Photo by Shannon Kunkle on Unsplash

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings the tune without the words –

And never stops – at all – ”

— “Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson

I have not suffered like many during this last pandemic year.  Even so, it’s been a challenge. I’ve been caring for two vulnerable parents (one of whom passed away) and worrying, as mothers do, about the mental health of my three kids navigating the increasingly uncertain and seemly toxic world, where the air we breathe can carry acute illness into our most protected places and separate us from those we love and trust. The lines at food shelves and the COVID-19 death toll both grow unimaginably and our united states seem bent on violent fracture.

As COVID-spring turned to COVID-summer, the constant stress made me ill—I was tired, achy and often nauseous.

Emily Dickinson’s metaphor became my strategy to regain my health and balance. 

I closed down one social media account entirely, cleansed my Instagram of politics and pundits, and replaced them with … birds. At first, it was the colorful and the exotic that dominated my Instagram feed: the beautiful paired macaws, the jeweled hummingbirds, roseate spoonbills with a soft pink to rival the sunrise. Shockingly beautiful birds visiting shockingly beautiful flowers distracted and redirected my attention from politicians to rainforests, from overwhelming despair to moss-covered tree limbs. That lovely distraction was like taking a deep breath. Hope.

As time passed, my favorite Instagram sites shifted from those featuring the exotic, showy birds to those with birds more common to my experience in central Minnesota: awkward, gangly egrets triumphantly savoring fish; a branch full of blue birds enjoying the spring sunshine; a cedar waxwing on a snowy limb; a common chickadee surveying the world from the branch of a high bush cranberry, exactly like the one outside my window. Seeing my local birds featured so humbly yet beautifully helped evolve that first hope from a distant, feathery ideal to something more solid that could perch familiarly on a place much closer to my own soul.

“And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –

And sore must be the storm –

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm – ”

— “Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson

My observing platform shifted from my screen to my window, re-discovering the chickadees, juncos, nuthatches, and the sweet little tufted titmouse, each small and colored in hues of dull browns and gray, but different in their habits, their communities and their approaches to eating my sunflower seeds. I filled another feeder with slimy, seedy suet and a downy woodpecker stopped by for a taste before I even made it back in the house. Over the next two days, that pioneer was followed to my feeder by at least four other species of woodpecker, from the giant pileated to the slightly exotic looking red-bellied. It is true that feeding the birds brought in the ruffians from the neighborhood—the squirrels bullied their way up to the feeders—but their presence only introduced a level of recreational stress: annoying intruders but also, it must be admitted, cunning and acrobatic interlopers—worthy opponents for a battle that we’ll wage for years and that I accept without shame that I will never win.

Now, my hope horizons expand and breathe when I leave my house to walk or ski in the park. Rather than staring down the trail at what’s coming next, I scan the trees: a cunning cardinal couple, a hunting hawk and even a sleepy barred owl. Yesterday my husband and I spotted a bald eagle nest … and then one, no two, eagles sitting in their mighty stick fortress. The image prompted a reminder of a recent Instagram post from Minnesota State Parks and Trails Instagram account about eagles in Minnesota. According to the post, this is egg-laying season for eagles. My husband and I gazed up at the white-headed family for several minutes, sharing their excitement for their expanding family, living their hope.

“I’ve heard it in the chillest land –

And on the strangest Sea –

Yet – never – in Extremity,

It asked a crumb – of me.”

— “Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson

I hope, like me, you have developed your own strategies for managing the challenges of our times. I hope that it feels to you, as it does for me, that as a country we are experiencing both a seasonal and metaphorical spring; that soon, things will start to grow again and to breathe more freely. If you are still looking for strategies, I encourage you to think of Ms. Dickinson’s words but also of her metaphor … that thing with feathers may be as close as your own window or just across town at a nearby park or trail just waiting for you. Go outside! Look up! Hope!

Kris Hansen is a Belwin Conservancy board member. She is a lab manager at 3M and also the cross-country ski coach at Stillwater High School (Olympic Gold Medalist Jessie Diggins went through her program). Kris and her family live in Afton.

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