Monthly Archives: February 2016

My Two Lives

I can’t say that I think about Anton Chekhov every single day, but I do think of him most days. More specifically, I think of this passage in my favourite story, “The Lady with a Little Dog,” where he writes about the two lives of his protagonist:

He had two lives: an apparent one, seen and known by all who needed it, filled with conventional truth and conventional deceit, which perfectly resembled the lives of his acquaintances and friends, and another that went on in secret. And by some strange coincidence, perhaps an accidental one, everything that he found important, interesting, necessary, in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, which constituted the core of his life, occurred in secret from others, while everything that made up his lie, his shell, in which he hid in order to conceal the truth — for instance, his work at the bank, his arguments at the club, his “inferior race”, his attending official celebrations with his wife– all this was in full view. And he judged others by himself, did not believe what he saw, and always supposed that every man led his own real and interesting life under the cover of secrecy, as under the cover of night.

And I have started to wonder about my two lives, which I deliberately keep separate. In my non-birding world, which occupies the bulk of my existence, I write, I play the piano sloppily, I lecture to later-life-learners about the Avant-Garde or Russian/Soviet cultural history or Russian music, I talk about Tolstoy and Chekhov and Dostoevsky and any other Russian writer my students want to discuss, occasionally I teach creative writing classes to later-life-learners, and I work with high school students, I cook dinner, I swim slowly, I buy too many books and mugs and shoes and, lately, Vermont-made woollens. I am a thank-you-card writing addict and, most recently, an obsessive aunt. And you see, none of this has anything to do with birds.

Once a week, I morph into a birding maniac. I rise before dawn, tuck my jeans into wool socks, arm myself with Tim Horton’s coffee (which my other self never drinks — she’s all about locally sourced food and shade-grown, ethical beans), and off I go in search of….ANYTHING, really. All week, I look forward to the day I get to whip out my Carl Zeiss binoculars and experience a moment of recognition when I happen upon a bird I know (sometimes I even know the Latin binomial, sometimes I can even visualize the marks on its primaries and secondaries, which I know from the banding station where I’ve likely held the bird in my hand; other times, well, I get everything wrong).

I keep the lives distinct because there is no overlap between the two. And yet. Last Saturday I gave a lecture about Stalinism and Musical Comedy (no, it’s not an oxymoron) and before the lecture started, as I hooked up my computer to the console in the lecture hall, the first image that graced the screen wasn’t my opening slide with a portrait of Stalin, but rather a photo of me holding a BUFFLEHEAD, with a delirious smile on my face.

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And just like that, the lives had merged. Who was this crazed happy person holding a duck and how was the audience supposed to reconcile this with the person who was about to give a serious lecture, replete with secondary sources, sophisticated terminology? What could possibly be the relationship between the two?

I usually keep my birdy side of myself a secret, mainly because it doesn’t fit into the larger narrative I’m trying to express. But what if I were to work on blending the two? What if I were to inject some of the enthusiasm and energy from my secret life into my apparent one? I had originally thought that the apparent, more prosaic life would suffer. But now I’m not so sure. You see, when I bird I’m entirely imperfect and I happily accept that limitation. Most of the IDs I make are misguided and just plain wrong. But for every embarrassing, glaring error, I get something right, and that moment of recognition feels infinitely better than any good performance evaluation or award or public recognition I could hope to achieve. When I’m birding I’m not after perfection or after success. Instead, I’m mesmerized by the process.

What if I were to bring more of my birding life into my writing life? What would my “apparent life” life resemble if I let my secret, truer life infiltrate it just slightly?

I think I’m willing to take the risk.


Beloved Birders,

The great French writer Stendhal once wrote about traveling to Florence and feeling overwhelmed by all the art and architecture surrounding him, and ultimately being unable to process it all. In the end, he became physically ill — including dizzy spells, palpitations of the heart, etc — as a result of the aesthetic overload he experienced while exploring the city and encountering “celestial sensations”. Psychiatrists have later called this experience the Stendhal syndrome or the Florence syndrome or even “hyperkulturemia”.

