Friday, December 30, 2011

Can this warbler be saved? A review of Cerulean Blues


I just finished Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird by Katie Fallon, a book which I highly recommend to all birders and others who care about nature and conservation for reasons which I shall describe in a bit. But first, a confession. I downloaded it onto my Kindle about a month ago, read the introduction, and then skipped to other things.

It wasn't that the introduction was boring or poorly written, far from it. But the sad fact of the matter is that the beautiful little cerulean warbler is disappearing at a rate of 3% a year, the government agencies which could try to help appear to be indifferent, and one of the main reasons for the loss of its breeding habitat is mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachians. I've read some interesting books about trying to save disappearing species before, such as Spix's Macaw: The Race to Save the World's Rarest Bird by Tony Juniper (2003), Seeking the Sacred Raven: Politics and Extinction on a Hawaiian Island by Mark Jerome Walters (2006) and the story of a whole island's species (Guam) being wiped out, And No Birds Sing: A True Ecological Thriller Set in a Tropical Paradise by Mark Jaffe (1997). All of these were interesting (I especially recommend tracking down the last one if you can -- it's kind of old and has a sad ending, but it's a fascinating read), but right now I'm in no mood for a downer.

But earlier this week I picked it up again. After all, if Katie Fallon has taken the time to tell the story of an endangered warbler, then I really should learn more about it. Why "should"? Because even though it's painful to read about the damage inflicted on our world, I don't want to be like an ostrich with my head in the proverbial sand of denial, poking it out a couple of decades later to discover a polluted wasteland and screeching, "When did this happen? Why didn't I get the memo?" It's a fine balancing act, though, between caring and wallowing (for an example of the latter, The Culture of Make Believe by Derrick Jensen (2004), an exhaustive survey of what seems like every terrible thing people have ever done, and which I don't particularly recommend unless you're perusing pamphlets from the Hemlock Society and want that final incentive to take the plunge).

So I began the book, giving myself permission to quit if I started to feel too sad. Well, after the first couple of chapters, I was in no danger of quitting. Fallon is a terrific writer and an engaging narrator, and the story is more of a personal quest than a journalistic exploration, although she certainly seems to have done her homework.

She gives us a couple of chapter of historical (Wilson, Audubon, etc.) and ecological background, interviews a couple of experts, and then it's off to see ceruleans for herself, and this is where the story really picks up. She goes birding with an old friend in West Virginia, finding her first ceruleans, then hangs out with students, researchers, bird-banders, and even goes to Colombia with a conservation group to see the warbler in its wintering habitat on the slopes of the Andes.

The book has many strengths, first among them probably being the readability. Fallon is a writer and English professor, not a scientist or researcher, and this shows in both the engaging prose and the fact that she often seems to bring up the kinds of things that someone like me (imaginative birding type, not statistic-minded science type) would think of, such as this description of a male warbler appearing in response to a recording of their song: "He puffed up the soft white feathers of his chest -- perhaps to appear larger -- and buzzed viciously. He seemed totally consumed by hatred for the intruding, brazen male who must be down there somewhere...." Her response? "He's so cute!"

A weakness of some birding books and blogs is that it can be difficult work up that much enthusiasm about someone else's birding trip; at the end of the day, someone else's list of species might be impressive, but is it interesting to read about? In Fallon's case, yes it is. Her descriptions of birding trips made me want to get out and bird myself, right now, to join in some of the fun. (From the chapter about Colombia: "The life birds came almost too quickly for me to enjoy them: tropical mockingbird, yellow-rumped oriole, a slew of hummingbirds, lemon-rumped tanager, crimson-backed tanager, and scrub tanager. My senses were overloaded; I felt intoxicated by tanagers." Yeah, don't you hate it when that happens?)

Another reason to read this book is that, although she does not hesitate to describe the problems these little warblers face, such as the horrific mountaintop removal coal mines in West Virginia, she balances it out with enough cause for hope. She seems able to see the better side of people while also keeping her eyes open to all the problems we have to fight if we are going to make the world a better place for warblers (and incidentally, for us).

