Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Birding alone (being safe in nature)

"Be careful when you go walking," one of my co-workers once warned me. "Don't you know that dead bodies show up in parks all the time?"

"I'll be careful," I promised, as I knew her intentions were good. And then, because for some reason it's in my nature to try to set people straight about things, I added, "And actually, people aren't murdered in the woods all that often. Statistically speaking, it's really rare."

I'm used to being admonished for my solitary ways. Well-meaning people have been trying to scare me into staying home for pretty much my whole life. Long before I started birding, I didn't think twice about walking down town to a coffee shop or a bookstore, or strolling through a park, or wandering around on my college campus, entirely by myself.

But this culture of fear bothers me. Because we are all so worried about what might happen, as a society, we lock ourselves indoors, hurrying from building to car, and don't let our children out to play. And please don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that we are guaranteed to be safe if we do go out...but that's because there are no certainties in life. Sure, I could be accosted by an axe murderer out in the woods. But it's more likely that I'll die in a car wreck, or one of my co-workers or clients will "go postal" one day and go on a rampage. My point is, if we worry too much about everything that could possibly go wrong, and curtail our lives because of it...something already has gone very wrong.

And I have to say the taking solitary walks in nature is probably one of the most rewarding activities I can think of. For example, last Sunday as I strolled through the backpack trail at Weldon Springs by myself I felt, from time to time, absolutely transcendent. It was so beautiful back in that area, with the trees curving slightly towards the trail, and banks of yellow flowers, and the occasional sighting of a good bird -- Blackburnian warbler, yellow-billed cuckoo, redstarts, hairy woodpecker, catbirds, black-throated green warblers, white breasted nuthatches.

I don't know why I crave, not just solitude, but solitude in nature, but I do. My world isn't quite right if I can't find the time to immerse myself outdoors in steady doses. On a busy work day, sitting by my Work Place Pond for ten minutes or walking the dogs through the graveyard by my house does the trick; but when I have the chance to wander for hours, all the better. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a stroll with my family or a birding group too. But there's something different about having time to be alone.

I think one of the differences is that, when I'm by myself, I almost feel like I've developed extra senses, I'm so hyper-aware of my surroundings. Instead of feeling tempted to yak to a companion, I am forced to pay attention to everything. It can feel like a form of meditation--on one level, I experience all my thoughts and recollections, since there are so few distractions; and on another, for whole moments at a time, I am able to put all that to the side and just see and hear what is right before me.

Nine times out of ten, I lose all track of time (what I think of as the "birding zone," or perhaps just more proof that time flies when you're having fun); and at least that often, I feel, coming back to the crowds, that I have glimpsed something bigger than myself.

So why are so many people so fearful? I would hazard it's a combination of reasons. For one thing, I am not sure that being alone, either in the woods or out, is natural to the human condition. For what it's worth, we are social animals, and I understand that true introverts such as myself may be a bit of a rarity. And in today's fragmented world, a lot of people are already forced to be far more solitary than they might like.

It's easy for people like me, who feel more at home in nature than anywhere else, to scoff at those who are more timid, but the truth is, up until the last couple hundred years or so, being in the woods was considered frightening. In their un-Disneyfied form, fairy tales give a glimpse of this atavistic fear; and it seems mean to judge people for still carrying it. (In other words, I think the Big Bad Wolf goes deeper into the human psyche than Walden Pond, even though my own personal experience is Thoreau all the way. People still fear and hate wolves, as an example, far more than any objective stance justifies...but the whole wolf issue is beyond the scope of this post.)

But even if I didn't like to experience Nature as a form of meditation, there are good reasons to learn to be comfortable as a solitary birder. For one thing, if I didn't enjoy going out alone, I'd have to bird a lot less than I do! Unless one's spouse or best friend is also a birder, having someone to go out with you at the drop of a hat might not work out.

