Georgia woman learns lesson in forgiveness after camping trip on St. Helena Island

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comAugust 20, 2012 

Thanks to Jeannie Ingram, a relationship therapist in Decatur, Ga., for sharing her essay about a recent visit to St. Helena Island.

She says it is "dedicated to my dear friend, Garrison Meighen, who shares and inspires in me a deep appreciation of the abundant Carolina coast."

"When the Student is Ready"

By Jeannie Ingram

The day began with the sound of birds, as it often does here in the South. It seems I have slowly settled on a quiet affinity for these creatures, both in the visual sense as well as musically. I derive much joy from feeding and watching them, but mostly it's their singing that resonates somewhere deep in my soul, especially at daybreak.

I woke up happy in my little tent, watching the sunrise over the South Carolina marsh. Happy for the glorious sky. Happy for the day's imminent potential. Happy to be in this gorgeous place with my wonderful friend Garrison, and happy for the circumstances that led me to this amazing life where I so often awaken with joy.

Our plan for the day was to have a big breakfast, then go kayaking at high tide, just around the corner from her little slice of heaven on St. Helena Island.

With my kayak already loaded on top of my old SUV, we set about to untangle hers from the briars and brambles that had begun to claim it.

A kayak's job, when it's not in the water, is to collect said brambles, in addition to leaves, pine needles, insects and critters nesting around the seat.

This boat had done its secondary job well and thus needed a bath. There's nothing worse than having to deal with spiders -- or whatever -- when you're already in the water and perched precariously in a tippy-type vessel.

So Garri grabbed the hose and began cleaning.

A few seconds later, she was alarmed. That pile of leaves behind the seat was actually a bird's nest, with several young, live baby birds. Yes, Mama Bird had built a nest and laid her eggs behind the seat of the kayak.

And we had just intruded on their fragile beginning of life. They couldn't have been more than a few days young, if that, measuring only a couple of inches in length and undeveloped feather-wise. They were sprawled across the ground from having been hosed out of their home.

We quickly scooped up and reassembled the nest, then gently returned three tiny creatures to it. We called everyone from friends to county agents who might know how to optimize their chance of survival. There would be plenty of time for guilt later. For now, the consensus was to place the nest in a box near where the kayak had sheltered the babies.

And that is exactly what we did. Filled with a sense of urgency and a mind full of prayers, we worked together to re-create their nest and committed ourselves to faith that Mama Bird would return.

In the process we also found an unopened egg, which we also returned to the makeshift nursery. Later, this egg would help identify their species.

Now, we had to muster up the discipline to walk away, resume our plan and leave them in the very capable care of their mother, but it was hard to detach.

Let go

We successfully loaded the kayak and headed out for a paddle, which was lovely, by the way, and we can heartily recommend a paddle off Butch's Landing, U.S. 21, St. Helena Island, on Ward's Creek.

Following the hot paddle, we treated ourselves to icy cold beers and oysters at Johnson Creek Tavern, electing the outdoor seating under a canopy, facing the marsh, with the beach visible in the distance. We were awed to witness a mother osprey tending to her nest atop a utility pole right before our eyes. We watched her fly back and forth, carrying what appeared to be Spanish moss-covered branches back to the nest. Again, all of my senses were struck by the panoramic textures of natural beauty here.

Eventually, we made our way back to camp, and an inspection of the nest revealed the joyful discovery that Mama Bird was indeed still in charge of her babies. How did we know this? Because in the process of giving them little sips of water (a holy moment for me), I discovered now there were not three, but four peepers in the nest. Grateful hearts celebrated with tearful hugs, and we may have even danced a little jig because we were deliriously happy.

We admonished ourselves again to let go and detach, let nature take her course and go about our little camping routines. But I will tell you that is much harder than it sounds. There was no denying I was captivated by their little lives and head over heels in love with the entire family.

I don't think I have ever in my life had the remarkable experience of feeding a baby bird. For me, it served to justify my obsession. Mama Bird had to have watched us return those babies back to their nest, feed them and love them. Surely she understood I am no threat, so why would she mind if I check in on them from time to time? OK, constantly.

Still, somewhere in my brain, I knew I had to let go.


The outdoor shower (another of my highly recommended experiences) was within sight of the nest, so the next morning as I was showering I put my glasses on to have a glance and saw something that caused extreme joy. I watched Mama Bird feed them. She was perched on the side of the box and feeding each of their little open beaks. I couldn't wait to share the news, and we celebrated again. We were redeemed.

In my profession, there is a saying: "Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself." Yet, in this case, I knew that forgiveness was bestowed by nature, and my job was to receive it. Our hearts had been heavy and worried that we had wrecked their nest, or worse, killed these tiny, compelling creatures.

Have you ever been catapulted from the depths of guilt to the joy and release of forgiveness of the one you hurt? Then you know the instant and soulful transformation of which I speak. Yes, forgiveness is a gift that defies description.

It is also an existential equation.

I had an epiphany. I have been hurt, and I have hurt others in my life. The pain and guilt on both sides have caused great sadness, remorse and suffering. And today it all came home:

Suffering is the teacher.

Grace is the lesson.

Forgiveness is the gift.

And nature, this day on the Carolina coast, was one amazing classroom.

Forgiving ourselves and forgiving others is, indeed, a gift. Although not always easy, the yield is profoundly meaningful. We are not meant to suffer, except to learn. Punishment serves no purpose; it's the redemption we must seek, first within ourselves. When forgiveness flows, the gift is for all concerned.

The birds, as the lone egg helped determine, are Carolina chickadees, small but powerful both in song and in their capacity for changing the hearts of human beings.

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