A guide

There is a peculiar magic to a field guidebook, the luckiest of us learn as children. Who can resist this kaleidoscope of species, myriad variations, laid out, categorized, lovingly portrayed by an unseen hand in another century? It might be a volume of insects, or a separate tome of trees, but today you choose birds, pages and pages of birds — the water fowl always up front, the painted bunting forever bringing up the rear as a tantalizing myth that everyone knows instinctively will never alight in your yard. You pretend to consult the mysterious maps. Inlaid in tiles shaded pink and blue and gray, they chart the seasonal odysseys of boasting males, hues audacious, their drabber mates an enigmatic sea of browns on brown. Smell the pages sweet with age — perhaps it was Dad’s at camp in 1954, or pilfered from a vacation rental whose unloved library grew dusty with disuse. No matter, it is yours now. You will rescue each other.
        How we relate to the world outside our windows changes with time, and whether it possesses us, or we spend our winnowing days struggling for the upper hand, is a matter of both curiosity and character. We conquer the world by naming and thus acquiring it. And though Wittgenstein wrote that “uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination”, he may never have known the growing tyranny of taxonomy, the word on his tongue unlikely to have been warbler.
        On a recent chilly Saturday morning in mid-December, Robert DeCandido, AKA “Birding Bob”, led a group of ten through the Ramble in Central Park. Shouldering a glorious heft of binoculars and long-lens cameras, our cohort meandered down pathways and lingered at key locations. The more kinetic of parkgoers — runners, dogwalkers, child-herders — streamed past without noticing much or being much noticed. This morning was all about birds — but it also could have been about gear and all the seriousness telegraphed by such.
        A report, last updated in 2013 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and titled “Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis”, noted that nationwide equipment expenditures for 2011 were estimated at $7,573,105,647 — a number whose commas even seem to have commas. Tripods, feeders, birdsong emitters, leatherbound cases and pouches and lens-wipes and appropriate snacks — these and other gadgets galore support the range of birders who exist in this country, people who have themselves been counted and indexed in a meta feat of data on data.
        “The average birder is 53 years old and more than likely has a better than average income and education,” it continues. “She is slightly more likely to be female and highly likely to be white.” I consult my mental mirror and nod, marveling at the accuracy but fully annoyed as a result. Reductionism — so dismissive and yet so useful. Who-is-doing-what having become easier and somehow more pressing to record with the passing of each day.
        Enter eBird, soaring high in The Cloud with its tallies and checklists, its geolocations and triumphs by hundreds of thousands of birding enthusiasts. “Smashed my own ABA (214) and the eBird (221) big-year records for Manhattan this year with 230 bird species observed,” tweeted self-proclaimed competitive birder David Barrett earlier this week. The citizen science being advanced by eBird‘s records and by the experts who review and consider the millions of datapoints it receives every year are no doubt a powerful step towards understanding the slow-motion tsunami of changes our planet has embarked upon, goosed by our own impatience to be everywhere, right now, have it all, mark everything as ours: It’s my planet and I’ll drive if I want to.
        With all due thanks to Birding Bob, I first laid my 53-year-old female overly-educated caucasian eyes on a tiny Northern saw-whet owl nestled deep in a conifer’s branches an arm’s length overhead. And while cameras clicked hungrily there in the dead center of Central Park in New York City, and notebooks were flapping, and pencils were brandished, I longed myself to snatch the wee raptor, cradle him under arm, run until alone, listen for secrets, eyes closed, bury my nose in his puffed feathery breast and breath in deeply the delicious dust motes of a life no algorithm can properly circumscribe. I craved to forget his Linnaean label, hide his location, head for the hills, disconnect from all inquiry.
        Roger Tory Peterson’s “Birds of North America” cannot prepare one to recognize the clarion tones and comical burr that the song sparrow’s call comprises. And the drawings of David Allen Sibley will never convey the full cursive grace of a tree swallow’s slalom. First you must go out and walk — and walk and see — and see, undiagnostically.
        And on your way home, binoculars bagged, you will stop in an unmarked spot on an unnamed path, and stare, eyes unfocused, on an early winter clearing. The forest floor will begin to ripple with activity, waves on the sea of browns on brown. And in this fragrant, twinkling hollow of miniscule motions, your eye will meet one of forty white-throated sparrows, as she picks over fallen leaves for what may lie beneath.

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