Monthly Archives: June 2010

One of those days

It’s been one of those days:

  1. The only bird I managed to see (and identify) was a pigeon. I can’t stand pigeons.
  2. Picked up my organic food share from Plan B organic farm and got a mystery vegetable. Stringy green curly weeds, basically. I googled and googled until I came to the conclusion that I got a batch of Garlic Scapes. Googled some more and came across a fabulous website with an amazing recipe for Garlic Scape Pesto! Who knew? Thank heavens for google.
  3. Went swimming and realized I forgot my bathing suit at home. (So, no, I didn’t technically go swimming. Instead, I just walked home in the sweltering humidity.)
  4. Found some old cassettes at my parents’ house and tried playing them in my car. My tape deck ate said cassettes.
  5. That’s about it.

I saw a Goldfinch!

The start of a fantastic day — I walked out the door and saw this:

It was bright yellow and perfect and I was able to identify it! Woohoo! American Goldfinch (spinus tristis). Being able to identify a goldfinch may not seem like much to all you fabulous bird nerds out there, but I tell you, it felt like a huge milestone for me! Especially because it happened first thing in the morning. Usually when my husband asks me what a bird is (because he now thinks I’m All-Knowing when it comes to birds and this is a myth I certainly don’t want to dispel), I tell him it’s a robin. (I’m right about 60% of the time, I think, but the result is that he now thinks the only birds in town are robins.) Today was the first time I was actually able to name a fabulous looking bird with total certainty! I’ll mark June 22 in my calendar as Bird Naming Milestone Day (BNMD). Let’s celebrate that next year!

Stopping Time

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?

Bobolink! Bobolink!

I saw this bird two weeks ago and believe it or not, I’m still thinking about it. Talk about a bird with a great hairdo! It reminds me of that phase we all went through in grade 8 or so, when we started experimenting with hair dyes and the results were often nothing short of unfortunate. Anyhow, the Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) has it right: he’s a type of blackbird with a stunning yellow nape (is that the right word? basically, the back of his head. I’m assuming that’s what the nape actually is.):

I think the Bobolink is officially the Rock Star of all birds. He’s a total punk rocker, in the grooviest sense of the word! In any event, I’m impressed. And, I just learned that Emily Dickinson was also entirely taken with the bird and wrote a series of bobolink poems. Here is one of them, “The Way to Know the Bobolink”:

The Way to Know The Bobolink
From every other Bird
Precisely as the Joy of him —
Obliged to be inferred.

Of impudent Habiliment
Attired to defy,
Impertinence subordinate
At times to Majesty.

Of Sentiments seditious
Amenable to Law–
As Heresies of Transport
Or Puck’s Apostacy.

Extrinsic to Attention
Too intimate with Joy —
He compliments existence
Until allured away

By Seasons or his Children–
Adult and urgent grown —
Or unforeseen aggrandizement
Or, happily, Renown —

By contrast certifying
The Bird of Birds is gone–
How nullified the Meadow–
Her Sorcerer withdrawn!

(And you can listen to the Bobolink right here.)

Who Knew?

I’m learning all sorts of useful ornithological trivia from All About Birds, the penultimate addition to my newly designated bird shelf.

  1. During the Renaissance, before natural scientists could explain migration, they assumed that birds travelled to the moon or hid in bodies of water.
  2. Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), my new favorite ortnithologist, wrote a three-volume gem called Ornithologiae, where he described birds, their habitat, their habits and how to capture, preserve and cook them!
  3. Isidore of Seville (560-636) believed that the saliva of cuckoos could produce grasshoppers.

The book is fascinating in its intensely strange details, if a little on the dense side. As I said earlier, the stunning illustrations make up for the dreary prose. Are there any histories of ornithology out there that are also fascinating reads? Please let me know — I still have room on my Bird shelf!

I used to always ask my students what literary figure (fictional character or author) they would like to dine with and to think of questions they’d ask the person. It was a fun exercise and got them thinking of the importance of literature and how it actually intersects with their own lives. If I were to have dinner with Ulisse Aldrovandi, I’d definitely ask him about his bird-cooking: what spices did he use? which species are tastiest? I’d also ask him what he thought birds did while hanging out on the moon…

Birding and the Writing Process

No, I’m not kidding. This title is not a joke.

What does this picture have to do with the writing process and with creativity in general? Well, in case I didn’t make it clear in my last post, I’m loving How to be a Bad Birdwatcher by Simon Barnes. Not only is the book hilarious and also very touching, but I’m finding his theory about birdwatching is very applicable to writing:

You start by blundering about and making a good few blunders, too. Everybody does. My advice is to carry on blundering in a totally unembarrassed way. The more you look, the more blunders you will make, and the more blunders you make, the more you will see, and you find that slowly a pattern has been building up without you realizing it. This building-up of patterns is one of the deeper joys: once you begin to understand the rhythm of birdwatching, you are beginning to understand the rhythm of birds themselves. Which is nothing less than the rhythm of life.

Now, substitute birdwatching for writing, and Simon Barnes is actually saying something very profound. So much of writing is about “blundering about,” playing with an idea, twisting it around in your mind until you find, without really knowing how, that it’s come alive and that it has rhythm. And he’s entirely write: “the more blunders you make” the more you actually see what’s in front of you. And just like with birdwatching, writing is also about giving yourself the time and space to write your way into a thought without knowing exactly what it means until suddenly you find patterns emerging. Writing, too, is about the power of being surprised.

Over the course of the past few months, I’ve realized how much bird watching — just like writing — is about something very simple: learning how to open your eyes.

Many Thanks

Thank you dear readers for enlightening me. Many thanks to Rick for enlightening me as to what I really must have seen out on Denman Island. It turns out the birds wasn’t a Red Headed Woodpecker or (as I had formerly thought) an Acorn Woodpecker, but is, in all likelihood, a Red Breasted Sapsucker, which looks like:

Sphyriacus Ruber. In all its glory. Apparently these inhabit the coniferous forests of the northern pacific coast which is, ahem, exactly where we were. So there you have it. Mystery solved. My husband and I are the proud observers of an honest to goodness Red Breasted Sapsucker.

And, thanks to Fireweed Meadow as well as my friend & awesome San Diego reporter and his biological oceanographer wife, I can now confidently say that the sea creature we saw on Hornby Island is a Sunflower Starfish (Pycnopodia helianthoides), an intensely creepy predator that sheds arms (and then grows them back!) to escape from the likes of King Crabs. I’d like to have that superpower myself: if I were a martial artist (which I’m not), just imagine the perks. Someone grabs you and tries to tackle you, you drop a limb or two and they’re left standing there with a leg or an elbow or something, and off you go about your daily business. Yes, a super power would be nice right about now.

And, finally, my first gift from a reader! (Incidentally, there’s nothing I love more than unexpected presents.)

(Oops. didn’t meant to include the logo from Amazon.) Isn’t that the best title? How to be a Bad Birdwatcher. I love it.

I don’t go birdwatching. Birdwatching is a state of being, not an activity. It doesn’t depend on place, on equipment, on specific purpose…It is not a matter of organic trainspotting; it is about life and it is about living. […] It is just the habit of looking… Looking at birds is a key: it opens doors, and if you choose to go through them you find you enjoy life more and understand life better. (How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, 17)

Simon Barnes, I couldn’t have said that better myself! So perhaps that’s what I am — a bad birdwatcher, but someone who is learning how to look with wonder. (And thank you, Pickle Me This!)