Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Reading, not birding

Due to the fact that I've come down with a walloping head cold, instead of birding, I spent the weekend laying on the couch honking into a wad of tissues and reading. And not even books about birds, either. Just random stuff that caught my interest lately.

On Saturday I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Crown: 2012), which caught my eye because I do consider myself to be one of the most introverted people I know, and I often feel like I don't quite fit in the world. I do believe that we humans come in all different packages, and it's inevitable that any given social climate will favor certain types over others.

Even after reading the book, I'm still a little fuzzy on the exact definition of an introvert. As one myself, I have always been very specific that the personality type is not synonymous with other categories such as shy, quiet, reflective or highly sensitive. To me, "introverted" means that, nine times out of ten, if given my druthers, I prefer to be alone. It's not that I don't like (most) other people. But really, being around others tires me out. Being alone refreshes me, and if I'm not alone, I prefer to just hang with family members or a couple of close friends. The life of the party, I am not.

But: I am most decidedly not shy. Actually, I'm pretty bold. If you dared me to walk up to a complete stranger and, say, do a bawk-bawk chicken imitation, or ask them something bizarre and personal, well...if you were going to pay me enough, I'd do it. My jobs of the past decade or so, including teaching and medical billing, involve a lot of human contact, including some things that others might fight awkward, such as explaining to a student why they're failing or making collections calls. Not a problem for me, since I really do not give a rat's ass what other people think of me. Therefore, it goes without saying that items Cain addresses as being challenging for introverts, such as public speaking, don't faze me a bit.

The other pseudo-synonyms I listed are a bit trickier. I am sometimes quiet, sometimes gregarious. Reflective? OK, I probably am...maybe even a bit too much. I do tend to stew in my own juices a lot, and over-think just about everything. But maybe that's just because I'm over-educated; all those classes with names like "structuralism and semiotics," and nothing to use them for!

The last item, highly sensitive, Cain spends a lot of time on, and it was one of the more interesting points for me. Basically, a highly sensitive person is not necessarily what you could dismiss as being "emo," but someone who reacts strongly to outside stimuli, such as noisy environments. Apparently certain researchers have been able to test infants with reactivity studies, and accurately predict whether they would be outgoing or introverted as adults.

Even that category felt a bit artificial to me. In some ways, I will admit I am quite "sensitive," for example, crowded shopping malls or busy traffic can make me feel like I'm unraveling at the seams. But Cain predicts that such individuals, presumably introverts, will therefore shy from new experiences, and as for myself, I am a self-proclaimed experience junkie. I love to travel and try new things. I hate staying put. I am never happier than when on a bus or in a crowded marketplace in some foreign country, where I may or may not speak the language...unless I'm also seeing new birds!

I am sorry to use myself as an example, but the point remains, if Quiet is a book about introverts, and I only fit one of many definitions (i.e., that I prefer solitude or the company of just one or two others), then where does that leave us? Well, I suspect that leaves us with some fuzzy generalizations that may or may not be useful to any particular reader.

The book discusses the many strengths and positive qualities of introverts, and the varying ways in which our society puts quiet types at a disadvantage: group work and "teams" from grade school all the way to the workforce; open office plans; examples from Harvard Business School and a certain style of evangelicalism that almost insist their adherents be hail-fellow-well-met types, and the self-help movement (for example, she attends a pricey seminar by self-help guru Tony Robbins). The take home message is that there is a place for both quiet and out-spoken people in our world. OK, I agree with that. And I agree that our society tends to listen more to the superficial, the loud-mouth, the person who can "sell themselves"...even though beneath the surface, those who brag the most often have the least to show for it.

Overall, I think that this book might appeal most to those who truly are shy or to wallflowers who wish they could blossom. There's a lot of support for those types, and some generic self-help style advice for how they can make the best of it or communicate with different personalities. Personally, I found the book a bit superficial, although a fast read; I recommend doing as I did, and checking it out from the library first.

