For the Birds Radio Program: Free as a Chickadee
Laura talks about traveling and camping alone and why she’s unwilling to curtail her travels out of fear. “I take care of myself and am reasonably careful, but when my life comes to an end, I want my children and family and friends to know I lived my days happily and fully, and only died at the very end, not squelching my nature and killing my dreams all along.”
Last month I spent a week birding and camping in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma with my dog Photon. It’s lovely to go off on my own on this kind of adventure. I love being able to stop and enjoy a single spot or a single bird as long as I want, without a birding buddy antsy to rush on to the next bird or without feeling like I have to eat out or get a motel room for someone else’s sake when I’d rather save the money. In the Wichitas I came upon a mockingbird who sang the longest stream of bird imitations I’d ever heard—I loved being able to watch and listen and make a long recording and a long videotape of him without inconveniencing anyone or feeling like I should be doing anything else. Photon is the perfect birding dog because she’s happy wherever she happens to be as long as it’s at my side, so she’s fine with whatever I want to do, and if I need to leave her behind, she deals pretty well with that, too.
I thoroughly enjoy the restfulness and contemplativeness that come with solitude, while Photon’s presence staves off loneliness. Most of my friends and family members know me well enough to know they can’t stop me from going off on my own, but occasionally people do tell me I shouldn’t be birding alone—what if something happened to me and I needed help, or what if I ran into a murderer? The real question is how much am I willing to curtail my basic freedoms out of fear? I know several people who have been in danger from burglars in their own home, and the only time I was ever mugged was when a friend and I were coming back to my apartment when I was in college. Bad people can be just about anywhere, I suppose, but I suspect they’re less common in good birding spots than anywhere else. Of course, some birding places are more dangerous than others. Claudia Wilds gave many precautions about birding alone in her book about birding in Washington DC, and when I birded in Nevada, I was given stern warnings about going off on my own by a Las Vegas birder. But I’ve yet to meet anyone who seemed the least bit dangerous at any birding places I’ve visited in 32 years of birding. The biggest dangers I’ve faced were when my friend Paula, Photon, and I were camping in Arkansas and a pack of coyotes surrounded our tent and closed in—I pressed the red button on my car keys and the flashing car lights and horn blast instantly sent them on their way. And in Oklahoma this year I went to sleep one night in a driving rainstorm and woke to two strange men banging on my car—they were evacuating me to safer ground during a tornado and flash flood warning. That didn’t scare me but rather reinforced my belief that overall, people are kind to one another.
I think we’re happiest and freest when we face life like chickadees. These little birds weigh just a third of an ounce, and real dangers that can kill them at any moment are lurking around every corner. Chickadees are sensibly observant and careful, but they’re hardly about to cower in their roost holes or face their days with fear. They trust not just other chickadees but all manner of other species, and this trust is virtually always warranted. Even though they’re so tiny, at least one chickadee with a Fish and Wildlife Service band on its leg lived for 12 years and 5 months. Chickadee friendliness isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that they feel at home on this little planet, empowered to go wherever they want and be whoever they are without fear. That’s how I like to live my life. I take care of myself and am reasonably careful, but when my life comes to an end, I want my children and family and friends to know I lived my days happily and fully, and only died at the very end, not squelching my nature and killing my dreams all along.