Monthly Archives: June 2011

Sparrows and more Sparrows

Sparrow Enthusiasts! I learned yesterday that not only does North Dakota boast a fabulous creative nonfiction writer whom I just recently discovered (see previous post) when I read The Horizontal World, but the state is also one of the best places to see sparrows! North Dakota is home to at least 20 species of sparrows, and has a wide range of both streaked and unstreaked variety. So, if sparrows are your persuasion, North Dakota is your destination!

I am neither a sparrow enthusiast nor a sparrow connoisseur for that matter, but after yesterday’s birding trip to Forks of the Credit (alas, a park near Toronto, and nowhere near ND), I’ve become slightly curious about sparrows, which is saying a lot because before yesterday, I was decidedly UN-curious about the bird. The problem with sparrows is that they all look the same. And I’m not even kidding. Little tan-colored, brown streaked, sometimes rusty-hued flying wonders. Sparrows are the kind of bird I can’t even distinguish in the field guide, let alone out in nature.

Here’s my list of sparrows from yesterday: Clay colored sparrow (Spizella pallida), Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia), Swamp sparrow (Melospiza georgiana), Grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla), Savannah sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis), House sparrow (Passer domesticus), Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), and I’m sure there were some other sparrows I can’t remember. I might as well have been in North Dakota! My favorite was the Grasshopper sparrow, chiefly because the bird sounds remarkably like a grasshopper and has a charming buzz. Here he is, singing away:

Thankfully, there were other birds to revive me from my sparrow-induced stupor. I marveled at the Bobolinks and finally got a great look at an Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna) that was hanging out on a fence post and standing still for what seemed like an eternity in bird-time. I had a chance to appreciate the meadowlark’s bright yellow coloring. Later in the morning I even spotted it high up in a tree — not much of a sighting, but I felt particularly birdy when I identified it, since it was my first correct ID in months.

The piece de resistance, birdwise, was an Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) perched high up in a dead tree on the edge of a country road near Palgrave. It was a perfect sighting: the bluest bird you could possibly imagine, brilliant burning blue against the morning sky, sitting there alone, contemplating. I declared the day sublime (in spite of the sparrows) and it wasn’t even 10 am!

Shortly after my brush with the sublime, we were nearly trampled by an equestrian club of about 20 decked-out riders atop their handsome horses. We stepped aside on the trail and then took the rode less traveled to avoid the scents they left behind, equine and otherwise. Other highlights included some astonishing, deep-voiced frog sightings. One of them sounded like notes plucked on a bass guitar and would have been an asset to any rock band. But this is hardly the proper forum for Frog-based discussions.

Words, not birds

When I’m not thinking about birds, but still thinking about words, chances are I’m thinking of geography. Why is it certain places have a hold on us? What qualifies as a home? Why are some places, not matter how hard you try, never bound to feel like home? Is one born into a home or can a home be created?

Debra Marquart’s The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere  (2006) has everything to do with my two favorite obsessions: words and geography. Her brilliant memoir is an account of  her relationship with North Dakota, a home she can never fully escape, no matter how far away she moves. Marquart’s account of North Dakota is so vivid, so vibrant, so teeming with life that I immediately told my husband that we’re headed to the Great Plains for our next vacation. He was less than thrilled with that suggestion.

I’m fascinated by wholly unremarkable places (such as North Dakota) and even more fascinated by writers who manage to render them sublime. Marquart seamlessly entwines historical accounts of the Midwest, elegy, family history, personal anecdotes and popular culture. Her story is a deeply personal account of her family’s land, her identity as a farmer’s daughter along with its complicated expectations/implications, and the endless wheat fields and enormous sky that define her. In the end, even though she leaves North Dakota for the academic life in Iowa (via a career as a rock musician, much to her parents’ horror), Marquart is never far from the arduous work of the farm that she so desperately wished to abandon. Her realization that writing and farming are, in a sense, both lives of toil is startling and beautiful:

How strange it seems to me now, an adult woman so far from that life on the farm, that the struggle I face each day when I approach my writing desk — to bring to language the stories pushing up beneath my feet — feels so much like the hard labor of unearthing those half-exposed rocks in my father’s fields.

And no matter how fiercely I struggled to evade my fate as a farmer’s wife, becoming a writer instead, how strange it is to realize that writing, the act of arranging language in neat horizontal furrows, is a great deal like farming.

The Horizontal World is about the impossibility of escaping one’s formative geography. And it’s the impossibility of her true escape that Debra Marquart renders extraordinary. I read parts of the book twice. I’ve been dreaming of North Dakota. It’s that good.

Home Birding

I was struck down by a virus this past weekend (the kind where you’re neither sick enough to garner proper sympathy nor well enough to do much other than lie in bed feeling utterly sorry for yourself). Instead of contributing to my own Life List, I stayed home and did the next best thing. I engaged in some serious armchair traveling and read The Big Year by Mark Obmascik — a riveting page-turner of a book about three obsessed birders’ quest to see as many birds as humanly possible in North America. (In case you’re not familiar with the meaning of a Big Year — it’s a year long, highly competitive super-human birdwatching marathon. Not for the weak.) Obmascik took me all over the US, from New Jersey to Florida to Arizona to Alaska to Minnesota, to BC and showed me a grand total of 745 species!

The book is nonfiction and the characters entirely spectacular in their ambition, drive, unwavering concentration and total obsession with their quest to see more birds than any human before them. I loved getting to know the birders — watching them in the field, living vicariously through their excitement as they added to their list, fearful of their competitors, terrified of losing their standing. These men stopped at nothing. Mark Obmascik does a great job of adding humor to the Big Year enterprise; he highlights the absurdity of obsessive birding but also emphasizes its sincerity. In the end, the Big Year becomes a noble pursuit, and I found myself rooting for all three protagonists, not wanting their journey to end.

And, guess what? This October, The Big Year is coming to a theatre near you, starring Steve Martin, Jack Black, Owen Wilson. Diane Wiest and Anjelica Huston!

It wasn’t quite the same as being out in the field, but it was a decent substitute.