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The Golden Wren

It all began with a painting by Liza Adamczewski that appeared on my Twitter feed, depicting a perky brown wren singing its head off against the backdrop of a golden canvas. Adamczewski is an artist re-wilding a farm in Wales, who terms herself an “accidental ecologist,” in the sense of one devoted to bringing nature’s dazzling particulars to our attention through art”.  “The point of the work, ” she writes, “is to lift the everyday wildlife I see to a spiritual level by taking time and expensive materials.”

And isn’t that how the illumination of manuscripts, where letters are often inked in gold, their stems scrolled around and around with leaves and blossoms and berries and little creatures climbing and scrambling all over, sacralized “everyday wildlife” in the Middle Ages?  Russian icons create a holy aura around beloved saints in much the same way, while Renaissance Triptychs often depict Madonnas or saints against gilded backgrounds, with angels on the side doors. 

Presently, Adamczeweski  is creating similar triptychs, often upon actual antique panels painted in 23 carat gold with doors that open to the tune of a gay little chime to reveal a wren or a rabbit, a fox or an ermine.

Although Western European Christianity has tried to desacralize the earth by promulgating an existential separation of soul from nature, it has never really succeeded; rather, the sense of divinity both pervading and also transcending the natural world goes all the way back to the Gospels found at Nag Hammadi in 1945, which were suppressed as out of line with the established (state) Christian doctrine in the fourth century CE. 

  The Gospel of Thomas, a second century CE compilation of the “Sayings of Jesus,” is part of an inward religion requiring adherents to find a divinity indwelling in both themselves and nature: Jesus says,  “I am the light that is over all things, I am all: all came forth from me, and all attained to me.   Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Pick up a stone, and you will find me there.”  This sense that nature contains the holy, and that our present-day earth is an aspect of paradise remains (only faintly) buried in Christian sensibility, not only in Celtic spirituality but all over late Medieval cathedral architecture and decoration. It emerges once again in 19th century American transcendentalism and is present in the renewed sense of the responsibility of belonging within nature that you find in many contemporary denominations.

Like many urban children, I was hyper-alert when nature chanced my way in my New York childhood.   Although where there were only sparrows and pigeons (and, sometimes, a robin), in the park near our apartment, I early declared myself a nature lover.   An open expanse of field in Central Park, bands of sunshine filtering through the leaves of a sidewalk sycamore, even the heavy, dark flow of the East River stilled my hyperactive carryings on with a sense that all was right in the world.  At those times, as poet Charles Wright puts it, “The heart of (my) world lay open, ticking with sunshine.”

Then we bought a home in a Connecticut village. My father put up a naturalistic, bark-roofed wren house as a twelfth birthday present for me, but I considered it merely ornamental. Along came a little brown wren singing its wild heart out in the mulberry tree right outside my window, bursting with a vitality and song that turned my soul upside down and tingled every drop of blood in my body down to my toes, filling me with a sense that nature is holy and that life full of golden possibility that has remained with me to this very day.

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