Sunday, February 26, 2012
My brother Mark asked me recently when my love of birds began. I couldn't really answer him. Couldn't remember a particular moment. Couldn't find a defining memory. Other loves in my life—reading, writing, cats, antiques, Walt—I could identify a genesis. If not a particular place in time, at least a general location.
Not so with birds.
I remembered the plaintive call of killdeer from childhood summers that somehow spoke to my own longings. My mom loved telling the story of the hummingbird that landed in my hand when I was two or three. There was the "cheeseburger" call of the chickadee announcing the end of winter.
But none of those memories accounted for how birds came to be so important in my life. I've never wanted to call myself a birder because I don't see myself as one of "those" people in baggy shorts, knee socks, and silly hats, with no life beyond a birding guide, spotting scopes and adding to a life list. But I own at least twenty guides, don't leave the house without binoculars in the car, and regularly interrupt conversations with friends to exclaim over a new sighting.
Yesterday during our walk I spotted my bald eagle perched in the snag across the river. He's been there every time I have in the last few weeks. As I greeted him I found myself thinking about Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, a book I first read in early adolescence, shortly after it first came out. That was where my fascination with bald eagles was born. Because of that book, I began to view the world as a larger place than the small town I couldn't wait to leave. Because of that story, I fell in love with the magnificent birds who were in such danger of extinction. Because of Rachel Carson, I felt for the first time a sense of both wonder and responsibility toward creatures of the air.
Over the years that followed, I read every article about bald eagles I came across. I followed the progress of their recovery with a sense of victory and joy and hope. Feeling somehow that their restoration was a message for me—a promise that my mangled life would be saved and restored as well. Thinking that someday, if I were very very lucky, I might get to travel to a place to see bald eagles in the wild.
When I first started seeing eagles along the Lewis River, it felt like a miracle. How could it be that I find myself living in a place where they are common? I've learned enough about them to know my guy's regular appearance has everything to do with the time of year and that particular bend in the river where fish are common. What I know as fact does nothing to diminish my sense of divine presence whenever I see the telltale flash of white or the exact symmetry of wings that declares the eagle's soaring presence.
I'm not sure I have the whole answer to Mark's question still. I do know that my connection to bald eagles is not accidental. I'm pretty sure the part of my heart opened by Rachel Carson all those years ago has expanded just a bit with every new bird I meet.
We're going to Belize this summer, in large part because of the more than 500 species of birds who live there. I'll get to see toucans in the same way I see robins here. And possibly the tallest flying bird found in Central and South America (the jabiru stork). And king vultures. And maybe even motmots. I have my own copy of Birds of Belize. We'll be spending several nights at the largest refuge in the country.
It's getting harder and harder to pretend I'm not a birder. I care less and less about the image (although I draw the line at knee socks), and more and more about the next miracle being offered for the widening of my heart.