Mountaintop removal coal mining is absolutely horrific; in Fallon's words, "Not only is the mountain removed, but everything on it: forests, birds, bears, deer, homes, cemeteries, flowers, butterflies, streams," leaving behind a landscape that "looked as if bombs had been dropped...from the copilot's seat, I had looked down on massive brown ditches; flattened, grass-covered 'reclaimed' mountaintops; and ominous black lakes of coal slurry." In one of the more memorable passages, she describes looking down on such a mine while "a small flock of cedar waxwings...flew beyond the treetops, into the empty air above the barren hole, and, seemingly shocked, quickly turned and headed back for the tree line."

Despite passages like this, and her own bouts of sadness (not only for the warbler, but shortly before her quest began, the shooting incident at Virginia Tech, where she teaches, occurred), the overall tone of the book is absolutely not the downer I'd feared. From mentioning the efforts of conservation groups to improve habitat, even after the mining has done its worse, to describing a parade of school-children dressed like warblers in Colombia in a town by a nature preserve where they winter, Fallon manages to find the good in both the world and its people. I also love the Spanish word for cerulean warbler, reinita cielo azur," or "sky-blue little queen." Who wouldn't want to save something called that?

The book ends with some suggestions for what we can do to help the warblers, from the constructive (buy shade-grown coffee, support conservation groups, oppose mountaintop removal mining) to the sublime (learn the names of things, let nature help you heal).

Her final recommendation is one I shall absolutely take to heart: go out and find a cerulean warbler for yourself. You know what, they do nest in Southern Illinois. I think I'll have to go for it!

Highly recommended!

Monday, December 26, 2011

A two-faced time of year


As the season of introspection continues, I have found myself more in the mood for long nature walks than frenetic birding expeditions, although of course I always bring my binoculars along. Regarded from without, the activity probably looks the same: I stroll along for a while, I notice something, raise my binoculars, and then after a minute or two, walk onwards. The difference is that my attention is directed more inward than usual, and that the focus is more on the walking than the birds.

But obviously, there are birds, today 26 species (my favorites being the white-throated sparrow and eastern meadowlark I saw at Weldon Spring, and the pine siskins I saw at Mascoutin, along with my perennial favorites northern cardinal, tufted titmouse, belted kingfisher and blue jay); plus, two, the siskins and a pair of ring-necked pheasants, were new species for DeWitt County.

It was a decent day for birding but perhaps an even better day for reflection. For while I ignore the "holidays" as much as I can (or at least the lock-step consumerism that the season seems to encourage), I am a total sucker for the New Year's Resolution.

I know, I know! Nobody ever keeps their resolutions, and it's pretty much a trite waste of time, and besides, why should the hopes of self improvement be limited to just one time of year? I never keep my resolutions either (unless I resolve to go birding!), and yet that doesn't stop me from trying again. I love the line in one of Florence + the Machine's songs, "I am done with my graceless heart/So tonight I'm gonna cut it out and then restart." That's what I would resolve to do if I could, but I know that extreme changes never stick. Or even if they do, one soon finds that old graceless heart back in place in all-new surroundings.

But if one can avoid setting unrealistic or rigid expectations and instead focus on a constructive amount of introspection, I do believe that an annual ritual of deciding if we are the people that we want to be, and if not, what steps we can take to get closer to our best possible selves can be worthwhile. As the two-faced Roman god of the crossroads and January's namesake, Janus, looks both ahead and behind, I like to think of where I've been and which direction I hope I'm heading.

I'm not thinking in terms of "resolutions" (which brings up memories of lapsed gym memberships and failed diets from years past) but instead intentions or goals, with the understanding that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

Goal Number One: To Achieve My Personal Best in Birding. Amongst friends and family members, I've been referring to 2012 as "my Big Year," but to be honest, I don't actually expect to be the Illinois Ultimate Birding Champion. I have too many limits to my time and resources and too many other things I want to achieve to go for that, plus I don't want to get obsessed about it. But I can hope for my best year yet -- in fact, my goal is to see 255 species, which would be 80% of the A.B.A.'s total for the state (if I understand their website correctly), and the minimum number required for a Big Year. Since that's about 40 more species than I've seen in the state all total, it's still quite a challenging goal. And let's be honest, I'll get obsessed about it.

