God’s Jewels

alcyonewebsterikeulemansAnyone who knows me will attest that I am fundamentally a city person.  Having lived in New York City on and off for over 30 years, my instincts are well-honed and distinctly urban.  I can emerge from the subway and my sense of direction is intact. I know the most likely corners on which to catch a taxi during rush hour.  My knowledge of animals is limited to the best kinds of pets for apartments.

So, when I recently found myself on safaris in Zambia and Botswana, I was out of my element.  Unending open space. Myriad shades of green. Where do you even begin to look?

It was disorienting.

Happily, guides and game spotters were close at hand and quickly acclimated my eyes and senses to the glorious diversity—plant and animal—around me.  Soon my eyes adjusted to finding the mammals, of which there was an abundance.

But I also had the distinct pleasure of a travelling companion in our group who was passionate about birds.  She had come prepared with a book detailing the thousands of species of African birds to be found in the places we were visiting.

Initially, I observed her joy and enthusiasm at spotting a never-before seen flying creatures in passing before I focused my attention on the land-based animals.  

At some point, I shifted my gaze in the direction my friend was pointing.  It was a revelation.

Soon, I too had my own binoculars scanning the treetops and water banks.  As I did, I entered into an entirely different part of God’s glorious kingdom.

Before me sparkled, as my companion called them, “God’s Jewels.”

Over the course of two days we saw perhaps fifty different species of birds.  

Take the Kingfisher.  There are over 93 varieties worldwide and 12 species that occur in Zambia alone.   Their names convey their beauty: shining-blue kingfisher, malachite kingfisher, gray-headed kingfisher, blue-breasted kingfisher, brown-hooded kingfisher, striped kingfisher.

I won’t pretend to be able to distinguish between all the varieties of birds, never mind the ubiquitous Kingfisher.

Perhaps my favorite bird was the African Jacana, otherwise known as the “Jesus Bird.”  It’s not what I’d call a beautiful bird. However, it is blessed with long toes and as it walks on floating vegetation gives the impression of walking on water.

As we were cruising through marshland created by the overflowing Zambezi, birds sparkled before us against the cloudless blue sky.  They danced around our boat, dodging and weaving. They stared at us imperiously from branches and behind leaves. They sang to each other.

By my friend’s count, we saw dozens of different  kinds of birds over the course of a few hours.

While I’m a long way from becoming a dedicated birdwatcher, I am deeply grateful to have been invited by my friend into seeing God and God’s creation in new ways.

As I return to my urban world, the memory of God’s Jewels will sparkle in my mind’s eye. 

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Published by Rob Radtke

President & CEO, Episcopal Relief & Development, husband, father, friend, traveler, reader, New Yorker.

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