Birdsong and Rustling Leaves
December 22, 2014
Birds were not my friends as a child. For some reason birdsong in my backyard was an annoyance. I knew how to distinguish a handful of birds from one another, but they simply held no fascination. Reptiles were much more interesting. In hindsight, I think it was the call of the Northern Cardinal – possibly awakening me in the early hours – that caused my mild disdain. So how did I arrive at this point where birding brings me such joy?
When I moved from a small city to a big one in middle school, the soundscape changed: Northern Mockingbirds dominated the scene, and their song was interesting. But the raucous, urban-adapted, Blue Jay and Great-Tailed Grackle were the first birds to draw my attention to the magnificent diversity of sounds, colors, and habits.
That move left a trauma that was undiagnosed for many years. It was the beginning of a benign estrangement from nature, which continued through college years. Sure, there were a few "nature experiences" in those years, including that slowly-growing awareness of avian diversity. But they were few and far between, and generally did not qualify as what I would, at that time, call Nature. Too much time in the physics lab, mechanically studying the unseeable, deepened the rift.
After graduation, that separation began to ease as I took the time to hike around the Central Texas Hill Country. To this day, I feel most alive and at home in such a landscape: rocky, hilly, with mixed oak and juniper trees and the occasional patch of meadow. Both childhood and early adult life were spent in such environs, and it always delights me to smell that combination of needle and leaf.
Seeing my first endangered species in its native habitat – the Golden Cheeked Warbler – was a particular highlight of those excursions. In fact, it was bird watching that finally healed the estrangement. Seeing a Barred Owl bathe in a creek, and studying the iridescence of a Cedar Waxwing, helped me appreciate the joy of living and the meaning of beauty in diversity. Baby owls and seasonal changes (phenology) reminded me of the dynamic cycles of life, far more viscerally than The Lion King ever did.
Though my heart sometimes longs for those hills, I have learned to turn any view of nature into a prayer of refreshment and praise. Even in an urban park, one can enjoy the dance of Mockingbirds, the sound of wind through the trees, and the indomitable spirit of wildflowers claiming their neglected corner. "One can only live while one is intoxicated with life," wrote Tolstoy in his famous Confession. Birdsong and rustling leaves: these are the most potent of spiritual wines.
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