Goal Number Two: To Work on My Avian Haven, a.k.a., my yard, which is currently a wild, weedy overgrown mess chock full of invasive species (bamboo, starlings, house sparrows, English ivy, nightshade; seriously, how can a yard this size have so many "issues"?). Rome wasn't built in a day, and my backyard bird sanctuary won't be achieved in a year, but I do have some plans to add native species and bird and butterfly-friendly plants, and to remove more of the invasive stuff. I hope to be able to provide regular updates on creating better wildlife habitat (and a prettier garden!) starting in the spring.

Of course, being an over-achiever in the resolution department, I can think of a half a dozen other "goals" I plan to work on, although these are not so relevant to the theme of this blog. You know, eat right, work out, be a nicer person, cure that case of "foot in mouth disease," spend more time reading worthwhile books and less time watching episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc., etc., the same as every year.

Do you have any goals for the coming year? Especially any as relates to birding?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Solstice thoughts


Happy Winter Solstice, everyone! Although I much prefer the summer one, for both birding and general merriment, there's at least one thing to be said for this time of year...starting tomorrow, the sunlight hours will start to get longer! And if that doesn't deserve a big woo-hoo, I don't know what does.

I apologize to anyone who checks for new posts here very often, but lately my inspiration has been in as short supply as the daylight. Luckily, there are some bright spots on the horizon, at least figuratively.

For one thing, one of my favorite days is just around the corner--January first! And not for the opportunity to make a lot of resolutions that I'll keep for maybe a day or two (although I'm sure that will happen), but because it's the one day of the year when each and every species of bird I see is a "year bird." House sparrows, hooray! Pigeons, I'm glad to see ya! Starlings, welcome aboard! And of course I hope to see a lot more as well.

Sometimes it seems like the best moment is immediately before something happens. It's like that quantum physics thought experiment with the cat in the box with a radioactive isotope. Before you open the box, it's not that the cat could be either dead or alive. It's both at once. Then you peel back the flap, the die is cast, and the cat's fate is decided. I know that Erwin Schrodinger wasn't a birder...but it's that same feeling of infinite possibility.

Or, a more mundane example, the unopened Christmas gift. When I was a kid, I was always disappointed after I opened my presents on Christmas morning. It's not that I didn't like my gifts. It's just that, although I never could have articulated it back then, it was somehow more fun before I knew exactly what they were.

Now, I get that same feeling of excitement from a bird checklist. Every January I print off a copy of the Birds of Illinois list from the Internet, and read it over several times in anticipation, lingering an extra few seconds on the species I think most likely for the location and season. Will I see purple finches? White-crowned sparrows? Rusty blackbirds? Snowy owls? Golden-crowned kinglets? Will I see them all? Until the day is over, anything is still possible.

Some people have a solstice ritual they like to keep, or Christmas traditions, or they really look forward to partying on New Year's Eve. I could never get into any of that. It's not that I don't want to, I just can't work up any enthusiasm. But as I though about it while soaking in the tub this evening, I realized that birding has become my ritual.

Maybe it sounds silly, but going back to the same places, over and over, in different seasons, weathers, moods, what have you, becomes a way to anchor myself to this particular place and moment. It grounds me, and wakes me up, and fills me with gratitude and wonder when I least expect it. Sometimes it feels almost like a prayer or a meditation.

I will wrap up this post with a quote from Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O'Donohue.

Familiarity enables us to tame, control and ultimately forget the mystery. We make our peace with the surface as image and we stay away from the Otherness and fecund turbulence of the unknown that it masks. Familiarity is one of the most subtle and pervasive forms of human alienation....
This happens also with our experience of place. I remember my first evening in Tubingen, Germany. I was to spend more than four years there studying Hegel, but that first evening in Tubingen was utterly strange and unknown to me. I remember thinking, Look very carefully at Tubingen this evening because you will never again see it in this same way. And this was true.... After I had mapped out my routes through this strange territory, it became familiar, and soon I did not see it for itself anymore.

Perhaps that is what my January Birding Ritual is all about. For at least one day, I can shake off the dross of familiarity, and see each bird for itself once more.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Upper Peninsula Birding Adventure


Last week I went to Michigan's Upper Peninsula to visit my parents and, more importantly, to look for winter birds. Luckily, they enjoy birding as well, though perhaps not in the "all birds, all the time" way that I do, so it wasn't a complete conflict of interest.