For a completely different change of pace, Sunday I read Yoga Bitch: One Woman's Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment by Suzanne Morrison (Three Rivers Press: 2011). This memoir details the two months that the author spent on a yoga retreat in Bali. When I picked it up (also at the library), I figured: why not? I'm cynical, I like yoga, and I'd love to go to Bali.

In a word, the book is hilarious. I very rarely laugh out loud when I'm reading, but this book provided multiple guffaws. Morrison turns her cynical and yet hopeful eye upon her past, revealing her younger self, hoping for enlightenment, and yet confronted with an almost cult-like environment, one of whose tenants involves the allegedly healthful benefits of drinking one's own urine. (Although as her roommate tells her, be sure to get it from the "mid-stream" of the morning's first flow. The first part is too strong and the last part is a bit...crunchy.)

In the process, she becomes progressively disillusioned with her yoga teacher, has a genuinely transcendent moment, worries about her love life, and rebels by drinking milkshakes. (The description of said milkshakes, coconut vanilla flavored, induced a craving in me that I am still plotting how best to satisfy. Would French vanilla ice cream suffice, or should I also add a bit of vanilla? I say vanilla. And for the I need to buy an actual coconut, or would canned coconut milk do? Hmmmm...must scour the Internet for advice!)

As with Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love, Bali is merely the backdrop, the author's personal journey being the true "setting," but the glimpses I got of the Balinese culture were tantalizing. The tiny swimming pool on the grounds that was reserved for God...the exorcism of the possessed blender (don't ask, just read the book...that's all I can say)...the brief conversation with the Balinese man about what third world countries have and the people of the developed world are looking for, all of this made me think, "Give me more!"

But having lived abroad myself (in Japan and Morocco), I know how challenging it is to be the outsider looking in. Kudos to Morrison that she sticks to her own observations, as limited as they may be, instead of taking an authority she did not have upon herself. Her experience was 95% restricted to the yoga retreat, and she does have some light to shed on that. I am glad I did not join her, and equally glad she penned her experiences for me to share vicariously.

I really enjoyed this book, and I don't think one has to practice yoga to relate to it (although that may help). Again, if you're not certain if you'd like it or not, give the library a try...although this is one I may want to re-read some day.

And now, I am feeling better, so hopefully more birding adventures soon! But it was nice to revisit the lazy days of just hanging about in one's PJs with a book.

Have you read either of these books? If so, what did you think of them?

Friday, February 24, 2012

Some ground to cover

The post in which I beg for gardening advice....

For about a week, the weather was so unusually mild that I started working on some yard projects, namely, eliminating my alien invaders, the bamboo and the English ivy. You can see the ivy pictured above. It mostly crowds out the front yard and then runs in a long, messy strip along the back (it used to be mixed in with the bamboo), and, in warmer weather, sends up questing tendrils all over the grass. In my quest for an Avian Haven and patch of native plantings in the midst of town, it goes without saying, the Aliens must go.

And so I yanked and clipped and pulled, yanked and clipped and pulled. My efforts of a few hours yielded three yard waste bags full of ivy leaves and vines, and yet only the smallest of cleared patches. Then it got cold again, so the ivy gets to stay another few weeks.

But the whole thing presents some serious dilemmas for this novice gardener. For one thing, we don't want to have to mow that area, so I need to replace it with some well-behaved ground cover. Also, as you can tell from the second photo above, the ivy has encroached upon the neighboring property. I'm not really sure what to do about that. Normally, I'd just explain to my neighbor my intentions and ask for her feedback, but she doesn't speak English very well. But I have to pull up all the ivy, or it'll just creep back over this way.

So I'm thinking, pull it up and replace it with grass seed? Normally, I am not a fan of lawns, but since the rest of their lawn is, well, grass, that might be the best solution. Although there's still the issue of the patch in front of the house, which we don't want to mow. It's a very small area and we never hang out there, so I just want it to look pretty for people walking past. (And, if it was pretty, I'd enjoy walking past more myself!)

Which means I still need to find some nice ground cover. Although they're not native, I was thinking of planting some daffodils and crocuses in the front, to get the early spring blooms. And maybe a line of day lilies along the side.