Even though I am not timid, I also do try to be sensible, and here on my thoughts on both being and feeling safe alone in the woods:

For starters, I try not to go out by myself before I've scoped out the area with a buddy first. This isn't always possible -- for example, when I went to Texas on my first birding trip, I didn't have a chance to do a preliminary run with someone else -- but locally, I like to take a buddy along first. If I feel at all uncomfortable about a location, then I won't go back alone. For example, Edgar Madigan Park in Logan County isn't a place I'd do solo.

And whether it's my first trip or my hundredth to a place, I always stay observant and trust my intuition. If I see someone who's acting strange, or who just gives me a bad vibe, I'm out of there. Nothing to prove by staying! A couple of times in the past (before I started birding even), my intuition was so strong, that even though I couldn't see anything amiss or hadn't even arrived yet, I got such a strong "Don't go there!" feeling that I turned around. Even if it feels silly, I always listen. And obviously if I ever felt like someone was following me or paying me undue attention...outta there!

I also try to pick places that have a solitary feeling without being completely off in the middle of nowhere. It's easy to find a spot where, for good stretches of the trail, I don't have to trip over other people, but in the surrounding area, there are actually plenty of others around, fishing on the lake or picnicking in a neighboring grove. And I always take my cell phone.

All of this advice would be beside the point if the local parks were actually dangerous places. But here's the thing that drives me crazy: they're not. People keep themselves cooped up, won't let their kids play in their own backyard, let alone the neighborhood, act like a walk through the park was a stroll in a war zone when, by and large, none of this is necessary!

For anyone who doubts me on this, I implore you to actually look into the statistics. Unless we are in the inner city or another dangerous area, our chances of being victims of a violent crime are actually pretty low. And if someone is going to attack you, statistically speaking, it will be a family member, or someone you invited along on your hike. Sad but true.

So if someone feels that they are in constant threat of danger, my first word of advice would be to turn off the TV (or other media source). Studies have shown that the more TV people watch, the more they over-estimate their chances of being victims of a crime, probably because that's all we see on TV. News reports of isolated crimes from all over the country can affect us as though the event happened right in our own neighborhood. Of course, something bad is always happening somewhere. But statistically that does not mean that it is likely to happen to us.

I think "entertainment" can be even more damaging than news. Movies like Deliverance or I Spit on Your Grave can create very strong images of violence and victimhood, but they're not true stories. I think that stories like those do help to create a culture of fear, even if on a subconscious level. Personally, I find that if I'm feeling nervous without good cause, when I think it over, it's usually because of some piece of fiction that I saw or read. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy movies, even horror stories, but I like to keep them supernatural or just so silly I can't take them seriously. Otherwise my mind ends up like a junk yard full of other people's crap, and who needs it?

Obviously, how cautious one feels in nature, or in life, is a very individual decision. For myself, if I never went out alone, I'd feel like I was in a prison. But a more timid or sociable person might find a solitary walk to be a torment.

But for people who don't mind it, I highly recommend a solitary stroll in nature. I think you might find, as I do, that it is one of the most rewarding experiences of all.

So, do you ever bird or hike alone? If so, have you ever had a scary experience? Do you think your nature is more social or solitary?


  1. Interesting post! When I was a child, I was outside all of the time, and often it was just me and my dog, Bessie. Luckily, my grandma, who was usually the adult in charge, didn't fuss as long as I showed up for meals! Now, however, as an adult, I almost always go with someone else on my excursions. I should try going solo! I have to be careful, though, as I WILL get lost if I try anywhere too off the beaten track. Good point about our culture of fear! Mom

  2. What kind of dog was Bessie? I'd love to have a big scary-looking (but actually really sweet) dog to take with me on a stroll. But then I'd have to feed said big scary looking dog, and get its shots, and pick up its "souvenirs" in the backyard....

  3. If I had to wait around for others to join me, I'd never get out there! I have a different work schedule than my friends who would be interested and my husband and kids like to go sometimes, but not nearly as often as I do. I fully agree that I'm more likely to be hurt or killed driving to my destination than be attacked by some crazy. I went out yesterday and had both Emiquon and Chautauqua completely to myself. It was excellent! The birding was kind of meh, but watching the killdeer skitter around all the fish skeletons at Chautauqua was kind of fun in a sick sort of way.