Wednesday, August 8, 2012

A birding addiction?

Just as this kingbird needs the bug...I need the kingbird

Every couple has moments that, in retrospect, they just aren't proud of. I don't know how we'd fare against the national average of such moments, but suffice to say, Greenturtle and I have our fair share. I suppose it's a bit surprising that only one of those concerns birding.

I blame No Impact Man. We had both watched the No Impact Man's eponymous documentary, and Greenturtle had also read the book, No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process by Colin Beavan. Basically, this fellow attempted to live in a way that would leave no impact whatsoever upon our planet for the space of a year, doubtless a worthy cause, but I am still stuck on the fact that his mission included not using toilet paper. (To which I say: why didn't he use the same tactic that I use to get newspapers to line my bird cages, namely, put the word out amongst friends, family and coworkers that all and any newspapers they receive will happily be "recycled" by oneself? I know that there are cultures that have traditionally favored the left hand for these functions, but really!)

Anyway, Greenturtle is easily swayed by such things, and we had both recently attempted to commute everywhere by bicycle to see what living without a car would be like, an idea which I championed in the wake of the B.P. Oil Spill, as I was sobbing every day as I read the news and desperate to try something, anything to feel like I could make a difference.

The results of this attempt, and the aftermath of the Oil Spill, are worth a couple of posts on their own. But the short version is: it didn't work out all that well for me.

As I tried to explain to Greenturtle as he and I strolled through Tipton Park in Bloomington together, discussing No Impact Man. He asked if I thought I could attempt a similar feat.

I had to admit that, especially in the humiliating wake of the No Car Experiment, I did not feel up to the challenge. It wasn't that I didn't want to try to live more lightly on the Earth, but all of the best birding locations I knew were out of town....

"So why can't you live without birding?" he asked. At this point, we were still talking about the documentary, but seriously, what a question!

"It's not that I 'can't' live without birding," I said, "it's why would I want to? Birding is the best thing in my whole life...the one thing I can consistently look forward to. It's the only thing that I can count on to make me happy, and at peace. Why, why, why would I give that up?" (NB: also the reason I get up in the morning. As I've told him, yelling, "Rare bird sighting at Weldon Springs!" would cause me to jump out of bed with a lot more alacrity on a workday least until I'd caught on to the ruse.)

Then he threw down the gauntlet: "If you can't live without birding, then it's like you're addicted to it."

We had already discussed people who seemed addicted to birding, such as the late Phoebe Snetsinger, the first woman Big Lister who risked alienating her family, not to mention her own safety and well-being, in her world-wide quest for birds. (On the flip side, birding just may have saved her life: diagnosed with incurable melanoma, she decided to spend her last few months birding...and lived for another couple of decades.) And now he seemed to think that I might be a candidate for the same category.

"Don't be ridiculous," I retorted. "You can't be addicted to birds!"

"Can you stop birding?" he challenged me.

"That's a stupid question. I won't even bother to answer it, because there's nothing wrong with birding, it's my hobby, and why would I want to stop? That's silly!"

"That answer sounds like the way an addict would talk," he persisted. He tried to compare me to people he had met back in the day in rehab, and I kept pointing out what a stupid comparison that was.

"Ask a psychologist," he said, "and he'll tell you I'm right."

By now, we were both getting angry. "I happen to work with a psychologist," I replied, "and I will ask him!"

At this point in the argument, we paused on a bridge over the pond, and when he tried to hurry me up, I snapped, "Leave me alone! I'm getting high off this duck!!"

Later that week, I did ask the psychologist in my building if it was possible to be addicted to birding, and he said no, not in any physical sense, but all pleasurable activities cause dopamine to be released in the brain, which creates that nice fuzzy feeling that tends to make us want to do it again. But really, he suggested, my husband and I should sit down and negotiate our activities so we don't argue about the birds anymore. Which is a total psychologist answer, but still left both Greenturtle and myself thinking we were right on the addicted to birds issue.

A couple years after the Bird Addict Argument, and after the subsequent Free Time Detente (in which it was agreed that he can spend all the time he wants gaming on his computer, likewise me with birding, and no hurt feelings or guilt trips, hooray!), the question remains....

Can one be addicted to birding?

Today, for example, my brief highlight occurred not even while I was birding (alas, on a workday now, that isn't possible), but when a future birding jaunt crossed my mind. For a few minutes, imagining the lovely birds I might see, I felt at peace. On my way to and from work, the birds I notice while driving are the only things I remember. A half-naked clown might gambol by the roadside unnoticed, but I see every starling, pigeon, mourning dove, robin and killdeer to cross my path as if I were some sci-fi cyborg measuring them up for termination. If someone took birds away from me, and all future hope of birds, at this point I am not sure if I would find a reason to go on living.

You could call it addiction. Or you could call it the bond between the lover and the beloved. And as mystics such as Rumi, Saint Theresa and Saint John of the Cross have pointed out in their works, the yearning of the lover (us) for the beloved (the divine) can be a very significant longing. To me, that's birding. Oh, and the hopes of increasing my life list by another species or ten, that's birding too. Not gonna lie about it....

What about you? Is there anything you are "addicted" to?


  1. Yes, birding! And books, or more accurately, stories! Your father (he's still trying to think of a code name and is leaning towards Red Oak) gets outraged when people say things like, "Oh, I'm addicted to chocolate." He believes the word addiction should only apply to things one becomes physically addicted to. Like heroin, say. But, I say that if I'd suffer if you took it, whatever "it" is, away from me, then I'm addicted. And I surely do enjoy my bird and book addictions. MOM

  2. Hi Emily

    YES! Birding is really addictive and still I love every bit of it. Don't know where all it will take me.