inch engineer and cricketer who died a couple of years ago of a heart attack in the Middle East.
Why the encumbrance of pigeons made Simon, me and a million tourists happy isn't hard to guess. Even these dowdy battered city birds link us to the world from which we sprang and to which we still belong however artificial our lives become, however detached from the evolutionary wellspring. Pigeon pleasure is atavistic).
I thought of old St Frank just now because I went down the drive to the mail box, which was empty. I didn't mind. The walk to the mailbox these days brings me more pleasure than the mail itself, consisting as it does mainly of semi-literate puffery from real-estate agents and exorbitant rates demands for the joyboys of the council.
My drive is steep and lined with silver birches that over the years have arced and overlapped to form in summer a cathedral nave of green. And as I started down it a group of quail went scurrying ahead of me, then fizzed up into the branches with a whirr of stubby wings. And I heard the trill of a warbler, the tiny bird unseen, the wavering song unmistakable, bouncing on the warm air.
As I have grown older I have tended to less and less of the land around my house, so every summer the wilderness creeps in a little. It's like a game of grandmother's footsteps with Big Mama Nature. And with the encroaching trees and bushes come the birds.
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I welcome their proximity. Swallows nest in my garage. Starlings nest on top of a wastewater pipe. The starlings have brought their young to the bird table that I've slung to the side of the deck just beyond my kitchen window. They wait for food each morning, patient as monuments.
But when I emerge the birds take instant and spectacular fright, returning only when their simian benefactor has withdrawn. Then they go to war over the food, and I watch them through the glass unmoving, watch the starlings and blackbirds, chaffinches and greenfinches, the wax eyes and the house sparrows, and, when all the rest have done, the shy and subtle hedge sparrow that creeps in to gather crumbs invisible.
For all these birds the days pass unnamed, the years uncounted. And increasingly I like that. I like withdrawing into the world around me and I suspect that urge will become more intense as I grow older still. Nevertheless I know I'm no St Francis. But then neither, as it happens, was St Francis.
For I have just looked the old darling up and the facts, as usual, barely tally with the myth. Born into 12th-century Easy Street he lived an indulgent youth, then got God.
Defying an overbearing father - oh how stories never change - he renounced his wealth, lived as a hermit, wore only a woollen robe, took a vow of poverty, founded an order of monks and was much given to visions.
The origin of the bird paintings is a story that arose after his death. He came with friends to a place where the trees were thronged with birds. "Excuse me," said Francis, "I need to go preach to my sisters," and the birds flocked to him, entranced by his voice. Not one flew away.
To which the only response is yeah, as they put it, right. But still, the idea pleases us. It's lived for a thousand years.