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If you go looking
It has come to my attention I love looking at birds, so now it's everyone's problem. Also a poem that sees something in everything, from the last winter I lived in Chicago.
I am learning to look at birds.
Where I am now they are everywhere. They're everywhere everywhere, more or less, I know. Where there's earth, sky and water, there tend to be birds. It's just I haven't always been looking.
There were birds in Chicago, and still are, I imagine. Robins, cardinals, sometimes jays. Gulls, crows, red-winged blackbirds, sparrows, pigeons. So many pigeons. A few years back, I learned how we abandoned them. How pigeons are the feral ancestors of the rock doves we doted on ten thousand years ago. How they've stayed close to us, generations on, as they were bred to. How we live with what we’ve done.
In 2020, when Covid first started rewriting the world and we were mostly inside going feral ourselves, the New York Times ran an opinion piece—I know how those words are all awful together, but give it a second—about how to look at birds. It’s wonderful. The illustrations, also the invitation of it. The way people who love to watch birds would love others to love watching birds too.
I began to notice a little, by no means a lot, mostly what everyone else could easily clock: the world was carrying on without us. That spring seemed thicker than it had in years with nesting and birdsong, incidental deer spotting, squirrels leaping through the canopy and scrambling over sidewalks, even walking sometimes. Walking. Have you ever seen a squirrel walk? It's incredibly disrespectful. The animals reclaimed the streets. But even then, with so much to watch and wonder at just outside the window, I took little time to notice. I was busy losing my mind, just like everyone else.
It took three years, a good bit of regathering and a bit more letting go, a reasonably radical re-imagining of what I wanted life to look like and how my days might feel, and a move from a Great Lake city of three million people to an arid southwestern state of two million to start looking at birds.
We don’t hear much traffic here. Rarely sirens. Rarer still—yelling, music, 3am fireworks, engines gunning, guns, morning jackhammering, constant yammering and ambient people-ness, the human hum of urban density in the background of every day. I don’t miss it, quite, but I did love living with so much life. I could have stayed in Chicago forever, but I wanted to be here so dearly and so much more than I didn't want to leave there. You only get so many seasons on earth.
If I set my mind to it, I could probably go whole days here without seeing another soul. It wouldn't be so difficult. Problem with me of course is the way I need people, how I want life around me. I wave to the neighbors, say hello to every dog I see, have a chat here and there, but it's hardly enough, if I'm being honest, which I want to, even when it's hard or says something I've struggled to like about me, like the way I have needs and desires.
I need to be with living things and wonder about them. Not because I'm nosy, though maybe I am. I just like the way we all live together and I'd like for us to be good at it. I try to figure out how. Which is why I started looking at birds.
The first thing you learn when you learn to look at birds, if you’re me, which I am, is to listen. Anywhere there’s birds, you can probably hear them. When you listen, you know where to look.
And because you don't have forever to look—birds stay busy, you'll learn, staying alive—you learn how to look too, and quickly. Calmly. Without pointing, if you can manage, though I rarely do.
Notice the color and the size of them. The way they sit and soar, or don't. The way the wings are, how they work. What the bird is doing, why, and also where. Use your ears first, then your eyes, and lastly your binoculars.
There are apps, really good ones, and books to guide you from the details you’ve noticed toward the bird’s name. I use Merlin, eBird and Stan Tekiela’s Birds of New Mexico Field Guide, which is how I know between the aspen, piñon and hackberry trees behind the house, we share a summer with at least two types of hummingbird, Western tanagers, a few curious black-billed magpies, a small flock of lesser goldfinches, chipping sparrows, a trio of crows and a teapot (a teapot!) of spotted towhees, which I've been watching closely the last few days as three fresh fledglings venture out of their shrub-hidden ground nest to begin testing their strength. They are egg-sized, small beaks not yet stiffened, unable to feed or fend for themselves, a little downy still but changing every day, just learning to hop and flap their wings.
I watch them all day long. From the time the sun’s up til the dusk when it’s down, the two adults spend hours patrolling the patio, screaming and singing and scratching for insects. They return to the shrubs where the fledglings take cover, beaks full of bugs, to feed the little ones what they need. Statistically, only one of them will survive its first year. Even still, all day, every day, the teapot elders do as their body and instinct instruct them, which is scratch and scream and sing and feed.
Simple living, dutifully done. It's a whole world under a tree.
I am learning to look.
Here’s a poem from January, my last midwestern winter, dreaming of the sun and remembering everything.
if you go looking for love in a cave
take snacks. take salt. take three rocks you remember— one from the day you saw swans on lake michigan, but when you turned to scream swans! you saw a cloud like a swallowtail giving its heart to the quickening sun and said nothing, thought god and bent toward the water, kneeled the line between lake and land to pick from the sand a worn-smooth ruddy stone. not everything has a heart, not insect, nor tree, not even the ocean. not even the earth. you don't let this stop you from looking.
the animal eats is looking at birds.