Waking up in the morning
I vow with all beings
to be ready for sparks of the Dharma
from flowers or children or birds.

Robert Aitken

It’s springtime in Melbourne, and the magpies are feeding their young. There’s a nest in the tall eucalyptus tree next door, and all day long the parents are wandering about our lawn, looking for worms and bugs, and ferrying the precious food to the nest high up among the branches, where I can hear, but not see, the young magpie as it eagerly anticipates its next meal. Both magpie parents are very used to our presence, and wander unhurriedly around the garden when we’re outside, giving us the odd quizzical glance perhaps as we all go about our business, happily sharing the same space.

Just around the corner is another magpie pair, but this male is very aggressive and attacks whenever we ride our bikes down the street. Magpies remember people, and will attack the same people year after year, based on their assessment of danger (which doesn’t always make sense to us humans, as the ninety-year old lady they may attack is unlikely to be climbing up the tree to raid their nest anytime soon).

Whether in the suburbs or in the wilderness, we’re used to animals responding to our presence in their environment (the wallaby which sits up, sniffs the air, and quietly hops into the bush; the warning cries of birds echoing through the trees as we walk along a path). Apart from our pets, we’re not so used to being recognised, as individuals, by the wild animals which live among us. Yet the natural environment is a constant dance of interconnectedness, and we are always a part of this larger picture, whether we are aware of it or not. 

Within some hundred metres of each other, two sets of magpie parents have a very different relationship to us, and even though it’s frightening to be attacked by an aggressive magpie when you’re on a bike, it also gives me a sense of being part of the local natural environment, living with not just human neighbours but also with our animal neighbours.

Springtime in Melbourne also means many beautiful flowers, from the yellow wattles to camellias, hyacinths, cherry blossoms, tulips, tea trees. We often delight in flowers, share a few moments with them, smell them and feel uplifted by their elegant or cheerful presence.

‘Sparks of the dharma’ can mean many things – dharma is sometimes described as ‘the way things are’, but is also related to the word dhri, which means to support or hold. We are surrounded by sparks of life, and if we allow ourselves to be ready for them, as Robert Aitken suggests in this stanza from his poem ‘Earth Day’, they can give us a sense of being a part of the ongoing flow of life, even as much of our ‘normal’ life is disrupted or on hold during the pandemic.

Flowers, children and birds are all wonderful at connecting us to ‘the way things are’, if we can be receptive to their ‘sparks of dharma’.

Anja Tanhane