A note about the photos: I did not get any good bird photos on this trip, so all bird photos on this post were actually taken last February at Sax Zim Bog. All landscape and otherwise non-bird photos were taken on this trip in Michigan.

As usual, I had a mental list (if there are many species it is usually an actual list) of birds I'd hoped to see, cobbled together from recent sightings on ebird, plus those that Sunwiggy had seen herself in the past couple of weeks: snowy owl, spruce grouse, snow bunting, white-winged crossbill, and Bohemian waxwing, all of which would be "lifers." Some evening grosbeaks would have been nice, too, but since no one had been seeing them, I didn't have my hopes up for those.

When I arrived on Thursday, I had barely crossed the state line when it started to snow. As in, how do I keep in my lane because I can't see it? Welcome to Michigan! Well, that's what I get for traveling to the north in December; except for the scary driving factor, it was actually kind of nice, as here in Illinois we've had a mild year and no snow in sight.

First bird sightings: bald eagle and American crow on the drive there, plus black-capped chickadees on my parents porch and pigeons at their feeder.

Day One, Friday: To Marquette and back

The next morning, it was still snowing like crazy around Calumet, but the weather forecast reported clear skies in Marquette, so we decided to head that way. It was an exciting trip because I had never been to Marquette and my parents had not really birded there, so new things to be discovered by all.

Sure enough, we did soon leave the snow behind, and had a nice time stopping along the water to look for birds: at the pier in Baraga we saw mallards, common mergansers, and a large flock of redheads; in L'Anse, Canada geese and mallards, and at Marquette Harbor more common mergansers and hooded mergansers. I kicked myself for forgetting the camera, as the two of the hooded mergansers were very close, in the slips for boats, diving for fish with no mind paid to us, and raising and lowering their hoods with abandon.

It was quite cold, but I wanted to walk around Presque Isle Park for a bit to see if I could spot some crossbills. I had forgotten a quirk of Sunwiggy's; when it's cold, she won't step outside unless she absolutely has to, preferring to bird from the vehicle. So she wouldn't get out, not even for crossbills. "I've seen them before." This sighting was something like three years ago, but there was no changing her mind, so she got to wait in the Jeep, drinking coffee from her thermos. Luckily, my dad was willing to stroll around a bit so I wasn't all alone.

The woods were very peaceful, and away from the wind off the water, not even too cold, but the only birds we saw were chickadees and a hairy woodpecker. I did see two flyovers of noisy flocks that I determined to be white-winged crossbills, which was good enough for my list, although I definitely needed a better look. Maybe later in the trip; people had been seeing them everywhere.

On the way back, the harbor was crammed with gulls (from what we could determine, ring-billed and herring), plus the mergansers and greater scaups. Few species seen but proof of life birds in the vicinity, so not a bad start to the trip.

Day Two, Saturday: all around the Keweenaw Peninsula

On the second day, my parents decided to drive by every place they or someone else had recently seen something cool on the Keweenaw Peninsula. I especially had hopes of picking up some nice species out towards Copper Harbor, as there had been some interesting sightings there lately, especially the Bohemian waxwings my parents saw a mere week or so before.

We started with White City Park, as a small colony of spruce grouse is thought to live there. It was another cold day, so here is a picture of my parents. The reason you can't see them is because they wouldn't come out of the Jeep!


It's ironic that two people who hate the cold so much moved to a land where it's cold for six months out of the year; on the other hand, absolutely nothing was stirring at the park, so maybe they had the right idea.

We were surprised to see many huge flocks of common redpolls picking for grit or salt on the snowy roads, and a few much smaller flocks of pine grosbeaks. Even though I had picked up these species last February in Minnesota, it was a treat to see them again, especially the huge flocks of redpolls as I'd had no idea that they came down in such numbers.



Keweenaw County also produced a rough-legged hawk for us, and in Copper Harbor my dad and I strolled around a bit, where I added "blue jay" to my list of species for the trip, and heard and saw both crows and ravens -- it was fun to be able to compare them up close like that.

The only thing out over the water was a lone greater scaup.


I did enjoy the patterns that the ice made as it formed over the water.




If I hadn't gone to Copper Harbor, I would have been sad to miss it, and the flocks of redpolls and pine grosbeaks were really fun, but overall I was a little frustrated by how few species I was seeing, and how much time I was spending in the vehicle, so I announced that on the following day we were getting out somewhere and walking around!

