Winter Birds III - Pishing

     It's a morning walk with the dogs.  Above me a group of birds is chattering in the winter woods, probably foraging.  I want to see who they are, see if they'll come down to me, and so I call to them.  There's nothing mystical about this; I use a technique known to birders as "pishing", an onomatopoetic name for the sound that seems to agitate the curiosity of songbirds.  Pishing works best during the breeding season when the birds are highly alert to territories, mates and competitors.  However on this out-of-season morning, this social group of chickadees couldn't resist coming to see what was going on.

     It's kind of a crude way of interacting – there's no finesse about it.  I stand, feet heavy on the ground, feeling inelegant and graceless among these quick and untethered beings.  But to call and have a response from a wild creature is thrilling.  My sense of myself changes, and the thin strand of my ancient wildness rises to meet the birds who have come to see who calls.


Winter Birds II - Foraging

     Widen the lens, and now it is mid-winter; Anna and Andrew are sixteen and fourteen.  The ground is snow-covered.  The bird feeder hangs just off the deck, and sunflower seed shells lay scattered underneath.  It is a Monday morning, and we count the birds we see for Project Feederwatch.  Clipboard, data sheet, poster of common winter birds, and a pair of binoculars are littered around the kitchen near the window. 
     Winter used to be much harder for me than it is now.  By engaging with the birds actively, watching and counting, hoping for an appearance by the tiny brown creeper, ecstatic at the one and only visit by a pileated woodpecker, I am one step closer to a relationship with these alive and independent creatures than I was when they were only a backdrop to the short and dark days.
     Still, it takes going outside to really breach the next barrier.   A house is a funny thing; not much separates us from the actual world we live in, but it is a self-limiting structure that we now leave mostly electronically.   To actually put on snowpants and boots and walk out the door – not to the car, but to the yard or woods behind – is nearly a radical idea.   What happens?   What happens when I leave to forage not for food and water, but for connection?
     Sounds.   I hear them, the birds that usually I watch like a silent movie.  I hear the wind in the huge white pine trees at the edge of the yard.  A chainsaw in the distance.  Crows out of sight, unhappy at the presence of an owl or hawk and calling for reinforcements.   Sometimes there is a crackling, or the soft sound of snow sliding.  Or equally palpable, the sound of stillness, which is mostly an absence, a waiting before a storm, but which seems to have its own mass.
     Walking in the woods or fields, or even down our dead-end road with the dog on a sunny winter morning, I hear the birds, busy and noisy.   I know their names now.   Anna draws them.  Andrew reads about global warming with indignation.  How many ways do we love them, these small creatures that can fade into the background or out of existence so easily without anyone noticing?  No longer is the world outside the window just “a view”.  We're connected.  We're in this together.


Winter Birds I - The Nuthatch

     Two little bodies stand motionless just on the edge of the back deck, where it steps down to the yard.   It's the edge of winter: cold, low grey skies, almost snow.  The bird feeder hanging from a tree is full, like a car gassed up for the trip ahead.  I watch.
     The two figures stand, hands outstretched, with more patience than I ever knew they had.   Anna is seven, Andrew is five.   In their hands is some of the same sunflower seed that is in the feeder.  Anna has already had some success in coaxing a bird to eat from her hand – it was a red-breasted nuthatch – and now Andrew wants to try too. 
     A nuthatch is a wild animal.   For that matter, so is a chickadee.   As familiar as these feeder birds are, they interact with us only by their own choosing.  Sunrise, sunset, the tilt of the earth, running sap, the hatch of insects, fruiting shrubs, rain, hollow trees, hawks: these are the syllables of earth's language that they understand.  To stand like a tree with seed in your palm is to somehow say “let me enter your world”, which is different than “you are a pretty picture in my world”.
     What happens when that little life alights in your palm for just an instant, the grip of its toes a surprise under the sleek brush of its feathers?  Are you changed?   One to one, one Anna to one nuthatch, no longer an idea or object, there is now a relationship.  You touched me; I fed you.  Did you feel my heartbeat?


Connecting the Dots

     These pieces are drifting around in me, unanchored.  They have enough energy that I think they are asking something of me.  Acknowledgement? Connection? Action?  I offer them here because I'm not sure what else to do with them. I know spirit winds through them; I think they are about hope. But is there something else that emerges by connecting the dots?

Dot 1 - Daylighting

     I heard this term in a feel-good story on the radio recently (NPR).  "Daylighting" is used to describe a rising concept in urban design and planning: the redirection to an above-ground channel of a waterway previously diverted into a culvert, pipe, or covered drainage system.  That's a lot of words.  Basically, it's uncovering buried streams. 
    On one level, the release of these captives makes me really happy.  The sun can sparkle on water again, and people can remember they are living with the land.  But I wonder why these projects have to be justified on the basis of cost savings and flood mitigation, and the ecosystem, community and aesthetic aspects are considered by-products.  Can't we just be straightforward about the longings of our hearts?

Dot 2 - Abigail Borah

     I burst into tears this week while driving down the highway to an appointment, completely surprising myself.  I had the radio on the lunchtime public affairs programming, and it happened to be about youth engaged in climate change activism.  My first reaction was a sinking heart: our children are growing up with the trauma of inheriting an increasingly weather-violent world and the social fallout from that, and all we adults can do is argue about it and agree to teach our kids to recycle.
     But then I heard this (please click the link then click back when you are done):
     That's when the tears came.  Abigail Borah, a Middlebury College student attending the 2011 UN Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa as a member of the SustainUS youth delegation, interrupted chief US negotiator Todd Stern who was about to speak.  He was widely being accused of perpetuating gridlock in the talks by delaying US commitment to action.  Abigail challenged him and spoke to the world.  The president of COP can be seen saying "No one is listening" as she is speaking.  The world was listening.  The world heard Abigail Borah. (FMI: interview with Abigail Borah)

Dot 3 - Rewilding

     Another word that has captured me, "rewilding" is what it seems: the restoration of ecosystems to their natural, uncultivated state.  What is remarkable is the scale.  For example, the Y2Y Initiative (Yellowstone to Yukon) is a breathtaking vision that holds the movement's fundamental tenets of "Cores, Corridors and Carnivores" within it: core habitats connected by ancient migration corridors, and the wolves, bears and other apex predators free to move within it.
     What if?  What if we could do this?  What if we stepped aside, and let these rivers of intricately interconnected life-forms flow unhindered?  The catch of course, is the people who bump up against or live within these ecosystems.  We might not be the apex predators anymore.
     But could we actually do this?  "Rewilding": just the word itself energizes me.  Must be my paleo-spirit jumping for joy.

Dot 4: Night-riding: a postcard from the Southwest

      "I rode my bike last night," Andrew reported.  I turned from the shocking brightness of the desert morning sunlight to look back into the dim interior of our rental car.
     "Where did you ride?" Not at all sure this was a safe thing to do, my mother-antennae went up.
     "I don't know.  Just around.  On paths.  I'd just ride and ride until I came to the pool, and then I knew where I was and went back to the room."
     I pictured him under the immense star-lit sky, cold night air brushing his cheeks as he flew along on the borrowed bike with no purpose other than to feel it all.
     My words dropped away, and I saw him as the 14-year old untethered boy he is, following his instincts to be loose of the earth in this land of sky.  He was safe on the hotel grounds.  But more importantly, he was free.