Noah Time Like Today

Noah Time Like Today

Pascale Gueret/Getty

Sometimes you just need an Egyptian vulture named Bob to lead you in the right direction.

“I’m just going to run off the side of the mountain. You can meet me at the bottom,” I told my husband, Sean.

He gave me that look, the one that means, “This is not what I wanted to do this morning.” Sparked by a tall stack of Buddhist books—and a birthday ending in zero—we were engaged on an extraordinary trek. We had started in Kathmandu, visiting sacred stupas and spiritual hot spots. Now we readied for my breathtaking parahawking escapade with a couple of bird lovers passionate about conserving their feathered friends.

Frankly, it was an adventure in faith. Not the famous “faith enough to move mountains,” just sufficient trust that I would land safely at the bottom of one. I jumped into a car with the crew, bunches of gear, and an Egyptian vulture named Bob for a 30-minute ride. (While my husband trekked five kilometers on foot to the landing site, with the conviction that I would meet him eventually.) At the summit, I was given a thick birding glove for my left hand and a fanny pack of Bob’s food to fasten around my waist. My guide strapped us together and we ran.

Luckily, we caught the wind and took flight. Bob flew gracefully in front of us, revealing the best thermals. Occasionally my partner blew a whistle, signaling me to stretch out my arm. Bob would land, eat, and hang out briefly before heading in search of a fresh current. After the flight, we all landed, much to the relief of my waiting husband.

Of all the things we saw on that trip—the massive, colorful Boudhanath Stupa, a live riverside cremation, the rare one-horned rhino of Chitwan—it’s the experience of flying that sticks with me most. In hindsight, the entire trip felt like a pilgrimage to that moment. The trek had been a whirlwind of emotions ranging from wonder and awe to staggering sadness followed by immeasurable joy. Locking eyes with a trucked buffalo during a lengthy traffic jam instantly changed my diet. Flying with Bob forever altered my relationship with the sky and its many beings.

It’s tempting to think that we humans invented pilgrimages; they so permeate our religious traditions. We also might be inclined to believe that all spiritual quests require walking—from the 1,200-mile trek around Shikoku to the 4,000-stepped staircases of Shatrunjaya Hill. And yet, perhaps the most curious expedition required no footsteps at all.

Indisputably, the grandest model of a faithful pilgrimage is Noah’s interspecies saga.

Indisputably, the grandest model of a faithful pilgrimage is Noah’s interspecies saga. Its colossal scale and tactical quandaries, while likely fantastical, stand testament to the imperative for humans to conserve the biodiversity of our planetary home— from solitary aardvarks to social zebu.

However, after the lengthy voyage, it was not a stride but a flap that initiated the path forward after chaos. Not from Dove, as many presume. No, that renowned and celebrated winged one was actually second to leave the wooden vessel. First, there was Raven, whose mysterious journey is worth our reflection and can provide valuable insights for our own wayfaring.

Embrace enigma. It’s said that after 40 days, Noah opened a window, releasing Raven, who kept flying “to and fro” until the water had dried up from the earth. The legend then moves on through five lengthier verses about Dove. This disparity has led inquisitive readers, rabbis, and ornithologists alike to speculate on the two-bird strategy, offering innovative—and often amusing—explanations. Yet, overall, history has favored precious Dove, disregarding Raven’s contribu- tions. Nonetheless, it seems to me Raven was the courageous one we should honor, setting out into the unknown, willing to backtrack and strive ... again and again. I like to think Raven might whisper to us: Perhaps not all pilgrimages need a physical destination to be meaningful.

Be adaptable. Beyond that epic flight, Raven shows up worldwide. She looms prominently in creation stories of the First Nations and Sumerian texts about the Great Flood. Her kin Hugin and Munin traipsed the world daily, aiding the Viking god Odin.

And it’s said fierce Celtic goddesses even took her form during warfare. Ubiquitous not only through stories, ravens adapted to a variety of habitats from snowy lands to lush forests and sandy sea coasts. Daring and remark- ably intelligent, they eschew pickiness, thriving by foraging. Perhaps Raven would advise us: Stop being so finicky. Find the blessing in “good enough.”

Take time to play. If the ark’s first flyer was anything like today’s acrobatically inclined birds, all that to and fro included somersaults, rolls, and light-hearted frolicking. Humans have observed ravens using roofs as slides, tossing golf balls to each other, careening down snowy hills, and catch- ing sticks—mid-flight! One was seen flying upside down for over half a mile. Perchance Raven would implore: Flirt with joy. Relish the thrill of living. Don’t take your plans so seriously.

No time like today. Whether it’s crafting a daily to-do list or planning our once-in-a-lifetime journey, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, bogged down in recommendations or immobilized in endless Googling and Yelping. Accordingly, our spiritual quests can become so outsized that we never take them. Methinks Raven would quip, with just a hint of snark: Just do it. There’s Noah time like today.

In the end, I don’t think it matters how far we travel on our pilgrimages. Instead, what’s essential is heeding that call from our hearts that pulls us to some distant—or perhaps not-so- distant—location for the unexpected lessons that lie obscured underneath our daily busyness.

So, wherever your travels take you, along your way keep an eye on the sky. There might be a useful guide up there.

Vulture in flight

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