Day Three, Sunday: Houghton and Baraga

Luckily, the weather was with me on my campaign to get out of the Jeep, as Sunday was sunny and warm, going up into the forties. Rather than be bummed out about all the lifebirds I wasn't seeing, I decided to make a game out of how many species in general I could add on for the trip, and was happy to find three purple finches in with a flock of redpolls, plus starlings and goldfinches as we explored the county. We strolled around Houghton for a bit, and then headed back out towards Baraga, which gave us some new species in the bay (red-breasted merganser, common goldeneye), and a couple of very nice surprises, such as a pair of trumpeter swans on the south end of the bay and two Thayer's Gulls in L'Anse. The gulls were especially nice as they were life birds, and as they are rather hard to identify, it was nice to have three pairs of eyes agreeing that they weren't herring gulls.

Sunwiggy actually got out of the vehicle a couple of times!


To wrap up the day, we decided to go to the Baraga Plains, hoping for gray jays, black-backed woodpeckers or a better view of white-winged crossbills. I'm a little hazy about the rules for visiting the plains; apparently the land is owned by a private company, and is actively being logged, but anyone is free to wander around if they want to.


The day was bright, the (melting) snow a glistening white contrast to the blue sky, but there were no birds. I mean, none, not even the chattering of the ubiquitous chickadees. It was as if the area was suffering a bird blight -- but hey, I got to walk around a bit, which was a nice way to round out the day. I think that if I lived up here, I would have to invest in some snowshoes, or go insane with cabin fever.

Day Four, Monday, Back to Marquette

Since we'd had the most luck finding birds along the water, for my last day, I voted for a return trip to Marquette. It was gray and drizzling for most of the day, but we did have enough of a reprieve to check out the harbor, where I saw mostly the same birds as before, plus a common goldeneye. It was fun seeing the "rafts of wintering ducks" that I've read about and never managed to find before, and we got to challenge our ID skills by such creatures as a juvenile goldeneye and female greater scaups. Another stroll through the woods at Presque Isle park revealed black-capped chickadees and a bald eagle.

By then it was starting to rain again, so after lunch I checked out a gift shop and agreed to a visit to Snowbound Books for Sunwiggy--she loves bookstores the way I love a mixed flock of warblers in their breeding plumage, and since Marquette is a two hour trip for her, it would be mean not to. And I did enjoy seeing more of the town; it seems like a nice place, and I would love to visit again, preferably in the summer.

On a non-birding note, I would like to mention several of the nice places we ate lunch or dinner during my visit; since birding can really work up an appetite, these were much appreciated: Bambu and The Library in Houghton, the former serving good Chinese food and the second a wide variety of dishes--the carne asada I tried wasn't bad but they are also a microbrewery and the Miner's IPA is excellent; The Vierling Restaurant in Marquette, where we had some good sandwiches, also a brewery but we were there for lunch so I didn't try the beer; Thunder Bay Inn in Big Bay served a good salad for lunch; and Toni's in Laurium made a decent BLT (my parents swear by the pasties, but no offense to one of the U.P.'s signature foods, that's not my thing). I'm a picky eater (or, as I prefer to call myself, a "foodie," and usually bring a picnic lunch on a birding trip; the weather didn't make that appealing on this trip, so I was glad to find some decent places to eat.

Oh, and if you're wondering the total number of species I saw -- 29. I know, not very tantalizing, but at least there were some good ones. And the next time I visit the U.P., I think I'll choose the summer months!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Ruins in the snow


For those who may have wondered where the Crow has been, I've spent the last few days visiting the 'rents in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where they have chosen to spent their later years -- specifically, in Calumet on the Keweenaw Peninsula, which (as my dad would be happy to explain to you in great detail), is in the midst of Copper Country.

Here's a bit of a history lesson: the Keweenaw peninsula is rich in copper, which started a mining boom in the middle of the 1800s--I'm not enough of an aficionado of the period to give a complete history, but here's a brief summery from Wikepidia.


One thing that did catch my interest as I was driving northward were the ruins along highway 26 between Houghton and Calumet.


It turns out that these are the ruins of a stamp mill -- as my dad explained, the facility was used to crush huge rocks sent down from the copper mines further up the hill, so that the rocks were turned to sand, and only the hunks of copper remained.


