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.