slow birding

by bam

A force in us drives us to the untamed. We dream of the wild, not the domestic, for it is wildness that is unknown….It can be a daily need, a desire to connect with the wind, to live facing the unexpected.

What will bring us wildness in the places we live, domesticated with warmth and culture? For some, icy branches scratching together will suffice. A glimpse of a gibbous moon or a pomegranate-stained evening sky might help. But more than these, more than perhaps anything else, are the birds. These winged dinosaurs that have given up stored fat, hollowed their bones, and made many other compromises for flight––these organisms connect us with here and there, with then and now, as they chatter outside our windows or soar past our lives. 

Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard by Joan E. Strassmann

i surrender my soul to anyone who looks out the window and sees so vastly, so deeply. someone who understands that the pulsebeat of all creation––timeless creation––is as near as the fluttering in the branch that scrapes against the panes of our window. 

joan strassmann, an animal behaviorist and beloved professor, is the someone who penned those words. she penned them in her new book, Slow Birding, a title that immediately caught my eye (and when i mentioned it to my birdwatching mother, she swiftly informed me she’s been slow birding forever; so much for novel ideas). strassmann writes that she, like my mother, has been a slow birder all her life, not one of those birders frantically motoring hither and yon for a quick glimpse through the binocular lens, a scribbled addition to the “lifelist,” and then onto the next spotting. strassmann is not about “spotting.” she’s about slow-paced study. about taking the time to delight in the humors, startle at the spats (as even regal papa cardinal squawks away the lowly sparrowly choristers), marvel at the parabolas of flight, as feather takes on the wind. she’s all about absorbing the wonder. 

here at my cloister-in-the-making, where the walled garden soon will be serpentined with climbing hydrangea, where an elegant and capacious shingle-roofed bird B+B has been ceremoniously mounted on an elegant hand-carved post (the resident architecture critic thought it would be nifty if the scrolled brackets of the house were matched by post brackets that echoed the scrolling; and our beloved jim the builder obliged), it’s the feathered flocks that spring the whole place to life, to effervescent animation: the crimson troupe of cardinals, the squawking trio of jays, the countless sparrows, the occasional and pesky grackles, the ominous hawk.

with a mind toward soothing and stoking the soul, we’ve pared our dwelling here in this old house to an unfettered few balms: armchairs are ample and poised for conversation, a fireplace crackles with logs from the forest, books line the walls, hours are filled with the quiet of pages turning and spices simmering on the near-ancient cookstove. 

it’s the birds who bring the wild to our windowsills and put flight to our wondering. my housemate here, the aforementioned architecture critic, a man who makes an art of the rhythm of routine, has made it his solemn and devoted morning chore to scoop up a tin of seed and ferry it out to the flocks. whenever i can manage to beat him to the punch, i punctuate my seed dumping with a cheery call to the flocks, to let them know that breakfast is served. i refer to my birds in the diminutive. “here, sweeties,” i call, much to the dismay, i fear, of the neighbors. (but, oh well, they put up the fence so i can do as i wacky-well please in my now-secret walled garden.)

and even though our birding has always been slow, i find strassmann’s intentionality, her keen and fine-grained observations of the ways of each and every genre of bird, has me upping my game. putting down distraction, training my eye out the window for longer and longer spells of the day. taking note of peculiar particulars i might otherwise miss. (it’s excellent training for the whole of one’s closely examined and attentively-lived sole chance at life.)

strassmann passes along the wisdom of famed ornithologist margaret morse nice whose instruction is at once spare yet richly complex: sit still and watch. draw what you see, perhaps, the singular birds who flutter and flit. befriend them. scribble notes in a journal you keep by the window. 

but why a whole book, a 334-page book, if the instruction itself is so brief? well, strassmann explains that she delves into the intricacies of sixteen birds––and five bird-watching places––because to know the ways of the birds, to know each particular one’s biological story, is to illuminate all the more what we might otherwise be utterly missing out yonder. and thus we might look and look more closely.

the stories, obtained over the lifetimes of various ornithologists who trained their lenses on a single question or puzzle or species, might leave you oohhing and ahhing and racing to windows.

for instance: blue jays––noisy, bossy––are “the most american of birds, occurring in every state” (though not a single state claims the jay as its state bird); the american robin is the “earthworm whisperer,” and when a robin cocks its head toward the earth, it’s listening for the rustle of the underground worm; the ubiquitous sparrow is a bird with roots in bethlehem (yes, that bethlehem), and once was considered a pot-pie delicacy (thankfully those days are behind us––and the sparrow); and finally, the cardinal has reason for chasing after the reddest of berries: the carotenoids in the fruits make for a deeper red of its feathers (and not only that, but the redder the cardinal, the more desirable it’s regarded in the feathered fiefdom of red-bird mating).

it’s all endlessly wondrous to me, the alchemy of poetry and science and feather on air, the proximity of the wild, the animations of beings both social and singular. 

there is something about the delicate ways of the avian world, something about the simple existence of seed and nest, flight and song, that stirs in me an exercise of the prayerful. it’s as close as i come to the wild day in and day out, and it draws me every time into a marveling that makes me sense i’ve been brushed by the holy divine. 

what will you do slowly today?

the other night i was blessed to sit and listen in proximity to pádraig ó tuama, who among many wonders spoke about how he loves birds and irish names for birds, and i was enchanted. because he’s as kind and generous as he is brilliant, yesterday afternoon he sent me the poem he’d read—“now i watch through an open door”––with the irish names for various birds woven into the poetry, and so i am including here the last stanza, with the names highlighted and i’m adding a little glossary below, so you too might be enchanted by the names the irish put to their birds…..

Oh forest flame, oh young light on the old oak,
oh small brown druid I hear
but never see. Oh red king of the morning, oh dainty feet
among the dungheaps, and fierce goose
with fierce goslings, oh muscled hare, russeted
by the long evening. Oh my
low deer, powerful and insignificant,
oh glen, oh magnificent.

irish names for birds:

*goldfinch: “bright flame of the forest” 

*wren: “brown druid”

*chaffinch: “red king”

barn owl: “graveyard screecher”

red wing: “little red one of the snow”

meadow pipit: “little streaked one of the bog/moor”

kestrel: “wind frolicker”

bullfinch: “little scarlet one of the woods”

greenfinch: “little green one of the oak tree”

oh, sigh, oh magnificent irish….

one last thing: i’ve been invited by a dear friend, the poet mark burrows, to partake of a celebration of the great austrian-bohemian poet rainer maria rilke, on dec. 4, rilke’s birthday. i quake to tell you that we’ll be in conversation with none other than pádraig ó tuama, and the details are spelled out in the flyer below. and you can find out more and register for the free zoom program here. (you’ll need to scroll down a wee bit; it’s the third in the roster of events…) (my favorite part of the flyer is where it notes the time of the event in ireland! be still my ol’ irish heart….)

and that, dear friends, is it for the week. be well, and be slow….