Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Poetry and Prose of a Feathery Nature

Ever since I was a little girl,
I've always loved to read.
And write.
And eat chocolate.

Now that you add birds into the mix, I like to read about birds while eating chocolate. 
And, now that I'm not a little girl, I occasionally add wine to the mix. Occasionally.

Anyway, sometimes I do this thing where I grab a book off the shelf, 
close my eyes,
and flip through the pages until it feels right to stop.
I think my mom may have taught me this.

Then I open my eyes and read whatever is there.

I was playing this game recently with a large volume of Robert Frost poetry,
when I aptly happened upon this one (one which I never remember reading before):

He would declare and could himself believe
That the birds there in all the garden round
From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
Had added to their own an oversound,
Her tone of meaning but without the words.
Admittedly an eloquence so soft
Could only have had an influence on birds
When call or laughter carried it aloft.
Be that as may be, she was in their song.
Moreover her voice upon their voices crossed
Had now persisted in the woods so long
That probably it never would be lost.
Never again would birds' song be the same.
And to do that to birds was why she came.
Then I thought to myself,
Rumi must have poems about birds too.
And about this I was right.
(Rumi is my favorite poet thus far).
Here is one of his poems, translated by Coleman Barks:

Your grief for what you've lost lifts a mirror
up to where you're bravely working.

Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
here's the joyful face you've been wanting to see.

Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.

Your deepest presence is in every small
Contracting and expanding,

the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
as birdwings.  

Since 3's always a good number, I figured I could probably find among my bookshelves a third bird poem. And so I close this thrilling trifecta with a few lines from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven"

But the Raven, sitting lonely on that placid bust, spoke only
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour,
Nothing farther then he uttered; not a feather then he fluttered-
Till I scarcely more than muttered "Other friends have flown before-
On the morrow he will leave me, as my Hopes have flown before."
Then the bird said "Nevermore."

And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted- nevermore!

Maybe birds represent beauty,
or perhaps strength and exquisite design.
Maybe they conjure up something delicate, feminine...
or something dark and foreboding.

I think birds can be all these things, along with many others.
As long as people keep writing about birds and adding new perspectives,
I know I'll keep reading.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

9 Ways Birding Has Changed my Life

My favorite tail-less Red-winged Blackbird female

I’m a birder- irreversibly, obsessively, and unashamedly taken with birds. 

As Tom Heatley (local Michigan birder and #14 on the 2014 ABA United States Top 50 list) says, “Birding is a disease, and the only cure is more birding!” Throughout the past year, I have discovered and fallen in Love with this passion. I refrain from calling it a hobby because its effects are more profound. If I listed all the ways, it would be the stuff of a novel not a blog post, so instead, here are 9 of the ways birding has changed my life:

#1) A Calm in the Storm
Birding has allowed me to fight some tough battles, including addiction. There have been times I wanted to be free but didn’t know how to fight through the hard stuff. On days I felt tired, sick, or anti-social, birding allowed me to more willingly exist in that uncomfortable space. The calming effect of nature, the fresh air in my lungs, and the overwhelming realization of the beauty surrounding me all bring peace that nothing else can.
#2) Zen
A few years ago, I discovered meditation through running, pushing through physical discomforts and rising above the body. Birding has produced a similar effect, except with birding I can actually be still. I can easily spend hours on end, walking through the woods and sitting under trees, never considering time until the sun begins to set. As I embrace the values of patience, stillness, and an openness of the mind and senses, birding hours seem like minutes to me. In the Buddhist tradition, the forest is considered a special place for enlightenment, for within it “there is only the ever-present possibility of events, encounters, and insights that emerge directly from reality itself, pure and unpolluted by human wants, expectations, and attitudes. Uniquely in the forest, the most radical of all human journeys can take place” (excerpt from Reginald A Ray’s Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body). I feel this too.
#3) Constant Wonder
When I began to get serious about birding, I realized how many local birds I had never seen before. These birds had been living nearby or passing through the area since long before I was born, yet I had never noticed them. Each new bird is a moment of realization, a chance to be curious, amazed, attentive, and aware. Sometimes it isn’t even the new birds that excite me, rather a close encounter, a great photo, or an unusual behavior. Birding keeps me on my toes and keeps me looking up (double meaning intended).
#4) A Break in Routine
Birding changes the landscape of days and lessens the divide between the workweek and the weekend. I’ve never subscribed to the idea of “The Grind”, of working Monday through Friday 9-5 and wishing it all away. I live my life for the day, even if it’s Monday. After all, every day is a new chance for adventure!

