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.


  1. It will be two or three months before we see many changes up here in the Far North. Sunny days are rare enough to bring big smiles to everyone, and the chickadees and redpolls are always lovely to see. And the teasing hope that today we'll see, well, for example, at least one of the 18 black-backed woodpeckers someone reported seeing out by the Hanka Homestead last week. (No luck today!) Winter wouldn't be so bad if it didn't last for so blasted long! I get crabby instead of sad, and start holding up Bloomington as a birder's Mecca, from which I was dragged, kicking and screaming, away. Poor Dad. Love, Mom

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Emily,

      I'm very sorry you were layed off. I will be praying for you. I agree that Nihilism is probably not the best to study when you are in need of hope.


    2. Hi Ben,

      Thanks for the prayers and the comment...I need all the help I can get right now. :-) Although I now prefer birding to philosophy, strangely enough, when I was an undergrad, I found existentialism to be strangely comforting. I think perhaps it was realizing that other people had had the same struggles, and managed to find some meaning despite the challenges of modern life. But birding really is the best!