Given that I’m very much a somewhat birder (or what Simon Barnes would fabulously call a bad bird watcher), I’m forever justifying exactly what it is I find enticing about birds. Sometimes, when asked, I say I’m attached to birds because they teach me how to see in a new way. Other times, I say I’m taken with birds because they’re forcing me to discover the amazing provincial parks in Southern Ontario. In my more nerdy moments, I lie and tell people it’s because I’ve always been fascinated by binoculars. (The conversation usually stalls at that point and goes no further. I really don’t care much about optics. I have a pair of very un-professional binoculars, but they suit me just fine for now. Fascination with binoculars is an oxymoron.)
Today, if asked, my answer would be different. Watching birds is a way of stopping time. And anybody as obsessed by nostalgia as yours truly would know that there’s nothing more gratifying than the illusion of being able to stop time. For just a moment. When I focus on a bird and look closely at its color scheme, its “hairdo,” its beak, its little legs, its feathers, I swear time stands still. It’s the ultimate thrill, really. Especially since it takes me so long to actually find the bird that everybody is usually looking at, and to distinguish it from the surrounding leaves and pinecones or what have you, and to see the darn thing. I hadn’t expected birds to captivate me. I’ve never been an animal lover (quite the contrary: I’m scared of dogs, cats aggravate me, and all the fish I’ve ever owned have died rather quickly).
But with birds, it’s different. I must admit, it’s not so much the bird as ANIMAL that fascinates me. It’s the bird as metaphor: seeing, looking, feeling time stand still. That, in a nutshell, is what birding does for me. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, the skills I learn while being a somewhat birder are actually life-skills. What could be more important and magical than looking closely and feeling time stop?
Isn’t that also the point of art? The reason I’m addicted to art (literature, visual arts, movies, music) is because when it’s amazing and working its magic, art makes time stop still. Reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s last collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, I didn’t want the book to end; Lahiri plunged me into a world so real, so perfectly constructed that I stopped thinking about time altogether. I wanted to be engulfed by that eternal present moment of reading forever. (The last three stories in that collection were especially perfect.)
A few days ago, I saw a fabulous Italian movie, Mid August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto), that held me captive the way the best novels manage to. The movie was a meditation on time and the magic of making it stand still, if just for a moment. A beautifully crafted masterpiece of utter simplicity — like the greatest Chekhov story where nothing happens, and yet an entire world unfold. Readers — run and watch this movie! You’ll feel like you’re living out a perfectly lazy summer day that you hope will never end. Alas, the film is entirely devoid of birds, but that’s ok too, right?