I enjoyed wandering among the ruins taking photos -- although to be honest, the history of the area as shown by the ruins of the stamp mill, although interesting, is not the point in time I'd chose to visit if I had a free trip in a time machine. I'd chose a century or two earlier, and hang with the French explorers, the Ojibway, and the passenger pigeons.


Besides, there's a certain gravitas to ruins; you don't necessarily want to know the facts. Sometimes it's more interesting to just wander around taking photos. OK, the past history major in me is so shocked at that statement that I take it back! It's better to know!


There used to be so much copper in the area that even the pulverized rock, post-stamping, had enough to dredge out afterward. And then, some time in the sixties, it stopped being profitable to mine for copper in the Upper Peninsula...the competition from the western mines was too great, and the mines had to go down so deep, that it was no longer worth the companies' while, and they closed up shop....



And for those of you who want to know what birds I saw Up North...I promise to share all the news on the birding front later this week!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Some thoughts on Spontaneous Happiness


(And of course sooner or later these thoughts will get around to birds!)

The terminal grayness of the season has dragged on into Sunday (there was a respite yesterday afternoon...when I was busy running errands, alas), so that after a brief jaunt to the Salt Creek Wetland this morning, I spent the rest of the day huddled under an afghan, snuggling with my dogs and reading the latest book to hit my Kindle, Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil.

I have been a big fan of Dr. Weil's for over a decade; in fact, it was his books Health and Healing and Natural Health, Natural Medicine that first piqued my interest in alternative (and integrative) medicine. His latest, Spontaneous Happiness, is mostly a discussion of how to alleviate the mild-to-moderate depression and other mental issues plaguing the twenty-first century developed world. Although he mentions that part of the "epidemic" of depression is actually created by the medical industry (I think that very few would argue that, especially after approval of direct-to-consumer advertising, the pharmaceutical companies have gone overboard in pushing their wares), and that the idea that one should be aggressively "happy" all the time is artificial and unnatural, he also states that more people than ever seem to be depressed. Hunter-gatherer societies, the Old Order Amish, and those in less developed countries very rarely get depressed, even though their lives are more physically grueling. Modern American cosmopolites (and those in other developed Western countries) are much less happy. Why is this?

Besides birding and nature, integrative and natural medicine, especially as it relates to mental health, is a huge interest of mine. Partly this is for personal reasons--I try not to dwell on it, but I'll be the first to admit that I'm completely neurotic, mostly suffering from various forms of anxiety, with a liberal smattering of melancholia to round it all out.

Like Dr. Weil, I find the whole biochemical theory depression and other problems (with some exceptions, such as bipolar disorder, which thankfully I do not have!) to be inadequate if not downright flawed. But if neurotransmitters aren't to blame for the problem, then what is? Here is where the topic intersects nicely with the core subjects of Bird Ephemera.

Lately my thoughts on the topic can be summed up briefly: "We're just not meant to live this way!" In fact, I've felt out of step with our society pretty much my entire life, and the disconnect has just been getting worse, to the extent that, at times, trying to squeeze myself into the current mold is almost a torment for me. And like a pendulum swinging from extreme to extreme, the more horrible I feel in my daily life, the more obsessively I turn to nature as my escape.

I was interested to see that, basically, Dr. Weil seems to agree with me. Possible culprits mentioned in Spontaneous Happiness include our heavily processed diets (I would personally rate this higher than he does, at least based on my own experience--junk foods always lead me to junk moods), too little activity and too much time spent inside, being disconnected from nature (he mentions Richard Louv's concept of  "nature deficit disorder"), but Weil seems to place most of the blame on our Information Technology: information overload, the constant pull of e-mail and cell phone calls bringing work into leisure time, our responses to the non-stop demands of the news media to catch our attention by alarming us.

I can see how that would be true for people who have fallen into this trap. During the Gulf Oil Spill, I know I became more and more depressed as I plunged again and again into coverage on the tragedy. Other than stories on the environment, personally I try to avoid the news as much as possible, a strategy I've been following for the past fifteen years, after I realized that the TV news was really upsetting me over stories (such as crimes in other cities) that I had no control over and did not impact me. And I will say that I personally know people who get angry or agitated after following the news, so I agree that picking and choosing very carefully is a good step.

