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Anniversaries and observations

Anniversaries and observations

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An osprey glides over Frances Short Pond. Photo by the author

An ex-boyfriend once told me that every day is an anniversary of something. I suppose that’s true, especially as I scan social media “memories” from one year ago. I was especially active that first month of the pandemic: sourdough starter photos, music playlists for students as we all scrambled to finish the school year online, and photos of a bluebird at Kachina Wetlands. In fact, it was also one of my first bluebird sightings and, although a poor image, I posted it as a hopeful sign that there were better days ahead.

There were worse days ahead actually, but what did I know back then?

Another anniversary: it turns out that two years ago this month I had my first official bird-watching experience. A friend-of-a-friend took me out to Kachina Wetlands to help me get started with bird identification. Armed with my husband’s binoculars and a notebook, I walked the trails around the pond and listened to the guide identify all the birds I couldn’t find, even with binoculars. A grebe, a phoebe and other birds I made smudged pencil notes of in my notebook. The last time I used the notebook was also two years ago: I marked the birds in my bird encyclopedia when I got home and never wrote down another sighting again, although I still carry the notebook in my field bag.

I learned over the course of the next two years that I would never excel at bird identification or inventories. On bird hikes with groups, I pretended to see the birds about which everyone was excited but kept my love of an iridescent mallard as he shook his feathers free of water to myself. And although I have accounts at eBird and Merlin, tracking bird sightings never appealed to me. Nor do I bring any of my bird guide books out on hikes with me. When I see a bird, I try to memorize its features. The color of the feathers don’t often tell me as much as the way the beak or bill is shaped, the marking around the eyes, or the shape of the bird’s feet. I memorize these features now in a way that my brain doesn’t usually work and, when I get home, I may or may not seek the bird in my guidebooks. Usually, I reflect on my time outdoors and how I feel when I’m home again.

Most of this past year has been spent honing my reflection and observation skills. For example, after many days of watching activity at the bird feeders in the back yard, I learned to tell the difference between a pine siskin and a lesser goldfinch, between a Cassin’s finch and a house finch. Should I have marked these days differently so that I could celebrate them later? And how would I celebrate the gift of this knowledge? Since last summer, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting that I spent hours—hours—watching said birds at the feeders. Initially these observations began in a kind of pandemic fugue state. Later, they took on the flavor of an observational meditation. All of the self-doubt and sadness could be mitigated by watching the flutter of wings, the tossing of seed, and the backward dance of nuthatches as they buried sunflowers seeds in the ponderosa pine bark, the bird activities emptying my brain of almost every thought. Well, except about the sunflower seeds because eventually I would wonder if the seeds might sprout flowers. In case you worry about this as well, never fear. Within a few minutes, a flicker or woodpecker will come by and pick the seeds out of the bark.

Still another anniversary: the loss of a beloved teaching position. After much deliberation, I haven’t come any closer to knowing how to frame this event. In some ways, it is like the death of a loved one. The ache lessens over time, but never fades away. And, like a death, after some ambiguous amount of time to mourn, new distractions move in and take over. It’s when I can’t sleep at night or wake up again at 3:00 a.m. that the memories of these anniversaries are the most active and vivid. I’ve had time for these reflections and observations because I have had time this past year. My life is structured differently now, and for that I know I should be grateful. Most days I am. Some days will always hit harder than others, especially when we can mark time discreetly.

This morning, I met a friend at Frances Short Pond. A small celebration if not an anniversary: we hadn’t seen each other since last summer and, as usual with this friend, it was as though no time at all had passed. In between sips of coffee and conversation, we paused to watch the mallards float by gracefully and the coots bob their heads like pigeons as they tried to propel themselves through the water with their dinosaur-like feet. An osprey flew overhead, dove, and caught a fish. As we marveled at his efficiency, we could also see the fish flailing. A few wingbeats later, the osprey lost its grip on the fish and flew away as though nothing had happened. I couldn’t help but wonder if the bird was embarrassed, but that’s something that only happens to us humans, isn’t it? No one else is really expecting anything from us; embarrassment is a construct that we impose on ourselves. After some time, the osprey returned to surveil the pond and floated in the air, wings spread, seemingly unconcerned about his lost breakfast. Or maybe it was another osprey. As I mentioned, I’m not that great at bird identification.

I won’t mark this date in a calendar, but I will remember impressions from today. Of course, a year from now, if the osprey is still alive, he will not remember the trout he dropped this morning, the fly fisherman’s line that came dangerously close to his diving body, or the human in teal cargo pants staring at him and taking his photo. It is doubtful that he will remember anything at all. What I will remember is that I had time to sit on a park bench for two hours talking with a friend and, together, we watched an osprey glide on the breeze. What I will also remember is what the osprey taught me this morning: that it’s possible to simply enjoy the feeling at this moment of being able to stay aloft.

Stacy Murison is a Flagstaff-based writer. Her work has appeared in Assay, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Flash Fiction Magazine, Hobart, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and The Rumpus among others. 


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