My first resource in looking for a good ground cover was, of course, the Internet, such as this list from the University of Illinois. I was glad to see that English ivy was not on their list!

But the first option, goutweed, although attractive in the photo, is stated as being prone to becoming "evasive"--I think they mean invasive? So that got scratched right off the list. The second, bugleweed, looked promising at first. It's pretty and easy to grow! But a bit more Internet research soon removed it from my list. It's not native. It likes to spread. It's hard to contain. I really don't need any more of that! So scratch bugleweed.

So what about lily of the valley? I love that plant! Nuh-uh. A bit more Internet research showed that it's another alien invader. After all the sweat and tears (thankfully, as yet no blood) I've spend removing invasives from my yard, I'm not going to knowingly plant another, no matter how pretty.

Two other recommended plants, periwinkle and purpleleaf wintercreeper euonymous, are both on this list of of invasive plants. I am starting to realize that "ground cover" means "spreads quickly and aggressively all over the place." Maybe all you gardening types are thinking "duh!" to this statement...but really, I didn't know. I just want to put in something low maintenance and attractive that isn't grass. Is that impossible?

Going down the list.... I am not even looking up Japanese spurge; the name alone tells me it's not what I want for my Illinois garden. Canada wild ginger sounds nice, but requires deep shade. I think my area is more partial shade. And I would love to put in woodland plants such as ferns and trilliums, but it seems like an awful lot of work and expense for a small area that I don't even use.

In the back yard, at least the bamboo is more quickly removed from the ground up. This is what my back yard used to look like:

This is what it looks like now:

Unfortunately, I can't start planting native trees and shrubs to create a woodland garden, as I'd like to, until we can get a heavy-duty tiller to address the problem of the bamboo shoots still spreading underground. I was hoping to be able to dig them up, but they proved to be too thick and sturdy, a lattice of bamboo beneath my lawn. And the stuff in the very back of the yard gets to stay until we can afford to put in a privacy fence. My husband Greenturtle requested this, and I don't really relish the thought of everyone coasting down the alley being able to peer through at us either.

Also, once we do get all this stuff removed, we'll have to put some sort of barrier down along the side of the yard along our new fence, or the bamboo will just come spreading back from the neighbors' yard. (He likes the bamboo. He claims to have originally planted it all.) I've just been reading advice on the Internet again about how to remove it. It looks like I'll need to buy some extra a machete, or a chainsaw, or a Bobcat, to get rid of it all.

In the meantime, if anyone has advice about well-behaved ground covers...or how to remove English ivy or bamboo, please don't be shy!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Metaphorical landscapes

Companions of Fear by Rene Magritte

In a recent post, Landscape as Metaphor, I attempted a creative writing exercise to show the parallels between the bleak and brown world of February in central Illinois to my occasionally bleak and brown response to the news, received two weeks ago, that I had been laid off. Granted, the news was not entirely unexpected; mine was only one of a long series of terminations. Neither was the news entirely unwelcome. I had been miserable for quite some time, so much so that my first reaction, upon hearing the news, was to shout, "Thank you!"

But here's the thing. As much as I find our current paradigm to be flawed and wanting, as much as I decry the concept that an individual's worth is synonymous with his or her paycheck, I found it difficult not to take the whole thing personally. I had been judged, and deemed unnecessary. I had been cut loose upon the world, with no title or job to call my own. My blog is a labor of love; I receive no revenue for it. I am a writer who shies from submissions, a birder whose love of birds is a mostly solitary pursuit. In the eyes of our consumerist society, where does that leave me?

As the bleak winter landscapes dogged my birding pursuits (OMG, will this winter ever end?), it put me in mind of metaphorical landscapes by the surrealist painter Yves Tanguy.

Actual landscape at Green River Conservation Area

Metaphorical landscape by surrealist painter Yves Tanguy

Yves Tanguy, even more than the other surrealists, is the painter who symbolizes an entirely bleak internal realm for me. In a rough draft of one of my manuscripts, I compared the dissatisfaction of one of my characters to his stark and unfeeling landscapes, a world so bleak and barren that the figures are mere approximations of any living thing, set against a landscape devoid of perspective or any true semblance of life. I mean really, what is this? Was Tanguy totally depressive, or is that just my interpretation?

