Tuesday, April 20, 2010


...and as I approached the wooded trail-head at Spring Valley Wildlife Area, I noticed something about myself. For whatever reason, I was not focused outwardly at that moment, but inwardly, and sensed a slight physical change, a minor elevation of heart rate perhaps, the tiniest release of adrenaline maybe...the kind of change you might experience seeing a good friend approaching unexpectedly. The moment I stepped over the chain separating woods from parking lot and on to the path, I was aware of the great expectation of discovery and a settling calm inside.

I love both the paths you can look straight down to see what's ahead, and the ones that curve immediately, so you are invited, by necessity, to go slowly and quietly around the bends. Whether linear or winding...other creatures on the trail can hear, feel, see or smell you a mile away, which is why encounters of any kind are such small miracles.

Today I made a new friend on the trail. A retired salesman, getting out of his car at the same time, with a field guide tucked in the front of his pants and binoculars hanging from his neck...an object I strongly believe should become the next international symbol of peace. I'd seen him before at the wildlife area but this time we spoke, walked together for a while and talked about a number of random but related topics. I told him I had just returned from a writing conference. He told me he was good friends with a man who had written an historical novel, which had been turned into a TV mini-series. I was partly encouraged and partly discouraged about that bit of information, having come so late to the craft of writing. But then we mostly chatted about the strange spring it has been...the 80 degree hot snap and how the tree foliage is now way ahead of the migrating birds. The birds are fine...it's just us birders have to work a little harder now to spot them!

Always tentative about my birding knowledge, especially around someone I assumed had been watching birds much longer than me, I asked, "Does it seem to you that there just aren't as many birds around as there used to be?" Last fall and winter yellow flags were going off in my head that the number of birds at my feeders...I'm talking the usual suspects - chickadees, cardinals, titmice, etc. - the ones that overwinter here...were about half what they normally were. He emphatically agreed, and told me a story about the number of warblers that migrated through Maggee Marsh in northern Ohio...so many that they would land on the cars in the parking lot.

Though they seem like carefree little creatures, birds really do have a tough time furthering their species. My new friend and I lamented about all the obstacles, both literally and figuratively, these diminutive, yet hardy, animals must overcome. And many times they don't. Between the millions of songbirds that are killed each year by outdoor cats or the estimated billion migrants that run into buildings or other objects en route to northern breeding grounds, not to mention the pesticides on lawns and crops, as well as loss of habitats to create said lawns and monoculture fields...these poor little buggers are just trying to hang on.

Finally we went our separate ways. He was headed up to Englewood Reserve and I back home. I was impressed with his dedication...to drive 45 minutes north in hopes to spot some "firsts of the year." But that's what retirement affords you, or should, at least. A young person once asked me why all birdwatchers are "old." I told him I wasn't sure. Maybe it is because it is such a slow, patient pursuit and young people today want things when they want them, which is usually immediately. Maybe it seems to them a waste of time...so you see the birds and identify them...then what? As if the end result has to have a purpose that benefits them. Or maybe they grew up with what Richard Louv calls a "nature deficit disorder" so nature is a thing "out there" and not even on their radar screens. ..or computer screens

What I am sure about is that when I connect nature to kids (and adults which is often even more exciting)...a transformation occurs. But this transformation takes hold only when the pace is slow (not destination oriented), when we look at things up close with binoculars backwards (not just trounce down the path talking), when we quietly engage all the senses (not be the noise-makers) and when we create a forum where the questions can begin to flow.

Several weeks ago, I took four 6th graders on a night hike. I asked them how they felt before we headed out with home-made luminaries in hand. They each said, "Scared." But after listening to the unfamiliar sounds, calling in owls (unsuccessfully, but they thought the barred owl recordings were a hoot!), and learning why we can't see very well in the dark while other animals
can...they changed their minds about nature-in-the-night. Afterward, it was "cool" and they wanted to do it again. So we will. I hope these experiences help them become young nature-lovers, maybe even activist, or inventors, or architects, or scientists that will make a difference in the life of migrating birds or other ecological problems they will soon face. I hope they will not grow up to see nature as only thier gateway to fast-paced recreation or the "extreme rush" (the kind you might experience seeing an axe murderer approaching) of driving as fast as they can through the woods, over the snow or on the water. Which seems to be an adventure in missing the point...and the path of discovery and settling calm.

And don't we need more of that today anyway?