Finding People Among the Birds
I know all the birds of the mountains,
And the wild beasts of the field are Mine.
Psalm 50:11 (New King James Version)
Like many across the world, my day-to-day life was upended by the coronavirus pandemic. In March 2020, I found myself working at home and then, abruptly, not working at all. Though I always enjoyed the periodic camping trip with all its attendant shooting, hiking, and fishing, my life has overwhelmingly been a sedentary one. Like a good millennial I heeded the call to attend college, where my labors were at a desk. From there I transitioned to years in the corporate world, usually sitting at another desk. My world usually consisted of air-conditioned rooms, computers, and phones. Then, suddenly, while finding myself involuntarily liberated from my little corporate cell, my world became even more restricted to my immediate surroundings during lockdown. Bereft of anything pressing besides filling out applications, I desperately needed something to fill my time.
I sought some solace in nature. I was hoping to gain something by Byron’s pleasure in his “pathless woods,” or at least the ponds and trees of my suburban neighborhood. While our coronavirus experience was mild compared to most, it definitely created a need for some mental escape. Our one bedroom apartment became a holding house for students who needed to quarantine, my family’s restaurant crumbled, and, like so many others, I felt drained watching the daily numbers of the dead tick in. Outside my window I could see a completely placid world, removed from the pandemic, economic destruction, and the social upheaval. Realizing I had become quite distant from my younger days filled with camping, fishing and hiking, I resolved to escape through birdwatching. Like Byron I began to “love not Man the less but Nature more.”
Birdwatching became this solace, providing enjoyment, true leisure, and reconnection. Very quickly, my book filled up with some generic birds that are quite common; sparrows, crows, and the like. However, despite myself, I started to feel the excitement of finding a glossy ibis, Egyptian goose, or black-headed grosbeak. While on a hike in the Sierra Nevadas, my heart actually stood still as I realized the massive bird flying close overhead was a bald eagle.
Birdwatching may seem like an incredible drudge amid the entertainment of fast-paced sports like basketball (more of a baseball guy myself, predictably). The time is mostly spent walking around, listening, and peering. In this, birding became not just a fun pastime but didactic in nature. Through birding I started to value slowness. Working from home, then submitting job application after job application, primed me to pine for a quick response. Instant communication and same day delivery collided with grimly waiting for a single answer. By spending hours listening and biding my time, I could start to understand how corrosive speed has become in daily life. As Professor Guttorm Fløistad wrote of slowness:
The only thing for certain is that everything changes. The rate of change increases. If you want to hang on you better speed up. That is the message of today. It could however be useful to remind everyone that our basic needs never change. The need to be seen and appreciated! It is the need to belong. The need for nearness and care, and for a little love! This is given only through slowness in human relations. In order to master changes, we have to recover slowness, reflection and togetherness. There we will find real renewal.
Taking the time to discern if the bird ahead is really a black phoebe or just another dark sparrow helped wean me off the need for the dopamine rush of the immediate. Finally a hobby became a true leisure in the classical sense, not simply filling my off hours with yet another fast-paced, vacuous “leisure.”
Most of all, birding has helped me reconnect with the natural world. Here in Suburbia, USA it is easy to forget one’s place in an ecosystem—that modern lives even inhabit an ecosystem. If one were to quickly peruse any Nextdoor forum in any commuter town, they will find posts bemoaning a vicious coyote, troublesome raccoon, or noisome owl, followed by responses incredulous that someone in charge has not “solved this problem.” By taking the time to walk the bounds of my neighborhood, seeing the birds forage, nest, and compete for territory, I began to realize how, despite our best efforts, nature persists. Not only does birding open one’s eyes to the wilder world, but the hunt for elusive hooded oriole sharpens the natural, animal senses.
A big motivation for myself was to escape the constant conversation around the latest crisis. The idea of traipsing around the wilderness, seeking evidence of a bird like the Kauaʻi ʻōʻō, had me envisioning a world beyond the ugliness and pettiness of humanity. However, as apparent birder Lana Del Rey taught us, “It turns out everywhere you go, you take yourself, that’s not a lie.” Even among the birds, there are people, warts and all. For starters, for many birding is less an homage to Walden Pond and more of an endurance sport. There’s even a “World Series of Birding.” It is not uncommon to see birders argue about whether the other’s bird “counted” due to a series of byzantine qualifications (a whole new spin on “bird law”).
Even more seriously, even the birding world is not exempt from the politics of the human world. Birdwatchers are now having the same conversations around iconoclasm, politics of memory, and race. When I read the Washington Post’s headline “The racist legacy many birds carry,” I texted a birdwatching friend, “Are there no apolitical spaces in America anymore?” Must I wrestle with the complicated personal life of John James Audubon as I sketch the Eurasian coot by my apartment?
However, just as it is a mistake to separate ourselves from the natural world, so too it is a mistake to seek the opposite. Bird watchers eventually realize how territorial, bad tempered, and even violent birds can be. Why should it shock us that birds mimic their human counterparts both “darkly wise and rudely great”? The more I thought about it, the more the birds gave me appreciation for our non-feathered friends. I had always envied my grandfather as an outdoorsman; knowing flora, fauna, fowl, and landscape. By becoming more attuned to nature, I had in turn become more connected to my own family. As I spent time straining to catch the glimpse of a Chinese swan goose, I was creating memories and finding new inspirations to share with friends. Spending time among the birds, I found myself loving humanity more, not less.
Joseph S. Laughon is a writer who has published in Human Events, The Hipster Conservative, Mere Orthodoxy, and other outlets. He is an alumnus of Concordia University.