Friday, July 27, 2012

Urban birding redux: Sportsman's Park

The ungainly spectacle of American white pelicans coming in for a landing

Before this, the year that I have finally admitted that I am powerless over my birding addiction and declared the commencement of my Ultimate Birding Year, damn the consequences and full steam ahead, I used to attempt to bird locally, somewhere I could get to by foot or on a bike, and since I lived in the city of Bloomington, IL, I called these efforts Urban Birding. I birded on my lunch break, and compared my adventures to those of other urban ornithophiles. I read the memoir of a self-proclaimed Urban Birder. I enjoyed my rambles, both physical and mental, immensely, but finally decided that I could never be content either birding or living in a city. And so I moved to a small town, and embraced my identity as a Rural Birder, and happy to be one.

Lunch time for an eastern kingbird

But, due to a small matter known as earning a living, most days of the week, I still have to spend a large part of my waking hours in a city, and not even Bloomington, where I know my way to all the birdiest spots, but instead Decatur. And here's the thing. I really don't like Decatur. I've tried to warm up to it. I truly have.

For me, it's a matter of principle. Whining about where you are seems like such an act of ingratitude. I have lived, and traveled, many places in my four decades on this planet, and only one of them (a soulless ex-urb of Virginia Beach, where I lived for six months in my teens) was an experience of unremitting loathing. Everywhere else I could find something to admire, or connect to, or feel thankful for.

Or, as someone more eloquent than I once put it:
However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poor-house. The setting sun is reflected from the window of the alms-house as brightly as from a rich man's abode; the snow melts before its door as early in the spring. -- from Walden by Henry David Thoreau.
I must admit that lately, except when birding, I have not been "living my life," as Thoreau meant it, but rather shunning it and calling it hard names. Perhaps that is why I love to bird so much; it is always a moment when I am truly present and alive. And so my attempts to appreciate Decatur have mostly come in the form of birding.

Today, for example, after work, I decided to go to Sportsman's Park on Lake Decatur, as another birder had recently recorded a bumper crop of "peeps" (small sandpipers) at that location. I had never been there and didn't know what to expect, but had been looking forward to the excursion for most of the week.

As it turns out, the park is just a few miles down the road from where I work, though except for the lake, there isn't much there, just a dock and a gazebo. And, at the moment, mud flats, the sandpiper's best friend.

Peeps and pelicans

After a bit of squinting through my spotting scope, I decided I was looking at: many killdeer, a handful of semipalmated sandpipers and lesser yellowlegs, a couple of solitaries and a spotted, and Year Bird #184, a stilt sandpiper. Other birds included a flock of American white pelicans, some Canada geese and ring-billed gulls, a half a dozen great egrets, great blue and green herons, one apiece, and a hungry kingbird. Oh and mallards, females and juveniles.

Some great egrets not smiling for the camera

But the kingbird wanted to strike a pose
First "Macon County" pelicans

After my good luck at Sportman's Park (both getting to it and seeing nice birds), I decided to look for the Grove Street Bridge, another spot where other birders had seen good stuff. And that was my mistake. You know the expression "quit while you're ahead"? That's really not bad advice.

Almost immediately, my dislike of the city had resurfaced. Looking at the map (both google maps and my Illinois Atlas and Gazateer), getting from Point A to Point B did not seem very challenging. There were even supposed to be other parks along the way that I could stop at.

But that is not what happened. Instead, it turns out that the road names on the map and the road names on the streets did not match up. Not that all streets seemed to have a sign that I could find. While I was driving slow, trying to get my bearings, other drivers were tail-gating with a vengeance. Just when I thought I'd figured it out again, I got spilled onto yet another multi-lane highway splitting off into various directions. This has been, consistently, my experience of Decatur. Suffice to say that I was soon calling it hard names all over again.

Eventually, I gave up and headed for home, idling at traffic light after traffic light. Everything looked so ugly and run down. There have been times, on my morning commute, where I have stared through the windshield and wondered, Who on earth ever thought that humans were supposed to live like this? Did anyone actually think this was a good idea?

I wish I knew why it can be so hard to find that sparkling moment in the quotidian. I know I am not alone. When I confess that, by the time I get home in the evening, it feels as though the entire day was lost in some sort of black hole, and by that time, for the few hours between dinner and bedtime that I might try to do something worthwhile, I am so tired and drained that anything more challenging than "vegging out" is a struggle...everyone agrees. When I say that I'm grateful to have a job but it's stressful and tiring and not what I want to do for the rest of my life...everyone agrees. When I lament the low pay and skimpy vacation time and the fact I can't afford to really get away in either time or money...everyone agrees. And this is consistent across work places in the past decade or so.

I think this is a spiritual problem, on a personal level. Also, in the bigger scheme of things, a societal problem of the global/post-modern era. I don't pretend to have an answer, but when so many people are disconnected and unsatisfied, how can this be right for humanity? And beyond my informal little co-worker polls, I take, as case in point, the astronomical number of people being prescribed antidepressants and other psychotropic drugs. And their kids on those drugs, too.

Once again, to quote someone more articulate:
The greatest danger, that of losing one's own self, may pass off quietly as if it were nothing; every other loss, that of an arm, a leg, five dollars, etc., is sure to be noticed. -- Soren Kierkegaard

Commuting in aggressive city traffic, stalled at light after endless light; getting home exhausted and drained; and in between, unable to speak a sentence or think one thought from beginning to end without interruption (phones, questions, clients, coworkers, call it "multitasking" all you like but it really means life chopped up into incoherent pieces), a dumping ground for every person who's had just as bad a day as myself (e.g., "customer service,")...I really don't want to whine, but I wonder if this is what it feels like to be in danger of "losing one's own self."

In any case, at least I know how to find myself again. I only need to bring along my binoculars, and find a moment of stillness, and look at the trees or the skies.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this post really hit home! I struggle with all of those things, too, and I, too, try to feel gratitude and even happiness in having a home and a job and family and pastimes, such as reading and birding, that bring me so much pleasure. And I am grateful! But, still, there is the discontent with all of the negative, draining, tiring things that you mentioned. Birding is an activity that can take me completely out of myself, when I let it. I've decided to be more "in the moment" with the birds for the rest of the summer, and not fret so much about my Year List, to let go of the wish to reach some magical number (in my case, 165 birds). So complicated! Mom