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June 10, 2012

Exuberant Birders! I keep getting asked why? Why birds? And I started thinking about it in earnest. Why, indeed?

It started out, as you all know, somewhat sentimentally, with a crush on Jonathan Franzen (bird essayist extraordinaire, fellow onetime Missouri resident), which then lead to a fascination with Phoebe Snetsinger (aka: greatest birder ever, coincidentally also onetime Missouri resident), and finally to my first birding outing where I saw a Red-winged blackbird (which is apparently the greatest cliché ever, but such is life) and never looked back. And it’s now been close to three years.

I wonder why it is that people (friends, relatives, acquaintances, honestly, EVERYBODY) are so shocked to learn that I’m a birder. A bird watcher. One of them! Those strange folks who don Tilley hats and oversized pocketed vests, travel around in large groups and stare up at the sky, talk about optics interminably, and enjoy awful bird-related puns. How could I possibly be one of them? Well, I haven’t yet succumbed to the beige vest, but the rest is indeed applicable. Just a few days ago, I received a wonderfully thoughtful gift from a friend: a notepad with a raven on it that says Raven Lunatic. Oh, the puns.

But you know what? I had birding sensibilities before I ever went out into the field. I’ve owned a Tilley hat since I was 18 (a bit young to be sporting such geriatric looking apparel, but I’ve accepted my fate), and I’ve always been an acute observer. In fact, I first discovered binoculars as a young tween (pardon the awful word; I’m testing it out and don’t think I’ll do so again) and spent many hours staring into our neighbor’s house, watching her watch The Wheel of Fortune with her husband over a tepid cup of Ovaltine. (The binoculars were confiscated by my parents.) And years later, I used to watch my South African housemate watch birds from our balcony in New Jersey. I must have been born with a slight voyeuristic streak, which is probably a requisite trait for a writer anyhow.

In a way, I knew birding and I would click. But the biggest surprise is how much birding has taught me about the writing process. So much of birding centers around looking carefully, observing the most minimal alterations and movements, learning to put them into words, and, most importantly, waiting. If anything, birding is teaching me the art of patience, which I then bring to my writing desk every day. Very often, a bird is there, hovering above our heads, and we have to play the waiting game until it decides to make a surprise appearance. Sometimes it mocks us and only discloses its song and there is seemingly little payoff for our work, but then when you least expect it a different, often more spectacular bird, appears — almost out of nowhere. It’s magic.

A form of magic: sunset on Georgian Bay. I did see a Black and white warbler here and a group of 15 common loons who put on a musical performance.

I love birding most because it teaches me the art of sitting with an idea. I’m an impatient, goal oriented person by nature, and birding forces me to slow down, have faith in my careful, diligent observation, and let myself be surprised and astounded by the world around me. And isn’t this the same as writing? I sit at my desk for long hours, wrestle with thoughts, and in the end (days, weeks, months later) after hard work and patient waiting, something finally happens. It’s rarely what I anticipate, and almost always ends up being something better.

So here’s the verdict: birding enables my writing. It sounds like an overly bold pronouncement, and perhaps it is, but the ingredients of birding accompany me to my desk every day: relentless observation, research, patience, and a willingness to accept what comes my way (including some totally-less-than-stellar days).

And, recently, a piece of (unexpected) very good news: one of my pieces has been accepted for publication in The Threepenny Review. I’ll keep you posted!

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 27, 2012 2:41 pm

    Indeed, don’t test out “tween” again; it’s awful, and you using it is much more surprising than you being a birder.

    Bird news here: My killdeer has brought all of its friends to stay at our place. There are about 10 of them now. Mostly they hang out down near the pond, but they also seem bizarrely fond of our gravel driveway. They are very noisy in brief spurts at odd times, very cute, and really awkward flyers. They are my favourite wildlife/bird event of this year. Have never seen them before, certainly not here.

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