Environmental Literature and Nature Writing
Putting Birds Into Words
A little ruby flashed in the sun as the kinglet flicked along the top of the fence. By the time I picked up the binoculars, it was too late. The crown feathers of the ruby-crowned kinglet was all I saw as the egg-sized bird flittered out of the yard. My desk overlooks the backyard and a good variety of birds distract me throughout the year. Binoculars and bird books are piled on the desk along with the dictionary, magazines, and assorted writing books. As I work, my feeders get watched and notes get taken. Like Edward Abbey said, one word is worth a thousand pictures, if it's the right word. And the right words are listed and dated in a stack in the bottom desk drawer.
I began tagging along on local Audubon trips so that I could decorate my nature and travel writing with a few birds. Eventually, juncos began flying through background descriptions of rainstorms in the forest. Orioles perched on branches in gardening and hiking articles, and warblers became metaphors in personal essays. An article on John Muir in Yosemite ended up as a profile of the American dipper, his favorite bird. An essay about kayaks became a silent paddle through a Baja lagoon, where a reddish egret danced through the shallow water, its wings all over the place. Somehow, while I was learning to write, I became a birdwatcher. Looking back through my journals, the slow progression of trip logs and notes looks like one long birding trip. There's a passage about lying on my back watching nighthawks in the desert. Lists of birds crowd the margins of hiking and camping trips. And there's even a bizarre entry about the great blue heron I dreamt about in Mexico. The next morning, there it was, in a roadside irrigation ditch, standing still as a stick, dreaming of fish.
I read back to the day when the prairie falcon circled the autumn sky in the high desert. And the day when thousands of cedar waxwings flew overhead on their hasty migration. All afternoon I sat on the balcony and watched them fly low over my head, from tree to tree, across the neighborhood. As writing books filled one bookshelf, bird books were piling up on another. One book, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, shares a lesson from her father: Her brother has procrastinated for weeks over a term paper on birds, which is due the next day, and has become a seemingly overwhelming task. Her father, a writer, advises his son to tackle it bird by bird, one detail at a time. All those wonderful meditations on the art and craft of stringing words together reinforce the skills that a birder, I mean writer, needs to keep improving. Birds must be learned one by one, just as each sentence must be constructed one word at a time. Close attention focuses the flitterings in my peripheral vision into a bird, a bird with an eyering, and a white upper wing bar, and a song that turns it into a ruby-crowned kinglet.
When I've had one of those days when it takes me three hours to get a paragraph correct, I take walks to get my mind back. I watch the goldfinches dangle upside down from the tall weeds, or the pair of moorhens at a neighborhood pond as they poke in and out of the cattails. My spirit is renewed, and I can return to my desk.
Life lists and notes and hours spent watching keep me away from that blank screen at home. I don't know how many times I've gotten up at six on a Sunday morning to drive two hours in the rain to stand around shivering in hopes of seeing migrating songbirds, or the winter plumage of shorebirds, or, most likely, the same birds I saw last time at the same place. I get home after dark, wet and hungry, but always with new friends, new adventures, and lots of bird sightings.
I saw that little ruby flash through the tree in my front yard just now, while I was carrying some firewood up the stairs. It was the ruby-crowned kinglet again, this time with a female. This time I stood still and enjoyed. They stayed in the tree for about half a minute (a long time for kinglets) before they vanished. I returned to my desk and tried to concentrate on an article about a recent trip to Hawaii. It's a good thing I took some notes and pictures while I was there, because my mind only remembers the birds.
Every year I add a few birds to my list. And every year, a lot of journal entries, a few essays and several articles get written. When I sit down to write, I want to write about everything I saw, every detail, every smell, and whole days full of birds. But once again, I can only take it bird by bird.
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