Other than that, although I complain a lot about my job, I am very scrupulous about maintaining my work/life balance. My cell phone is for emergencies and calls to Sunwiggy only. My e-mail is only given out to people I want to hear from. I do love to use the Internet for fun and information -- my blog, ebird, other people's birding blogs, listening to music from distant radio stations via iTunes while I do all this -- and since my depression and anxiety issues stem from times long before any of this was available to me -- in my case, I don't think that's the issue.

Not that I am exonerating technology: at work, when I've had jobs that keep my body busy as well as my mind (such as my days as a line cook in Arkansas), I was literally too busy to be depressed on the job! Since "upgrading" to better paid office work, I find that the tasks I do in front of the computer don't really challenge me, so that my mind has plenty of chance to ruminate on unpleasant things, and my body sits idle, so I don't burn off any of my restless energy. I also hate -- HATE -- talking on the phone. Hate it. And I do it all day long. So I have to say, in my experience, sedentary (boring) office work is much more depression-inducing than equally monotonous manual labor.

As a penultimate thought, I will say that Spontaneous Happiness gives short shrift to introverts. Dr. Weil states that we are social creatures, meant to live in tribes and extended family groups, and that social isolation is invariably detrimental. "Period." I honestly cannot dispute this. But...what about true introverts? I am one of the most introverted people I know. I find interactions with others outside of my immediate circle, even if they are positive in nature, to be exhausting. I honestly like to be alone. I crave it. Sometimes when my nearest and dearest decline my invitation to join me for a nature walk...I'm relieved. Not that I don't love them or enjoy their company. But I am almost never, ever depressed when it's just me and a bird, me and a plant, me in awe of a lake or a tree or the sky. Actually, at those times, I feel the most "complete."

And for my ultimate thought.... Dr. Weil cautions against spending too much time alone. And I agree. But when I am by myself in nature, I never feel alone. There is a whole world, both seen and unseen, natural and metaphysical, all around me. And the more I learn to pay attention, the less alone I feel.




Friday, December 2, 2011

Some things I forgot


Here are a few things I forgot about December:

How the sense of darkness, so early in the evening, is heavy and thick, as if you could drown in it. How my hair tangles and my eyes burn and my hands chap from the dry air. How the only time I don't feel cold is right after stepping into a scalding hot bath. How the brown and taupe landscape of the autumn gives way to a grayness that seems able to actually seep inside my flesh and render my thoughts equally gray. How hard it is to get out of bed on these cold, gray mornings.

Today I drove around the countryside to the north, the stretch of road from El Paso to Gridley, hoping to catch sight of a snowy owl that was seen by some other birders a couple of days ago. I did not see the owl, and I took it personally. I saw a red-tailed hawk gliding above the muddy wallow of a farmyard, and the dark little profiles of kestrals perching on the telephone wires, against the gray wash of the sky. I saw some horned larks dashing for the camouflage of winter fields as I made an ill-conceived detour along a dirt road. But no owls.

At least it is Friday. Lately being at work has meant the inability to think any thought through to its natural conclusion. The phone rings constantly. While I am taking one call, the message light starts flashing to remind me of all those I am missing. Coworkers hover by my desk waiting for a moment to ambush me with a question. Behind me, the fax machine keeps whirring with more work flowing in. In order to multi-task, I would first have to be able to finish an actual task.

Despite a grim weather forecast for the weekend (both days overcast with a chance of rain), if at all possible I will spend as long as I can slowly wandering through the woods, letting the stillness soak down to my bones. Somehow the season only starts to bother me when I am stuck inside (or when I am not seeing owls, but that's another point).

And I remind myself that winter is not always this bleak; sometimes it is touched with its own moment of transcendence, such as I described in my Bird Journal from February 13, 2010: "Beautiful winter day, archetypal, what people mean when they praise 'the seasons' (not the weeks of misery that accompany it)--the sky so vividly blue, the snow a sparkling white expanse, trees and grasses glittering with frost.... Heard a cardinal singing what cheer and then purty purty purty, the notes so clear, the tonal equivalent of the sparkling blue/white day. It seemed the most beautiful sound I had ever heard."

But there is an eternity between that moment and this one....