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Birders and backwoods: On becoming outdoorsy

Birders and backwoods: On becoming outdoorsy

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It's a gift to be out in the world with no agenda other than to observe and reflect and to simply be. Photo by the author

The meeting starts as all of my meetings outside of familiar buildings start. Out in the wilds of a water tank parking lot somewhere in Kachina Village, I wonder two things: am I in the right spot? and, am I late? A short walk through the pine needle-covered parking area assures me there is no other “there” here and that I just have to be patient. I see a house near the wide open field and some official-looking signs and my mind rests a little.

I’m not particularly outdoorsy, which makes being out in the Kachina Wetlands unusual for me. Since moving to Flagstaff, my intentions have always been to spend more time outside and I’ve gone as far as buying a serviceable pair of hiking boots after talking with various friends about the importance of ankle support. My other clothes scream “writer,” but I make do with an old pair of mom jeans, a black T-shirt, a field coat with a lot of pockets (which seemed more writerly than outdoorsy when I bought it) and a floppy summer hat for this outing. I tucked a weather-proof notebook that my best friend gave me for my birthday and a pair of National Geographic binoculars that were a going-away gift when I left my old life behind in Washington, D.C., into my coat pocket. Maybe other people dreamed this dream for me before I did. 

It occurred to me to go bird-watching in the nebulous sometime as I worked on a writing and research project involving birds the past few months. But a mutual friend introduced me to Don and, after spending nearly two hours in his office interviewing him, he offered to take me out for my first watch the next evening after work. I had things to do, like collapse on the sofa and eat Indian food after a long work week, but he assured me the time to go was now during spring migration.

I was in this parking lot hoping I looked like what I came here to do—a novice learning about bird-watching. Don’s white truck pulled up and I had a moment of nerves. What if I didn’t have the stamina for this small hike? What if I was annoying and asked too many questions? We looked over my dress and equipment together before heading out to the trail. We confirmed that I had forgotten something essential—a bird guidebook—but Don had his, so off we went.

We weren’t very far in on the trail yet when Don began calling out bird names to me and leafing through his guide book to show me pictures. I learned to adjust the binoculars, but many of the birds were still too far away to see in any detail, which made me even more impressed he knew what they were from such a distance. I was intrigued by the reeds and weeds rising from the grasslands and the cabbage-like plants that grew into stalks with some of the birds clinging delicately to the very tips. I tried to take notes but it was hard to walk, talk and write. I stopped frequently on the trail to jot things down, but hopefully not enough to annoy.

Don asked me about my writing project and it’s something I haven’t been able to explain in less than five minutes, which tells me the project has been out of control for some time now. I ramble about Jonathan Franzen and bird-watching and how, in my mind, there’s a connection to friendship—how we make friends and how we keep friends. He listens patiently as the dirt trail loops to the left and we come up to our first water area, which reminds me of a small pond where I grew up in upstate New York. We stop and train our binoculars on a variety of birds—Ring-necked Ducks and grebes and coots, variations new to me or that I otherwise have known simply as “ducks.” But I am transfixed by five blue herons, elegant and stately on a small island in the pond. They stand near each other but otherwise don’t interact and, while the assemblage reminds me of an awkward cocktail party, there is no awkwardness in being a heron. I make a mental note that sometimes it is enough to stand with friends and just enjoy their company.

As we continue hiking, Don trains me in observation—noting bird eye colors and distinctive markings and where to look to find particular types of birds. We scan the tree tops and find a bald eagle and observe a pair of kestrels sharing a small rodent. On the muddy banks we see a killdeer and a Wilson’s snipe digging for bugs. Description fails me and I find myself muttering “beautiful” over and over again like a writer without a thesaurus. Don spots a Cinnamon Teal and asks me to describe it so that I remember its features. Auburn-colored, I tell him, with a slick fur-like body. Don cracks a smile and tells me that most birders call those “feathers.” I laugh, too.

My first bird-watch hike ends with the setting sun and the sound of duck calls mixing with frog calls. I think about how kind Don is to take out a relative stranger and share his knowledge and time with me. I don’t know when we’ll see each other next, but he gave me an important gift that night—to be out in the world with no agenda other than time to observe and reflect and to simply be. I understand now that there is solace to be found in nature.

On the way home, I stop at my usual Friday night restaurant to pick up dinner. None of the staff recognize me, my disguise as “birder” is so complete. But maybe they also know that I’m not really the same person who was here last Friday.

Stacy Murison’s work has appeared in Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies (where she is a Contributing Editor), Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Hobart, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, River Teeth and The Rumpus among others. She holds an MA from Georgetown University and MFA in Creative Writing from Northern Arizona University where she now teaches composition.


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