By Yves Tanguy

Surrealism, and its forerunner, dadaism, present images of absurdity in the face of an even more absurd world: the two world wars, a society collapsing inwards upon itself. In the face of the disintegration of Western Europe at the advent of the first world war, the dada movement presented its aggressive image of "anti-art" to the world; with the second world war, the surrealist movement had an even more horrible issue to confront.

Max Ernst, "L'Ange du Foyer"

Max Ernst, "The Eye of Silence"

And where would any discussion of the surrealist movement, no matter how cursory, be without Salvador Dali?

Salvador Dali, Dissolution of the Persistence of Memory

Again, in a rough draft of my manuscript (I left these details out because how many people are, like myself, art history geeks?), a character thought that she didn't like Dali's work, because it left a sticky and unpleasant residue on her brain. I guess that's how I feel about it, too, which is why I gave the impulse to my fictional character. These surrealist landscapes are downright unpleasant. But that doesn't mean that we should look away.

I get impatient with those who think, like Ayn Rand in The Romantic Imagination, that we should only focus on uplifting or inspiring images. Is that what the world is really like? Or,in the real world, do people get laid off due to no fault of their own? Do these people then pull back from the brink of wallowing by realizing how nice they have it compared to others around the world? Do we live in a place in which violence, war, greed, genocide, and the threat of mass extinctions exist, or not? And if this is the world that we live in, why should we demand an obligatory chipperness from its citizens? To put it in Gen-X lingo, why should I be positive if everything sucks?

Rene Magritte, Pleasure

The above image was painted in 1927 (I think); almost 100 years later, can we find a better indictment of consumerism? And yet, can I exonerate myself from the charge of equal shallowness?

Today, I received a job offer from a doctor's office in Decatur, at a salary not too horribly off from what I had before. Callooh, callay! 'Twas brillig and the slimey toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe!

By Rene Magritte

And thus, a happy ending? In some ways, of course. I am no longer unemployed, and really, I have only been looking for a week! It is right to be happy, of course, and I any more real, more validated, than I was yesterday, when the landscape looked so bleak?

The surrealists mean a lot to me. To paraphrase a quote from the book A Small Furry Prayer, the term is now obsolete. The surreal has become everyday life.

So, is there an artist who illustrates your metaphorical landscape? If so, who is she, or he?

Gull Frolic 2012

Every February, the Illinois Ornithological Society hosts a gull-watching event at Winthrop Harbor known as the Gull Frolic. I had already signed up for myself and Greenturtle, in anticipation of my Illinois Ultimate Birding Year, as gulls are really hard to distinguish and I figured that the Frolic would be a fun way to learn more about them and maybe get a few Life Birds to boot.

But then, you know how it goes. Life intervened. If you have read my latest couple of posts, you will have already learned that I was laid off and now find myself pinching pennies and worrying about the future. My Ultimate Birding Year has been canceled, or at least postponed. And although I had already paid for the Frolic, there was still the not insignificant matter of the price of gas to and from the event, as Winthrop Harbor is north of Chicago, almost into Wisconsin, quite a long drive from Clinton.

But nothing is as cheering as a potential life bird, so with a bit of nagging from Greenturtle, I decided to attend after all. It was a very long trip. We left around five in the morning and arrived at the harbor at eight thirty. OK, did I mention how long the drive was? Luckily we had an audio book that was pretty interesting, Spook Country by William Gibson, to help us pass the time.

The first thing I noticed when we arrived at Winthrop Harbor were the ducks in the water.

Mostly, there were greater scaup and common goldeneyes, although I also saw a couple of buffleheads, a ring-necked duck, and some common mergansers. Most exciting of all was a life bird surf scoter.

There was also a snowy owl perched upon the breakwater. And here I was so nervous about if I would see one at Montrose Harbor last month, never suspecting that I would soon have another chance!

