For the Birds Radio Program: Strangers to Nature
When I was a little girl, summer vacation seemed endless in July, stretching out ahead of me like an ocean of days, nothing but blue water on the horizon. But right around the first of August, suddenly the ominous shoreline appeared, looming larger and larger each day. School supplies overflowed on dime store shelves, and my summer reading or writing assignment weighed heavier and heavier on my conscience, though never quite heavy enough to prompt me to start the actual work until Labor Day weekend.
Back then, I took my seasonal cues from school and vacations from it. I was a city girl. I noticed the trees and grass greening up in spring, the first dandelions, maple seeds falling like helicopters, cabbage and monarch butterflies, squirrels, robins and house sparrows, fall colors, and periodic snows and snowmelts, but that was pretty much the extent of the natural world in my consciousness. One year when the creek three blocks from our yard overflowed, a few crayfish ended up on our sidewalk—I’d never noticed them in their natural habitat just a few blocks away. I liked searching through our crabapple leaves for tussock moth caterpillars, with their red heads, big, showy antennae, and white bristles on their backs, though I didn’t know what their name was until I was in college. My aunt’s boyfriend occasionally took us to the Brookfield Zoo. I liked to go to the bird house and sit for hours, mesmerized by the amazing variety of birds. But I didn’t realize that all of them lived in the wild somewhere on this planet, and it was beyond my powers of imagination to dream that I could ever travel to foreign lands to see them.
The more we know about anything, the more observant we become. One must know about football or basketball to notice, much less appreciate, the subtleties in player formations, the way different players handle the ball and move. A hockey aficionado would quickly notice that a player was off the ice for a penalty, while someone like me might not even realize that one team was playing more players than the other.
When I was in college and received my first field guide for Christmas, suddenly I could see right before my eyes pictures of birds who were common in my state—birds that had been all around in my suburb that I’d been oblivious to—black-capped chickadees and goldfinches, warblers and blue jays. When I started spending time outside specifically looking for birds, I suddenly started seeing them, and noticing their sounds and the ways they fly and hop or walk and what kinds of trees or shrubs they build their nests in. These same sights had been right in front of my eyes for 23 years, but it wasn’t until I knew what I was looking for that I could actually see them.
Awareness is a mysterious thing. I’d gone 23 years without noticing more than 5 or 6 species of birds in the wild, and then within a single year got great looks at 124 species. And the following year I saw 212. Suddenly my world was teeming with birds. But in the same way that I remain oblivious to the details of football, I could point out the calls of a Black-billed Cuckoo only 20 feet away to keen-eared friends who had to strain to pick out the notes. The more aware we are of nature’s secrets, the more secrets nature reveals to us.