#5) A Network of Friends
Kevin R., Jeff S., and me (Photo courtesy: Paul Poronto)
Here I am, one full year into birding, and I’ve somehow managed to meet and befriend more people than I ever have in a single year. Through eBird, walks in the park, and a string of serendipitous events, I have quickly built up a network of birder friends who could also be described as family. These birders have welcomed me into their homes, taken me under their wings on road trips across Michigan, and shared with me anything I need including: toe warmers, extra gloves, bug spray, sunblock, snacks, equipment, books, hugs, and most importantly, an endless stream of knowledge. We don’t always have to be together but when we are, we pick up right where we left off, somewhere between the wingbeats.
#6) A Breath of Relief
I never had a clear plan for my career. I used to spend many days worrying over my lack of conviction. I felt directionless, lost, and envious of those who knew what they wanted to do with their lives. To be honest, I am still quite uncertain about my career goals, but now the not-knowing doesn’t bother me as much. I found what fills my heart with joy and discovered something in birding from which nothing can detract. Blogging about birds has been a recent development. It has given me hope that my marketing education and birding passion can in fact be linked. If I can use my degree to share my passion, that would be the best-case scenario. Until then, I can be at peace with the uncertainty because I find peace in birds.
#7) A New Role
While I’ve always been an avid reader and sponge for knowledge, I have never considered myself a good teacher. Anyone who has witnessed my teaching attempts would understand this, as I often stutter through explanations and make up words as I go. I am very much an introvert who prefers to lead by example rather than explain something. However, birding seems to be the exception. This passion has given me an entirely new identity. People now come to me with their bird questions and sightings because they know I will be interested and will provide feedback. I find myself surprised at my willingness to offer information, reach out to others, and yes, even teach others about birds. To be depended upon in that way feels like a sign of maturity and an indication I have something meaningful to offer.
#8) A Test of Limits
Birding may sound like the antithesis of adrenaline-seeking, but for me, it has been the motivation to broaden my horizons and test my limits. Consider last winter when Kevin (my friend and fellow birder) and I spent hours trudging through snow in frigid temperatures. We were searching for Long-eared Owls who had been spending time in a particular patch of trees. As soon as we were enveloped in that dark canopy of conifers, standing right underneath an impossibly camouflaged Long-eared Owl, there was simply no other place to be. Alternately, I have never been on a plane and am still terrified at the idea. Still, despite my fear, I know one day I will want to expand my birding horizons and visit birds that would never reach Michigan. I find it fitting that birds will most likely be my incentive to fly.
#9) Natural Connection
While birds are often the main subjects of my adventures and photos, they are not the only creatures with whom I have connected. I have always loved nature and the outdoors, but now I feel even more connected to it and aware of it. More and more, I find myself a keeper, collector, and protector of nature. I save centipedes; allow spiders to crawl on my hands; pick wildflowers; collect rocks, leaves, and shells; and eat wild berries. Some days the birding is slow, but there is always, always something beautiful to be seen.

The following is an excerpt from a book that speaks to my soul, a book called Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D. In this passage, Estés discusses the effects of the Wild Woman, or true feminine nature:
Silver-spotted Skipper (Epargyreus clarus)

These transient ‘tastes of the wild’… come both through beauty as well as loss, that cause us to become so bereft, so agitated, so longing that we eventually must pursue the wildish nature. Then we leap into the forest or into the desert or into the snow and run hard, our eyes scanning the ground, our hearing sharply tuned, searching under, searching over, searching for a clue, a remnant, a sign that we have not lost our chance. And when we pick up her trail, it is typical of women to ride hard to catch up, to clear off the desk, clear off the relationship, clear out one’s mind, turn to a new page, insist on a break, break the rules, stop the world, for we are not going on without her any longer… When women reassert their relationship with the wildish nature, they are gifted with a permanent and internal watcher, a knower, a visionary, an oracle, an inspiratrice, an intuitive, a maker, a creator, an inventor, and a listener who guide, suggest, and urge vibrant life in the inner and outer words.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Happy Halloween, Bird Nerds!