As far as the gulls go...despite having a Frolic hosted in their honor, they mostly didn't show up. There were a lot of ring-billed and herring gulls in the vicinity.

I did get a quick look at a Thayer's gull, which was a first for Illinois, and someone apparently saw an Iceland.

The talk by Chicago-land birder Amar Ayyash (I was already familiar with his blog, Anything Larus), was quite interesting, I got a life bird and a couple of "firsts" for Illinois. It was a good event, and perhaps the mild winter kept the variety of gulls away. Overall, a day I would recommend to Illinois birders.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Landscape as metaphor

Sky gray, the air tasting of impending snow. And what does that taste like? Damp, almost metallic.

Landscape as metaphor; it feels as if winter has been here forever. Nothing green: barren brown grasses across the prairie, the trees leafless against the horizon. Myself, listless. I haven't seen anything unexpected in weeks. So why am I here? Why do I do this? Because nature is the thread that secures me to the tapestry that is everything else, even when it's hard to sense that subtle tug. Because it's better than not being here. never know. Today might be the day that something startles me. Or just the day that the meadowlark that has been wintering here on the prairie shows itself. I know it's there. I saw it at the end of December. And besides, I can hear it, buzzing to itself from the grasses.

Not working has released a wellspring of pent-up energy, as if every day that I dragged myself home, drained and totally brain dead, has now been given back to me in one fell swoop. I could walk forever. Yes, forever. I could walk to the West Coast. Or south, across Texas, across Mexico, into the rain forest. Then I could be looking for quetzals from the pinnacle of some Mayan ruins, instead of looking for a meadowlark on a brown winter prairie.

Now that I think of it, what kind of a rat bastard lays someone off in the middle of February? A time of year so bleak that it can drive people to despair even without the specter of financial ruin? Who wouldn't be depressed, with the sun hidden by clouds for days on end, as distant and uncaring as Nietzsche's dead god?

There is such an unmoored feeling to being out of work. It puts me in a dire existentialist frame of mind. L'homme est condamne a etre libre. Il se sent etranger dans un monde absurde. But instead of taking up smoking again and sitting around drinking bitter coffee and reading the works of Sartre, I'm out looking for birds. The world is a little less absurd when I'm birding, and I don't feel such a stranger in it.

I startle the Canada geese on the loop along the lake. They take flight, flashing the crescent moon of white feathers on their rumps, then skidding across the ice for a landing. Where the ice is very thin, there is a brief splintering noise and then the splash of goose hitting water.

Around town, the trees and rooftops have been taken over by starlings, all clicking and whistling as if begging for a kiss. Here in the woods, it's still the same old winter combo. Crows, woodpeckers, titmice, nuthatches. Angry blue jays, but then, is there any other kind? Chickadees and American tree sparrows everywhere, but not a junco to be seen. Has the mild winter kept them further north? Is this something that the juncos have the free will to decide?

Is it too much to ask, to want to see a flicker? Just one little flicker? Other birders have been seeing them. Must my every excursion be so resolutely flickerless? Still, something about this slate-colored day makes the wings of the nuthatches seem almost blue when they fly, a shade I only notice on days like this one, when the sky looks bruised.

A hawk glides silently overhead, by its shape, a Cooper's. A great blue heron rises, gawky and soundless, from the creek. In two or three weeks, I should start seeing changes: grackles and blackbirds and killdeer returning. Ducks in migration. An explosion of startled woodcocks at the edges of the prairies. But not now. Not yet. The land is still waiting, and so am I.

Species seen: European starling; Canada goose; American crow; ring-billed gull; black-capped chickadee; blue jay; American tree sparrow; mourning dove; downy woodpecker; white breasted nuthatch; red-bellied woodpecker; northern cardinal; house finch; eastern bluebird; Cooper's hawk; great blue heron.

From the Bird Journal, February 13, a walk at Weldon Springs.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Memory Palace for Birds

It was cold this morning. Although a bit belated, winter finally decided it was here this weekend, with the windchill factor sending the temperature into the single digits. But still...the sun was out. There was something timeless and compelling about the endless blue of the sky. No two ways about it--time for a bird walk!