Well, birders, rural Barrie Ontario doesn’t come close to visiting Florence, but I could relate to Stendhal yesterday when I saw TWELVE SNOWY OWLS during a day spent driving the back roads of Simcoe County with two talented and generous bird handers.

Here's a female Snowy on a post. Miraculously, this photo was taken by me. Hence the questionable quality, but there I was snapping pictures like a breathless maniac.

Here’s a female Snowy on a post. Miraculously, this photo was taken by me. Hence the questionable quality, but there I was snapping pictures like a breathless maniac.

The day started out slowly, with the requisite hour-long traffic jam getting out of Toronto, but once we were on the back roads about an hour north of the city we were alone with the elements. And the owls. We were out owl banding and though we only caught one bird, I spent the day breathless, staring out the window, surveying fields, hydro posts, looking for large whitish blobs anywhere I could find them. I sat in the back with the traps and the faint stench of hamsters and mice which ended up smelling like fine perfume by the end of the day, so altered was my state of mind.

I had once seen six snowy owls in one day and had considered that the apex of good fortune and perfection. Yesterday’s count of 12 left me positively speechless. It wasn’t so much the number that impressed me but the fact that while we drove the snowy back roads, I was singularly occupied by the task of observing my surroundings.

If someone had told me, five years ago (or even one, for that matter) that I would be able to sit still for eight hours and simply look out the window for white blobs against a mostly white background, and that I could do this without pulling my hair out and dying of boredom, I would have laughed out loud.

But you see I’ve spent most of the winter working pretty hard and wishing I were elsewhere, dreaming of some other elusive place, and it’s a frustrating place to inhabit, this wanting something OTHER. And yesterday, for the first time all winter, I found myself happy exactly where I was, looking intently for white on white, eyes growing feeble in the mid-day light. Birds are so much a master class in learning how to see and how to be present. The actual banding part of the day was slow, but I didn’t care. Had we caught nothing, I would have still been thrilled. My friends kept asking me if I was ok, if I wasn’t disappointed, and I kept telling them that the act of looking gave me the greatest pleasure of all.

And then we caught a snowy and the adrenaline kicked in. We set up a trap for a gorgeous male who was eyeing us from a hydro pole, but just as we threw down the hamster trap he absconded in a different direction. We were about to move the trap, when suddenly an enormous female appeared out of nowhere and swooped down toward the poor little rodent. Charlotte extracted her from the trap  masterfully — in a matter of seconds — and suddenly there we were in the car with a 5.5 pound SNOWY OWL! I didn’t hold her, but I kept petting her head and mumbling absurdities about how she is the cutest thing in the world after my baby nephew and at that minute I felt exactly like poor Stendhal in Italy. ‘t was freezing, but I took off my coat from the adrenaline rush and realizing that in a matter of minutes this would all turn into a surreal memory. And then after she was banded, we were outside, measuring her wing, weighing her (2515 grams!), photographing her, feeling my fingers slowly growing numb, wondering what I was doing outside in just a hoodie with no coat, and then before I knew it she was off.

Here is the extraordinary beauty.

Here is the extraordinary beauty. She was actually remarkably cooperative.

Check out her wing! The gentleman in the back wearing a sharp fur hat and shades was a Conservation Officer who stopped us as we were banding the bird to see my friend's permit. Once he saw the Snowy he stuck around and couldn't stop taking photos of her.

Check out her wing! The gentleman in the back wearing a sharp fur hat and shades was a Conservation Officer who stopped us as we were banding the bird to see my friend’s permit. Once he saw the Snowy he stuck around and couldn’t stop taking photos of her. The picture kind of looks like something out of a Russian mobster movie. But no, this is southern Ontario. 

I never thought I’d have the chance to get that close to a Snowy. Bubo scandiacus. And just like that, the whole thing feels like a dream…