9.2015 Blood moon eclipse

It was October 30th, Devil’s Night, and something magical was buzzing in the air.

Maybe it was the candy and chocolate meant for trick-or-treaters and sampled first by adults; or the way pumpkins had transformed into lanterns that smiled and screamed from porches and windows. Maybe it was the breath of autumn filling the air with the sweet musty scent of wet leaves and cinnamon; or the freedom to dress like a mummy or a cat or a puzzle piece. Whatever the cause, there was a mischievous, childlike spirit emanating from every shadowy corner. These shadows held secrets and unexpected things.

Some of these came in the form of ghosts, spiders, and children jumping into view with a loud, “BOO!” Some showed up as birds.

10.30.15 Varied Thrush
The Varied Thrush (Ixoreus naevius) is a black and orange robin relative hailing from the damp woods and ravines of the west coast. From Alaska to southern California it creeps through the forest carpet, calling out with a ghostly whistle (some say UFO-like).

It seemed on this day the winds were in our favor, bringing to our metropark this west coast wanderer. Birders texted and called each other with the news, gathering hurriedly to the scene. Still dressed in work clothes, I ran through the parking lot in hopes I wasn’t too late.

Quickly my worries were dissolved as I heard Scott say, “Andrea, Varied Thrush in the scope!” On my tip toes I peered into a beautiful circular world of magnified bird. I could see its black bib and bright orange breast whose feathers reminded me a little bit of bubble wrap. Amazingly, this Varied Thrush, entirely festive dressed in orange and black, was not the only faraway traveler in sight.
Out on the water there was spinning top, its whites and grays becoming a blur which matched the shade of the cloudy sky. As it slowed, it revealed itself as a bird even more out of range than the first. It was a Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius) and was uncharacteristically inland. It likely traveled down from the high arctic, from which it would typically follow the Atlantic or Pacific to spend its winters at sea.

10.30.15 Red Phalarope
In the presence of more experienced birders, these two birds (the thrush and the phalarope) provided a rare scenario where I was not the only one seeing a bird for the first time. At least one of these birds was a lifer for many in the crowd (a lifer or life bird is a bird one has never seen before).

Ever hungry for a closer look, we decided the Varied Thrush would be easier to approach than the Red Phalarope swirling around in the waves. A few of us drove to the other side of the bay, crossing backyards (with permission) to wait for our Halloween bird. It soon obliged and gave us a few glorious moments empty of breathing yet full of camera clicks. When the thrush scurried out of sight, we collectively exhaled, smiled, and pumped fists. 

 Just as Halloween shrieks with simultaneous delight and horror, so too did events unfold.

10.30.15 Varied Thrush
There was one more bird silently waiting in the wings- a Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) who was hungry for something unusual. The Varied Thrush was a bright orange target for this bird of prey. After it descended upon the thrush, it began to pluck the feathers which scattered across the muddy beach like the spines of fallen leaves.

Just then, a friendly young couple walked up to our birding group and asked what we were doing. We all sort of scrambled for words and explained that we just saw a rare and beautiful bird which then got eaten. Even as non-birders, they seemed to understand the emotion of the situation; we all did, as we dared to think about life and death.

I was reminded of Halloween’s roots in the Celtic tradition of Samhain. According to Spring Wolf
“During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, and danced around the bonfire. Many of these dances told stories or played out the cycles of life and death or commemorated the cycle of Wheel of Life.” Perhaps a dramatic comparison, the day's events still seemed a fitting and timely metaphor.

Now, Halloween is here to welcome the darkness and savor the light. Tonight, when the sky is black and the moon is wide awake, perhaps we’ll hear a faint, otherworldly call, the whistle of a black and orange ghost.

10.30.15 A very Halloween scene
Hold the dark holiday in your palms. Bite it, swallow it and survive, Come out the far black tunnel of el Dia de Muerte And be glad, ah so glad you are... alive! -Ray Bradbury, The Halloween Tree