I decided on the Houseboat Cove Trail at Mascoutin, along Clinton Lake, as I had not been there in a couple of weeks, but it's still pretty close to home. Since the neither entirely unanticipated nor unwelcome announcement that the Crow is out of a job, I must be more careful with the gas before hopping in the car for a day of birding. And it's better for the environment to be thrifty, as well.

Anyway, it's cold, I was out, and I was seeing birds. In milder weather, I like to take along a moleskine notebook to record all the species I see, but as I had misplaced my only mechanical pencil (the ink in pens tends to freeze on days like today), and I was loath to expose my digits to the chill, I had to rely on memory to log my birds in my Bird Journal once I got home.

To keep the birds in mind, I like to use a mnemonic device known as the Memory Palace, or method of loci. This technique, which was invented by the ancient Roman orators, is sometimes called "a mental walk." Basically, it entails visualizing a route that you know well, and "placing" items that you need to memorize at specific areas along the walk. In other words, if I gave you a list of random words to remember, you would think of ten landmarks along your familiar "walk" and stick a word at each one. By tying new information to the familiar, people are able to remember more things than they could otherwise.

When it's too cold to log birds (or I just forgot my notebook!), I turn my physical walk into a mental walk as well, affixing each species in my mind to the location where I saw it.

Black capped chickadees -- Two, on the shrubbery near the ground, to the left of the trail just after I passed the ephemeral pool that is now filled with water, but completely iced over. This area is completely birdy, but today there were just the chickadees.

American crow -- One, against the blue sky, its wings "rowing" in through the air. Mid-way down the path as it runs straight to the inlet of the lake.

Ring-billed gulls and mallards -- immediately past the bench, where the trail turns and runs along the Cove. They were all out in the water. The mallards took off in a quacking panic as soon as they saw me. The gulls, they couldn't care less.

Red-bellied woodpecker and hairy woodpecker -- one each. I saw both as soon as the trail switch-backed to the right to continue running parallel to the cove, the red-bellied on the left side of the trail, the hairy on the right. I knew the RB at once from its call, and again from the flash of its red "skullcap" as it inched along the tree; the hairy I first recognized by size--is that a robin? A blue jay? No, a woodpecker -- a hairy.

Evidence of woodpeckers

Dark-eyed juncos
-- to the right of the trail, in one of the more open areas before the trail forks into the "long" and "short" walks. I recognize them by the white "V's" created by their tail feathers as they fly. They've been significantly absent on my last few birds walks, so I'm glad to see them.

The short road or the long one?

Great blue herons -- two, at least. Caught sight of them taking off to the right, in the area with all the sunken trees.

The drowned trees

Even though I've been seeing them all winter -- the mild temperatures have kept the water largely free of ice -- it still surprises me each time. I just don't think of them as winter birds. And something about them -- is it the long dangling legs? The large size? The prehistoric cries? Or just their extraordinary beauty? -- startles me every time.

There are also dozens of mallards in this area, all quacking, all panicking. In the past, this area has also yielded blue-winged teal and a lone female wood duck. Today? Mallards.

Northern cardinals -- about a half dozen, feeding on the ground to the right of the trail in another scrubby/shrubby area. In the intense winter sunlight, one of the males looked preternaturally red. I don't know if you've ever watched a fantasy cartoon with a pile of magical rubies, glowing from within? That's what this guy looked like. I mean, he was CGI red! I've never seen anything like it....

Tufted titmouse -- two of them, same area, right before the line of hedge apples. What can I say? So cute! So precious! Such crabby noises! As I was watching one of them rummaging around on a branch for his lunch, I thought: This is what's real. It felt...I dunno...kind of spiritual? What can I say? I like titmice!

Former windbreak -- a row of Osage orange

Blue jay -- one, on the left side of the trail, just a few feet beyond the titmice. There were some cardinals and juncos as well.

