Birding and Being Cool
I have a friend who likes birding. When he talks about birds he gets misty-eyed, and when he sees them in the wild he can’t help but say everything he knows about them. For a long time I considered this characteristic to be one of the few trials of spending time with my friend, and it was a trial easily dispensed with: I had only to keep him inside, watching movies or whatever it took to prevent him from seeing any birds. By so doing, I supposed I could keep my life relatively bird-free, somewhere at the level of: “Oh, there’s a robin.”
But why resist birds? For one thing, people who say it’s good to cultivate attention irritate me, though such people would be a lot less annoying if they weren’t right. So, knowing the difference between pine and spruce is beneficial to a sense of place and connection to an ecosystem? Fine, I’ll put a botanically accurate forest mod on Fallout 4 and journal about how enriched my experience was. Paying attention, the argument goes, is part of truly being a resident in a place, but I resist that kind of connection. The thing is, I want people to like me, and in service of that end I want to be cool. Coolness involves detachment and aloofness, and birder-level attention to the world is antithetical to these qualities.
Not that I’m usually (or even very often) successful in cultivating coolness. I visited Roosevelt, Utah, earlier this year, and the associations of my two-year tenure as a schoolteacher there came flooding back, making me feel painfully nostalgic. I retraced my old walking and running paths and found that I still knew well every crack in the sidewalk. I felt again the impulse to walk down this road and not that one based on past encounters with territorial, off-the-leash dogs. The yard that was once the home of a chained-up pit bull was now overgrown with weeds and definitely dog-less. For as little as I ever relished being barked at, the change stung a little. I have tried, since leaving Roosevelt, to disassociate myself from the place as much as possible, but against my wishes I care about that ugly, podunk town. I don’t imagine I’ll ever live there again, but I guess I’ll always care.
This is to say that I’m not as cool as I’d like to be. Cool people are careful to cultivate extremely discriminating tastes, and they never get too enthusiastic about anything. That’s why it’s embarrassing to care about a place like Roosevelt. When I was first drafting this essay earlier this year, I found myself in the Centennial Valley, a place that has the kind of grandeur that even a cool person might admit to appreciating, worthy at least of driving through; one or two of the mountains might even be worth hiking. But when it came to the ecosystem, no matter how intact it might be, the idea of being very interested was a non-starter. Or it should have been. Or I sort of wish it had been. But as soon as I went outside with some experienced birders, I couldn’t stop myself from pointing at every winged creature I saw and asking, “What’s that?” All the coolness I had hoped to maintain in the face of nature evaporated. The experience ignited curiosity such as I haven’t had since playing Pokémon Gold on my GameBoy Color, and that was twenty years ago.
Davey scoping out swallows in Montana's Centennial Valley
On this year’s annual family trip to Carpinteria, California, I saw just how many different kinds of birds I used to think of as sandpipers: willets, whimbrels, ibis, several