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The Only Surviving Witness
to the Miracle of the Birds

[image ALT: A scrubby tree about 8 meters tall, partly supported by an old stone wall and some metal scaffolding. It is the oak said to be the tree in which the birds were perching that St. Francis preached to near Assisi, Umbria (central Italy).]
One day in the early thirteenth century, when St. Francis was preaching in Umbria, a nearby flock of little birds were chirping very loud, and the saint could not make himself heard. He turned to them and asked them to be quiet, please; and they are said to have obeyed, and even to have drawn themselves up in formation in the shape of a cross, and listened to him. This predica agli uccelli quickly became a favorite subject with painters.

The olive tree you see on your left is asserted by many to be the one in which those birds were perching. Now the olive is in fact one of the longest-lived of trees: it is often said that a farmer who plants an olive grove is working not for himself, but for his children; after which the trees make up for it since under good conditions they can live to be a thousand years old. This particular specimen is indeed very old, and so is not an impossible witness to the saint's way with birds.º

(As for the story itself, I'm not about to say it is false. For another charming Franciscan tale — and that one to my mind almost certainly true — see St. Anthony of Padua and the mule.)

Back to our tree, though: there is serious difficulty with the identification, since the tree in the Miracle of the Birds is, almost contemporaneously, reported to have been an oak. Each of the two competing sites for the incident has a better claim in the sources: Pian d'Arca, a long day's walk from here; and even farther away, still in Umbria but maybe 100 km distant, near Alviano, where a Chapel of the Swallows commemorates the event. For further discussion of it all, see the 16th chapter of the Little Flowers of St. Francis.

At any rate, the scaffolding you see in my picture is permanent, lovingly designed to help keep the tree standing and alive.

That is to be expected here: because of St. Francis, Assisi and the Eremo have become a sort of ecology preserve. In the comune of Assisi, they even forbid hunting right in the middle of the season, for the saint's feast day on October 4: for one day, the wild boars and birds are safe. Also, in over half a year of walking the roads of central Italy, this is the only area where I ever saw anyone else doing the same: serious young men and women with a definite air to them of doing something meritorious. . .

I know of at least one similar instance, though, of an old tree being supported this way for historical reasons. In Paris, in the handkerchief-sized garden adjacent to the church of St‑Julien-le‑Pauvre (note here too the interesting connection with poverty), a rather ordinary-looking living tree has had its hollow trunk filled with concrete and its branches supported by concrete posts: it is the specimen tree of Robinia pseudacacia brought from Virginia to Europe in 1601 (or maybe not: see the interesting page linked below; why isn't anything simple?) and planted there by Jean Robin, herbalist to King Henri IV of France and director of the nearby Jardin des Plantes, who was first to describe it and who is memorialized in its Linnaean name. I last saw the tree in 1991 and it was just barely hanging on: if still alive, it should be the oldest tree in Paris.

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Page updated: 30 Apr 20