American Tree Sparrow -- perhaps a half a dozen, sheltering in the line of Osage orange trees, which were probably planted a while ago, when this was all farmland, probably as a windbreak.

Last but not least, a small flock of Canada geese, flying overhead right before I got to the parking lot...and then a lone American coot glanced in the water as I was driving home.

And I can still remember each one! It gets more difficult in the spring, when mixed flocks of warblers fill the trees and the list runs over fifty species. Today was just thirteen, not too hard to recall even without a Memory Palace. Of course, in the spring, I'd have my notebook with fear of freezing pens, or need for gloves!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Careful what you wish for

It was a beautiful sunny day. I was feeling restless and loath to spend it sitting still. As I powered up my computer at work, I thought, I wish I could be birding right now. Or working on my yard. Or just doing something different, something more active and challenging!

But as a friend of mine in the Army used to say, "And people in hell want ice water." We all have to do what we need to do, and I reminded myself that until I stop procrastinating about looking for a new job, I'm stuck with this one, so suck it up. And just to be clear about things, I don't consider myself a slacker. I actually like to work.

But this job is not challenging for either my body or my mind. Nor is it the kind of laid-back job where I can just come to work, do my eight hours, and forget about it as soon as I leave. It manages to be both boring and stressful. I have spent many hours of soul-searching to make myself practice a little gratitude until I can find something more suitable. I give myself little pep talks before sitting down at my desk. The one thing that makes it bearable was the fact that the majority of my co-workers are such awesome people.

Still, as I clicked on my electronic timecard, I couldn't help thinking, I wish I didn't have this job. You know the saying, "Be careful what you wish for?" Well, about an hour before the end of the work day on Tuesday, my boss called me down to his office. I knew something was up as soon as I saw the Human Resources gal sitting with him at the table.

"I really hate this part of my position," he said, trying to look appropriately solemn, "but I had to eliminate another position..."

I didn't even let him finish the sentence. I just couldn't contain the joy. "Thank you!" I yelled. "This is wonderful!" I got myself under control before I actually jumped up on the table and started doing a jig or any similar foolishness -- after all, I didn't want them congratulating each other on the Best Decision Ever -- and stated how after my original position was out-sourced six months ago and I was given a new one, I'd been very grateful to be given a new opportunity and had tried my best blah blah blah, but it just wasn't a great fit for me and I was relieved not to have to worry about it anymore and no hard feelings. I must admit I got some perverse glee out of stealing their thunder, too.

But overall, what I said was true. I do feel that ever since I was given my new position, I've been trying to squeeze my big square peg self into a misshapen round hole. It is a relief to be done with it. And any hard feelings are easily canceled out every time I start stewing about the latest stressful situation on my plate, only to remember, "It's someone else's problem now!"

So what does this have to do with birding? Well, in the short term, I'll have more time on my hands to bird. But it also means that I'll have to postpone my Ultimate Birding Year to another time. Luckily except for gas for birding trips and my love of gourmet food, I live a fairly frugal life, so as long as I stay put and eat cheap until I find something else, I'm not freaking out about the unemployment. This is why I don't buy new cars or McMansions!

Even more than that, it has made me start thinking about "birding" as an attitude, an expression of life, a unique discipline, a moving meditation. I want more "birding" in my life. I know that no one's going to pay me to go on a nature hike, but in a metaphorical sense, I want to bring "birding" into my next position.

Yesterday, I went on a very long walk. The sun was shining and the light glistened over the inlet of Clinton Lake that the trail snakes around. There were common mergansers and northern shovelers, both new birds for the year in De Witt county for me. The ring-billed gulls were making such a racket, if I closed my eyes and lifted my head towards the sun, I could almost imagine myself on a beach somewhere, in the summer. A Carolina wren scuttled across a log and then dropped out of sight. Woodpeckers yarked at each other and hammered on the trees. Everywhere were alarmed chickadees and scurrying nuthatches.

