as a birder, i’m always, even if not consciously, tuned in to birds. it frequently happens that i’m in a conversation, listening to someone and i hear a bird. …but it’s not just that i hear it, then i have to wonder about where it is, is it male (prettier) or female (likely boring-lookingthere’s a feminist bird club that helps people identify and value female birds. and my partner helped me realize that female birds are responsible for the beauty of male birds, often basing … Continue reading), what it’s up to. maybe i’ve identified the species just by the call, but if not, i have a real compulsion to look for it and see if i can figure out who just said that.
it wasn’t always like this.
ever since i was a kid i’ve had an affinity for and fascination with nature. i think most of us do, and some of us get to keep that into adulthoodi also believe it is recoverable, in case we weren’t allowed to keep it until now. i was encouraged by my parents to nurture it.
like: i remember one afternoon when my parents and i were walking around our backyard and my mom pointed out a group of chirpy birds and said they were cedar waxwings. she seemed to be excited about them and maybe surprised to find them. all i remember from the time was that there were a lot of them making noise and bopping around together, which isn’t super common for birds.
years later, now, i know that they’re beautiful and gregarious: thick black masks around their eyes, a very punk crest atop their heads, and wax-like red drips from the edges of some of their wing feathers. their bodies are a beautiful ombré blending of brown and gray to a subtle yellowhttps://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Cedar_Waxwing/overview for more info and pictures. they’re most often hanging out in large groups in fruit trees, known for feeding each other small berries. they’re migratory, and i found out they come here, to mexico city, in some but weirdlythis is called “irruptive migration” by biologists, where migration isn’t only seasonal, and varies from year to year, often based on food supply: … Continue reading, not all winters. when they do, the city is full of their high-pitched squeaking. as a birder, this is intrusive and unavoidable to me: a group of raucous, playful, chismososthis word loosely translates to gossipy, but has a different kind of culture around it in central mexico, with less shame i think. imagine it’s like when you see a bunch of people crowded around … Continue reading that i need to check out. there are even memes in mexico city about confusing the high-pitched mechanical sounds of tortilla making machines with these birds.
but back to birds interrupting my conversations (whoops)…this might make you think i’m a bad listener: always punctuating conversations or never fully listening because i’m also listening for birdsi think there’s a key difference between “listening to” and “listening for”. but are we really expected to give 100% of ourselves over to listening? i don’t think so: we’re also supposed to be internally making sense of what our interlocutor is saying (likely through the lens of our own experience), while listening to our own intuitive responses, and trying to mine those for something that might be useful for that other person or relevant in some way. a “good” listener might even be thinking about how to help or support the other person with something they’re “not saying,” listening for under- or over- tones, resonances between words.
meanwhile, are we supposed to deny that we’re surrounded by life in constant, chaotic, unpredictable movement? if a beautiful hawk soars overhead, if a hummingbird comes up to hover near the flower next to us, are we supposed to ignore them? should i ignore the rambunctious group of 26 bushtits, a barreling wave passing from tree to tree? for me these events are loud. it really is a wave barreling through, cresting in each tree, then ebbing slowly to peak in the next. because, the thing is, i know that if i look closely, i can see their little black masks bushtits here wear (and don’t in most of the U.S.). and i know that if the light is exactly right, i might be able to see that it’s not even really black: it’s that magical iridescence of greens and blues, too. and, though i’ve only seen it in pictures and heard about it from a pro birder, i know that the iris of female bushtits is white and those of males are blackhttps://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bushtit – but i haven’t been able to see them close enough (or slow enough) to see it with my own eyes. or that other species of bug-eaters(warblers anyone?) often join in the bushtit groups, making a heterogenous blob of bug sweepers moving together through the forest.
so while i’m aware of the inner movements inside my self and psyche that are provoked while listening to someone speak, i’m also attuned to the pair of inca doves that fly and perch together on the wire across the street. (is it breeding season already?)
