Saturday, January 20, 2018

The thing with feathers

The term "bird watcher" seems to imply someone overdressed in khaki fatigues, wearing a floppy hat, with an enormous pair of binoculars drooping around his or her neck, a notepad in hand, in which she or he, in ecstasy, scribbles down the latest sighting of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Profession: librarian or accountant. I mean, really, who would spend a day squinting up into trees for a possible furtive glimpse of a bird when they might be off mountain climbing, running rapids or just walking on the beach?
                                                                   
Scarlet Tanager

I would. When I lived in New York City, I loved the ten or so days when birds were migrating north (spring) and south (fall). You could go to Central Park and see up to thirty or even forty species of birds in a single daytwenty or so species of warblers alone. Birds, and most especially the songs of birds, make me feel optimistic. (Emily Dickinson used birds as a metaphor. The title of this post is hers.) These days, like all of us, I sorely need a strong dose of optimism.  At 72, even more so.  With birds, I get that.  When I was a boy growing up in in southeastern Virginia, I would wake up to the sweet cadences of the song sparrow. Take a second to give yourself a jolt of beauty by listening to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's recording of that bird's song. (Click on the second recording for the prettiest melody.)                              

You can ask the question, why do birds sing? I'm sure there's an answer. But how do you answer the question, why do birds sing beautifully?
                                                                             
Prothonotary Warbler

I'm like any person who has ever watched a bird defy gravity. Not only that, but make a mockery of gravity, with sharp dips, pivots, swoops and dives.  It's no wonder that when in a dream you're flying, it always feels exhilarating and, in therapy, is always a positive sign.

For me, though, it's the hues of these birds that make me crane my neck, searching high in the branches, for hours. To see, even for a few seconds, the deep oceanic blue of an Indigo Bunting or the fierce black and yellow of a Magnolia Warblergo ahead, make my day. These photographs go some way to explaining the thrill, but you have to catch the glimpse in the wild, catch the appearance of the bird perched high in the treeso much color in so small a form!to get the full charge.

Sidebar:  Sometimes, there is an advantage in going to the dentist.  In the waiting room today, I found a copy of the new National Geographic.  In it, there is a elegiac, concerned essay by Jonathan Franzen, "Why Birds Matter."  I urge you to read it. I actually think he answers the question, in prose that soars like the creatures he describes.  
                                                                               
Indigo Bunting
                                                                             
Magnolia Warbler

I live in New Orleans now.  When I talk to people about Hurricane Katrina, time and time again I hear the same thing, "It was so quiet after the storm. You didn't hear a single bird singing." How, then, could you feel even the slightest bit of optimism? I can't imagine.  Because, in Emily Dickinson's words, the thing with feathers ishope.

2 comments:

  1. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell says "Is the beauty of the bird's song intentional? Or is it the expression of the bird, the beauty of the bird's spirit? . . . How much of the beauty of our own lives is about the beauty of being alive?"

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