He says,"It just occurred to me that your pursuit of the bunting repeats an archetypal American fable."
"What," I ask warily, "might that be?"
"Ahab's quest for the white whale. Your bunting is a pint-sized Moby Dick. And we know how that story ends."
This quote from Diary of a Left-Handed Birdwatcher by Leonard Nathan (Harcourt Brace & Company: 1996) flitted, bunting-like, through my mind a few times yesterday, after I had convinced Greenturtle to accompany me on another ill-fated search for the Franklin's Gull of Clinton Lake.
"I'm really starting to hate that bird," I confessed on our way out to the lake. "With everyone else, it's a real little exhibitionist, showing itself willy-nilly, but whenever I go out looking for it...oh no, it's nowhere to be found. And I will see that [censored] gull, one way or another!"
Tough words, but I'm no Ahab. In fact, the gusts of wind that galloped over the lake and bitch-slapped me right in the face as I tried to squint, teary-eyed from the elements, at the congregations of gulls through my scope soon had me retreating to the warm embrace of our vehicle, cursing not only the gull but the flat and windy state in which I live. To be honest, I should have known better than to try. Cold, windy days make me so grouchy and whiny that I can't even stand myself; on the other hand, since being pent up inside makes me feel the same way, days like that are a real lose-lose situation for me.
But just as there is nothing new under the sun, there is no birding mishap or conundrum that someone else hasn't experienced first, and the Left Handed Birdwatcher's tale touches on many of the recurring themes of this blog.
Leonard Nathan, a retired professor of poetry, documents some efforts made to see the (apparently elusive where he lives) snow bunting, along with some other excursions he makes with his local birding group; and even more to the point, it documents his need to understand why he needs to look for birds. The book is also studded with accounts of dreams he has of reading rare and wondrous books, filled with wisdom and beauty--books that, in the nature of dreams, are destined to fade away. In fact, birds and books seem to blend together in his mind, both being examples of his greater quest, which he explains to a skeptical friend as being a search for an epiphany.
Can birding lead to transcendence? Do egrets and epiphanies go hand in hand? In the course of the short volume, the author, through the voice of science-minded or otherwise long-suffering interlocutors, brings up some interesting points. For example, if you thought you saw a rare and wonderful water bird, and experienced the elation and even near-epiphany at viewing it, only to be told a few minutes later that it had escaped from a zoo and was therefore not "countable"...was the first feeling you had just a sham? Does the truth cancel out that "a-ha!" moment? And if so, what does that say about such moments?
In my case, I can say...yes, learning the bird was not "countable" would reverse the joy of the moment. Utterly. But then, my fascination is with the ephemeral--the seasons, the coming and going of birds, dreams, my emotions, even our lives,-- whereas Leonard Nathan seems to be searching for the capital-T truth. That's an awful lot to pin on the back of a fragile bird just going about its own business, although I really can't fault him for it. I'd like to look up from the shadows on the cave wall to see pure truth too; but as a representative of the post-modern era, I can't really convince myself that it's out there.
Another good topic for thought is a passage where he is alerted to the presence of a Connecticut warbler, goes out and sees it, and yet:
It's a rarity out here and a first for me. I'm deeply satisfied. After a good long look, I make way for others eager for the same.... So why am I suddenly discontented? Perhaps because the experience has demanded so little of me. Or because I had looked so hard at the books I couldn't get free of their pictures and saw the bird through them. It seems I have had a recognition without the shock. Satisfaction, however deep, is probably not epiphany.
I must admit, I have experienced this myself at times; for example, if I ever do see that frickin' frackin' Franklin's gull, I will heave a sigh of relief and duly tick it off my life list, but I doubt it will be on the order of an epiphany. And yet on the other hand, I have been literally moved to tears by the sight of an "ordinary" bird at an unexpected moment.
In fact, on November 14, 2009, after a deeply unexpected sighting of a pileated woodpecker at Funk's Grove in McLean County, I confided to my Bird Journal: "For that moment, felt that greater happiness could not be possible. Proof of phenomenon already noted (e.g. sandhill cranes at Goose Lake Prairie): the Spontaneous Joy of an Unexpected Bird Sighting. A different emotion entirely than the Well-Earned Satisfaction of a Worked-For Bird Sighting...."
Despite these interesting points, I have to admit that I did not find the Left-Handed Bird Watcher's account all that compelling. I felt like he enjoyed sitting around debating the Nature of Seeing a Bird with his intellectual friends more than he enjoyed going out and seeing birds. He writes poetically, but I found him a bit too high-falutin' for my tastes, and I very rarely say that.
So, is there a bird that's your personal white whale right now? And how do you expect to feel when you finally see it?