marvelling at individual birds is the gateway to another world. a beautiful bright yellow oriole or an impressive indigo bunting might only be here, near us, during a few months of the year. after they leave, we might await their return next year. for me, i’ve recently become attuned to the quiet enormity that is migration. this is in part, i think, due to the quarantine times of the early pandemic. during these months, i leaned into the burgeoning hobby of birding, one of a handful of activities we could do safely, as individuals and later, as small groups outside.
in this piece and a little bit in the book undrownednot exactly, but the idea of “scale of breath” comes from there, the authors draw on the metaphor of the scale of breath. that migrations, like ocean waves, are a kind of in-and-out, up-and-down of the earth itself breathing. does the earth draw the cedar waxwings south as we draw in breath with our lungs? is the swelling of my ribcage like the swelling expansions of flower blooms in spring? (and, as alexis pauline gumbs points out, how these are all interdependent: that our breathing needs plants breathing and vice versa, and as such, can we move away from an idea of cause-and-effect to the obvious interdependent nature of all beings together?)
these questions aren’t about their answers.
rather, they are about the potential they hold to catapult our brains into other ways of thinking and our bodies into remembering other ways of being.
we’re so stuck in our own ways. and i don’t blame us for it. but i want for us to be able to catapult out. or to stretch out an arm of slime mold and see what else is out there. or a wind around a tendril of a vine to see where the edges are, to see what else there is to hold on to. i want us to know these other worlds, to know that ours isn’t the only one.
i’ve seen this idea few times recently: that it’s easier for us (who exactly, white people? middle class folks? americans?) to imagine an apocalypse than an alternative to capitalismfor example: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cza7pynuJE_/?hl=en “Capitalist realism thus designates an unbearable paralysis in an horrifying system that we can’t imagine getting beyond.” But more … Continue reading.
what is it about birding that can bring us out of our “selves”? well, birding is about listening to other worlds. it can remind us of the other worlds and our relationships to them. it can help us see outside of our own rigidities around worldviews. it can help us see ourselves outside of a dominating worldview: there is so much going on outside of capitalism crumbling. there always has been. but we’ve been trapped into it, where we can often only see it and nothing else.
birds ground me into an earth-sized worldview.
so maybe birds are an integral part of the conversation: reminding us to ask them what they’d think, how they’d respond. reminding us to ask for their guidance. reminding us of our interdependence and how to get out of our small mindedness, our “individuality.”
now, go out and listen to the birds.
|↑1||there’s a feminist bird club that helps people identify and value female birds. and my partner helped me realize that female birds are responsible for the beauty of male birds, often basing reproduction on appearance and performance. so i’m saying “boring” jokingly, because “boring” is an avoidance of seeing beauty in everything.|
|↑2||i also believe it is recoverable, in case we weren’t allowed to keep it until now|
|↑3||https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Cedar_Waxwing/overview for more info and pictures|
|↑4||this is called “irruptive migration” by biologists, where migration isn’t only seasonal, and varies from year to year, often based on food supply: https://loudounwildlife.org/2007/01/irruptions-a-very-special-kind-of-migration/|
|↑5||this word loosely translates to gossipy, but has a different kind of culture around it in central mexico, with less shame i think. imagine it’s like when you see a bunch of people crowded around someone doing something impressive on a downtown street; like people inspired by someone doing some amazing breakdancing or something. you have to go check out the action.|
|↑6||i think there’s a key difference between “listening to” and “listening for”|
|↑9||not exactly, but the idea of “scale of breath” comes from there|
|↑10||for example: https://www.instagram.com/p/Cza7pynuJE_/?hl=en “Capitalist realism thus designates an unbearable paralysis in an horrifying system that we can’t imagine getting beyond.” But more importantly, the next sentence: “As Indigenous peoples, living already in a post-apocalyptic reality, our blood memory tells us there are other ways to live on this earth in an economy of abundance that doesn’t destroy that which we love and are intimately and actively in a mutually reciprocal relationship with.”|