Every morning we’d been woken by the kookaburras. If you’ve ever been camping, you’d know that birds are often the first creatures stirring in the morning, but ordinarily you’d expect peaceful twittering, not the raucous laughter of the kookaburra. But there they were, these iconic Australian birds, day after day, faithfully rousing us from our slumber with their mirthful calls.
We were camping at a caravan park in Yeppoon, almost 150 of the 300 people who had converged from around Australia to demonstrate a peaceful alternative to war. Just a few kilometres up the road, the Australian and US militaries were practicing to kill; Operation Talisman Sabre they called it, a series of live fire exercises including bombing and short range missile attacks. Projectiles cutting their destructive way through the sky, ultimately crashing to earth with explosive ferocity. Beautiful, pristine earth, thousands of years old rainforest with untold complexity of ecosystems; destroyed in a split second of human malevolence.
Birds, of course, have a special place as God’s messengers in biblical stories. From the dove that Noah sent out from the ark, which has become the universal symbol of peace, to the ravens feeding Elijah in the wilderness; from the Spirit that descends upon Jesus like a dove at his baptism to his likening himself to a hen brooding over her chicks. In the indigenous lore in the place where I’m from, Melbourne, Australia the creator spirit is known as Bunjil, the eagle. Birds have a special place in spiritual lore; they soar above us, majestic, mysterious, floating near the heavens, seemingly untouched, unreachable by we earth-bound creatures.
Five of us from the peace convergence decided to oppose the war games by walking openly onto the base to request that they be stopped. In fact, we were positing an alternative; bringing a frisbee with us, we wanted to invite the soldiers to stop their war games in favour of peace games. A peaceful projectile floating gently between people, connecting them in the name of fun. We were aware, of course, that by setting foot on the base it would be likely to raise the ire of those who were conducting the exercises; soldiers, probably armed, and in aggressive mode. We wanted to be ready in ourselves for the likely aggression we would encounter. Choosing early morning as the most likely time to go undetected, we jokingly coded our entry time as, “When the kookaburras laugh.”
The whole week had been spent preparing, but it was essential that we be centred in ourselves at the moment of entry. After waking at 5:30am, we met together to pray; to respond to the Spirit’s leading, to act out of love rather than fear. Sitting in a circle, we descended into a period of silence. Connected in such a powerful way in such a powerful moment, I felt enfolded in the Spirit of Life that surrounded us. Quietly we began to sing, then hear from the Beatitudes, then a Thomas Merton quote. The formalities over, we had only to wait on the Spirit for leading.
Suddenly, inexplicably, the silence was broken by the laugh of a single solitary kookaburra. We opened our eyes, looked at each other, and joined in the laughter. No one needed to say anything; we were ready.
We walked for three hours through the bush to reach the fence; the five of us with our cameraman and documentary filmmaker Dujon. Dujon had journeyed the whole week with us, present for our planning, our meetings, our prayer times. We had grown close to each other, and as the time came for our entry, he was increasingly concerned for us and our safety. While not a Christian himself, Dujon had a keen sense of how important our faith was, and how it connected us to every living thing around us. Nonetheless, when he left us at the fence, he felt keenly aware of the risk we were taking. His return journey would be filled with questions for our welfare.
Until, as he rounded a bend in the road, he was stopped in his tracks by an eagle. Standing in the middle of the road as he approached, it turned and looked at him. With piercing eyes, it stared into him; then turning its head, it crouched, sprang into the air and flappings its powerful wings, flew into the sky. Dujon later told us that he knew at that moment that we would be ok; that this eagle had been sent to reassure him, and that it would watch over us. He continued on his return journey in that confidence.
We walked onto the main base in total confidence in the God of peace; not for one second did we feel unsafe. As we were arrested and taken outside the gates in the police car, a jet roared overhead. A bird of death disturbing the birds of life.
The following Sunday morning, out on bail, we attended Quaker meeting. Quaker meetings are usually silent affairs, waiting on the Spirit’s leading and prompting. Occasionally someone might speak, to bring a “word of ministry” for the group.
On this occasion several people spoke; but one stood out in particular. A lady who had been participating in the peace convergence all week was walking to the gates of the military base. With a group of 150 people, she had walked past a police road block and now found herself meandering slowly enough to be left behind by the group. As she walked silently down the dirt road, two emus emerged from the bush to her left. Immediately she stopped in her tracks as they stepped hesitantly out onto the road, watching her. It was, she recounted, a God moment; she spoke to them, telling them of her desire for peace for their home, for their families, for herself, and how she was working towards it. She apologised on behalf of the human race for all we had done to harm them They continued to watch her as she spoke, and as she talked that morning she recounted a sense of acknowledgment; that they heard her, and thanked her for all we were doing.
Kookaburras, eagles, and emus. All native birds, all part of the majestic ecosystem of the Shoalwater Bay wilderness, all significant messengers of God, symbols of the Spirit, present and at work. I thank God for the way we were looked after by God’s Spirit – undoubtedly present in unseen and unnoticed ways – but visible to us in these winged messengers.