It's true, nobody can possibly be that happy all the time. Pretty soon I'd better find a new job and on sunny days, I'll wish I could be out birding. But in the meantime, I made the wish...and I don't take it back.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Cross Quarter Birding

I would like to wish everyone a belated happy Groundhog's Day. Yes, I know that this post is coming a bit after the fact, even though my most faithful reader, my mother Sunwiggy, declares that Groundhog's Day is her favorite holiday.

"It can't be your favorite holiday," I told her. "That's just silly. It's not even a real thing!"

As it turns out, I was wrong. The beginning of February is, indeed, a real thing. But I actually kind of knew that already, from birding. Those who are aware of the seasons already know about the summer and winter solstices (longest and shortest days of the year) and vernal and autumn equinoxes (when the hours of daylight are just about even). At one point, just about everyone knew this kind of stuff, but since I recently told someone on the winter solstice, "Yeah, now the days will be getting longer!", and in response, she kind of squinted at me and asked, "Why?", I don't want to make any assumptions.

In addition to these four points of the year, there are four other days, mid-way between each: early February (between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox), early May (between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice), early August (between the summer solstice and the autumn equinox), and early November (between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice). I first ran across these many years ago as an undergrad, when I used to read about nature-based religions and then wander around in the park by my school wishing I could actually feel more spiritual out in nature. It was kind of frustrating, because I have always loved being outside, but I just couldn't make it more than that. And the four cross-quarters? To be honest, I didn't "get" those at all. They felt like random dates to me.

Fast forward a decade or two, put some binoculars around my neck, and make me too jaded to expect anything transcendent. In the early spring of 2009, I decided to bird every single weekend, instead of the occasional bird walks during migration that I used to limit myself to, because I wanted to get a feel for every subtle shift of the seasons in central Illinois. I wanted to conduct my own amateur naturalist workshop, with myself as sole participant. I'm not sure why I decided to do this, except that I had recently left one awful and challenging job only to accept another one, and I was feeling frustrated and discouraged and the one thing that always made me feel better was birding.

I noticed things, like the transition from June to July, when the birds sing less often. By the end of July, there's always that day when I go for my walk and am shocked that all the grackles and red-winged blackbirds seemed to have disappeared. I learned when and how to find lots of ducks. I learned that a day in late March is a great time to spot loons.

And on August 4, 2009, I noted in my bird journal: I could feel the season changing--the mix of birds, the bird songs, quite different even than a month ago. Did not hear a single dickcissel or blackbird. There were hundreds of swallows swooping overhead, the sound of their twitterings. Except for the aerial ballet of the swallows, everything felt very still.
Although I could pinpoint some objective signs -- the number of swallows, the lack of dickcissel song -- I really did mean that I could feel the season changing. There was something different going on. I could almost feel it seeping up from the earth into my bones.

October 31, 2009, I went to Moraine View on a chilly and sodden morning, and wrote: Was surprised to see a very ragged-looking meadowlark on my way into the park, and also a great egret.... Tons more rain this week, everything sodden. All the colorful leaves have fallen. It made me think of what I wrote in August, that in just a few days, I could feel the season turn.

Early February, 2010, I noted again: Once again, I think I feel the seasons changing. It is not just that it was a warm(ish), sunny day...something about the way the birds are acting...some preparatory thing is happening. Spring really is just a month away.

And, of course, the beginning of May needs no introduction. An explosion of warblers, the swift opening of each day into greenery and new life. May is the best time ever.

After making my note about February, it hit me: "Duh! It's the cross quarters! Early peoples considered these times of the year special because they are." A nice summary of the astronomical significance of these days can be read here, and a very humorous history of the tradition of Groundhog Day can be found on Cape May Blogger.

I was thinking all of this over during my birding trip last weekend. The birding itself was very blah -- February is such a blah month, groundhogs or no groundhogs, but I could console myself that I did notice some changes. The cardinals are singing again. The sky is rippled with flocks of migrating geese. It's the same mix of birds, but underneath it all, is movement. This is probably not the transcendent moment I was hoping for in my undergraduate days. But I do finally "get" it. There are seasons between the seasons. Everything is always in motion.