Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Reaching New Heights

This is for those who are struggling with change, for individuals with potential (but who may not even realise it), for those who have been told “It’s impossible” and/or who have been derided for their vision and understanding, for people who aren’t sure whether they fit in and those who wish to help any of them, as well as for my children and god-daughter…  It is my last day in South Africa, so it seems apt to tell you a traditional African tale that was told to me while I was here:

It was a hot summer and the frequent afternoon storms were welcome, as they helped to ease the searing heat and dampened down the dust.  However, the violence of the thunder and the flashing tongues of lightening could be terrifying, as indeed they must have been that day, for the cattle and the herd boys returned to the village in haste leaving one calf behind.  The farmer took up his staff and strolled out into the bush to search for the missing animal.  

He hunted in the valley: he looked along the river bed, amongst the reeds and by the stones; he searched in the scrubby undergrowth and by the gnarled trees where the guinea fowl pecked and scraped, almost invisible amongst the dappled shadows; he looked in the dry rustling grass, standing higher than his chest, and then he climbed the rocky mountain, calling and calling for his beast.  He wondered if it had taken shelter from the storm in a deep fracture that cut into the hill side, slicing up towards the summit.  Slowly he climbed, watching and calling.  His attention was caught by a small patch of white on a ledge of rock and, making his way towards it, he was surprised to find a small eagle chick, less than a couple of days old, huddled forlornly by itself, presumably blown from its nest during the storm. The farmer reached out and gently picked it up.  Cradling it to the warmth of his chest, he turned back towards the village and, on his way home he determined to keep the bird and care for it.

As he arrived back at his house, his children ran to greet him and to say that the calf had returned.  Pleased at the news, he gently opened his hands and showed them the fledgling.  They took the eaglet back to their home and placed the young bird with a broody hen that was only too happy to have a small chick to care for.  As the eagle grew it learned the ways of the hens, pecking at scraps and scratching in the dust for tasty beetles and other good things to eat. Although clearly different from the chickens, the eagle seemed happy enough and people from other villages, when they came to trade, used to stare at the strange bird scraping in the dust with the other fowl. 

One of the farmer’s friends, whom he had not seen for a while, came to visit and the two men sat on the step at the door of the house, chatting and watching the world go by.  The friend noticed the strange bird pecking with the hens and said in surprise, “That’s not a chicken it’s an eagle!”

The farmer smiled and said, “That can’t be so…look, it pecks like a chicken, it walks like a chicken, it eats like a chicken, it thinks like a chicken, so it must be a chicken.”

But his friend would not believe him.  “I will prove to you that it’s an eagle.” He said.

“If you wish…you can try to”, nodded the farmer.

Not deterred by the sharp talons and beak, the friend walked over and picked up the bird and then tried to throw it up into the air to make it fly.  It flapped a little in surprise at being caught and handled, but then, seeing the hens docilely pecking, it contentedly landed back on the ground and continued to scratch amongst the chickens, looking for food.

“I told you it was a chicken,” chortled the farmer.

The next morning the friend returned.  “I will prove to you that this is not a chicken but an eagle” he said and he asked one of the farmer’s sons to fetch him a ladder.

The farmer only laughed and again said “It pecks like a chicken, it walks like a chicken, it eats like a chicken, it thinks like a chicken, so it must be a chicken.”

The friend took the large bird under his arm and, with difficulty, climbed with it up the ladder into the branches of a tree that grew beside the hut.  However, no sooner had he released his grasp, with the intention of persuading the bird to fly, than it flapped free from him and landed back amongst the chickens, where it recommenced pecking in the dust.  The farmer and his family all laughed.

However, the very next day, when it was still dark, the farmer’s dogs began barking and the farmer heard a voice calling gently for him outside the hut.  Rising, he found his friend standing outside with a lantern.  “Please give me one more chance to prove that the bird is an eagle, he said.

Are you mad?”asked the farmer.  “It’s not even light yet.”

“Trust me,” said his friend, “I have an idea.  Bring the bird.”

Grudgingly the farmer fetched the large bird from beside the hearth, where it had been roosting comfortably among the chickens.  Wrapping his cloak around him, he followed his friend out into the dark.

“Where are we going?” the farmer asked.

“Back to the mountain, where you found the bird.”

“But it’s dark and the path is steep.  Shouldn’t we go when it’s daylight?”

“No,” replied his friend, “We must take the eagle to see the sun as it rises in the mountains, so that it is inspired to be in the sky, where it belongs.”

The two men went through the valley, crossing the river, passing the reeds, the tree and the long grass.  Tired the heavy bird remained cradled in the farmer’s arms.  The sky was just turning from star sprinkled dark to pale grey as they started climbing the fissure.  They reached the ledge where the chick had been found just as the sky became pearlescent and then tinged with pink.  They could just make out the line of the river winding like a serpent through the grasslands.  The friend relieved the farmer of the burdensome bird and urged him to hurry, as he climbed still higher up the mountain.  The route was steep and treacherous, with narrow ledges and dangerous shale.  Both men were panting as they stepped out onto a flat outcrop and the friend signaled that they could stop.  Close to the summit, the land stretched out below them with the lines of dark forest meeting the grassland of the savannah just visible in the opalescent, pre-dawn light.

The friend gently placed the eagle on a ledge facing the east and began talking to it.

The farmer laughed “Don’t be daft,” he said, “It can only speak chicken.”

The friend ignored him and continued to talk to the bird.  He told it that the sun was coming and that the sun gives life and warmth to all things on earth.

“When you see the sun, Eagle, you must rise with it.  You belong with it up in the sky, not down on the earth.”

And as he was speaking the first golden rays of dawn blazed out over the mountain and the land was flooded with light.

All was still and the big bird remained crouched on the ledge staring ahead at the blazing light rising slowly up into the sky.  Then, the bird leisurely stretched its wings.

Again the friend whispered, “You belong with it up in the sky, not down on the earth, fly Eagle, fly.”

Nothing moved but the bird could feel the air of the updraught from the valley below catching slightly on the underside of its pinions.

Then, very slowly the bird leaned forwards, catching the air beneath its wings and, suddenly, it was off the ledge and soaring out into the air over the land below.  Then it turned in the thermal currents and allowed itself to be swept upwards, rising higher and higher until it was a speck against the blazing backdrop of the sun and then it could be seen no more.

Dare to "fly" and be what you can and should be… 

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