Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Go Outside and Watch Some Birds

I’ve been meaning for a few days to write this response to my good friend Evo, who published a very dark, disturbing post recently. Apparently, he’s been going through a rather bleak period, “filled with gloom.” Unfortunately, this is not a one-time event for him; he has regular bouts with what I’d characterize as cosmic angst. Some, maybe even much, of his problem is medical, and he says so. But a small part of it, I think, is philosophical.

In his post, Evo contemplates the awful eventuality of death and mutability. He asks how we can carry on, given the knowledge that we’ll ultimately be consigned to the dustbin of history. That’s a burdensome knowledge, and there are days when I, too, find it overwhelming. In my opinion, you’d have to be an idiot not to be troubled by the fact that you will, someday soon in the grand scheme of things, cease to exist.

There’s no life after death. The opera, ideally, is a long one, but it will come to an end. It may not be over until the fat lady, Death, sings; but when she does, it’s done. The music is finished and it’s time for everyone — except the corpse — to go home. I’m depressing myself just thinking about it.

Anyway, in what may have seemed like a flippant answer, I advised Evo to “go outside and watch some birds.” I meant it seriously, though, because that’s always a joyful experience for me, maybe the most innocently agreeable, life-affirming thing I can think of to do. The wonders of evolution surround us. Humans aren’t special; we’re part of an entire world that’s breathtaking to behold. And nature becomes much more awe-inspiring when you don’t fool yourself into thinking that some divine hand designed it especially for you. The myriad variety of life is mind-boggling precisely because it wasn’t planned. No gods gave us the multitude of bird species; natural selection did. The amazing thing is that we’ve been evolutionarily “programmed” to recognize the simple pleasures of watching other living things as they go about their business — of living.

So I was having a fairly down afternoon myself, sitting at my computer and silently bemoaning the fact that, as I get older, hardly a day goes by when some part of my body doesn’t ache. I never made that fortune, never became famous, never got as learned as I thought I would. And when I look in the mirror, yikes! I see my own grandfather.

But spring has just about arrived where I live, and the birds are busy. My yard and the nearby thicket is filled with them. Our ten or eleven feeders are doing their job, attracting many of my favorites. A good friend phoned today and I decided I’d talk to him from my screened-in porch. Being a good friend, he has a vocabulary not unlike mine, and it didn’t take him long to interrupt the conversation to say, “Holy shit! It sounds like you’re in the middle of a fucking aviary.” And he was right.

Titmice calling for “Peter, Peter, Peter, Peter.” Cardinals proclaiming “What cheer! What cheer!” Carolina wrens asking to be recorded on “video, video, video.” A score of goldfinches signaling to one another that they had the munchies: “potato chip, potato chip, potato chip, potato chip.” Somewhere in the trees a great-crested flycatcher, the first of the year, whooping it up: “wheeeeep, wheeeeep.” Mourning doves flying over to the birdbath, their wings whistling as they took off. A pileated woodpecker gleefully cackling in the distance. A trio of prissy fish crows flying overhead, telling each other, “uh-uh, uh-uh, uh-uh.” A barred owl rousing himself way too early to wonder “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all?”

And the colors, flitting and fluttering here and there, making abstract pictures in the trees for someone like me, lucky enough to be nearsighted when he lowers his binoculars. The deep red of male cardinals. The blue of jays. The bright yellow of American goldfinches coming into their seasonal plumage. The Crayola box of painted buntings with reds and blues and greens in assorted shades.

At about three o’clock, a red-shouldered hawk landed on an extremely thin branch of a naked sycamore near the back of my house. He was relatively small for the species: a male, no doubt. He widened his tail and pumped it up and down a few times, trying to catch his balance, while the other birds, suddenly confronted with the possibility of a swift and unexpected death, flew into the thicket, a short but safe distance away. The bravest of the cardinals and goldfinches peeked out from time to time to see what the hawk was up to. Not much, as it happened. After a few minutes of watching the ground — waiting hopefully for some rodent to come for the spilled seed, although none did — he coursed away.

In less than ten seconds, everybody was back at the feeding posts. A lone jay perched not far from where the hawk had been, and imitated his call: keeeee-yer, keeeee-yer. It was a pretty good performance, but no one was fooled. The bird-ensome knowledge that they would soon be consigned to the dustbin of history had passed once again.

For me, too.

40 comments:

Lynet said...

Why, Stermy, you sound almost mellow. Not even the mention of the word 'fuck' or the gratuitous pun at the end can break the mood.

Seriously, I like this. I never get tired of atheist posts that take joy in life.

The Barefoot Bum said...

In my opinion, you’d have to be an idiot not to be troubled by the fact that you will, someday soon in the grand scheme of things, cease to exist.

Fuck you, asshole. I'm not troubled at all.

Lifeguard said...

Everyone has their own recipe for curing the blues-- it's like those home remedies for the hiccups-- but the basic idea is the same. Do something to get yourself stimulated. My brother plays the guitar. My mom used to take a bath, put on some perfume, comfortable clothes, and have a cup of coffee. Me? I go for a nice long walk outside or something. Always amazes me how nothing really changes except the way you feel.

Very cool post, and if you keep it up you're going to convert me to birdwatching. Because I could use another excuse to buy more books, another pair of binoculars, and whatever other cool gear I can get my hands on.

the chaplain said...

Very good post. I've found that a walk in the woods alleviates the blues very well.

tina FCD said...

I clean house. Simple as that. The newness of my surroundings lift me up.I'm glad my husbands not blind, he would be tripping all over the furniture that I moved.

I love birds too. I only have one bird feeder but after reading your post, I will definitely be getting more.

I always know when winter is coming and when spring is coming.The geese fly over my house headed for warmer climate but return in the spring, honking as loud as they can.

Ordinary Girl said...

Well, this post cheered me up. Very nice imagery, Ex.

Dysentery said...

Wow, you have much better birds there than we do up here. All I see are Magpies, Sparrows and Blue Jays.

The Magpies are enough to make you belive in demons. Loud, annoying and bold to the point you think they are challenging you. Think of the person with the most annoying voice you have ever heard. Make him black and white with feathers and you have a magpie. Then multiply it by 20.

The Blue Jays are new here in the last few years. They have a real loud call too that they seem to delight in waking you up in the early morning with. Also they leave empty peanut shells all over my yard.

The Sparrows are the most numerous and most boring looking. Except that they like to shit all over my fence. Tons of shit. So much shit I have to clean it off with a pressure washer every spring. That of course strips the stain off the fence and now I have to paint the fence again. I just did it 2 years ago.

You know what. I don't find birds that relaxing.

tina FCD said...

Funny. Yeah, I tried hanging a bird feeder on my front porch, won't do that again!

bullet said...

That's a great post. I like sitting at the window with my cats and watching the birds. I also like putting a chair out by the lagustrums and watching the honeybees up close.

I find that there is very little that can't be pushed away, at least for a little while, by contemplating the magnificence and minutiae of nature, even if I do feel a little melancholy for the short time I have to enjoy it.

Of course, I'm really counting on nanobots to give me another few decades. Get going, y'all!

Ordinary Girl said...

Oh, and I should add that nature has a way of making me feel content and peaceful. It's not usually birds, though watching squirrels or hearing birds chirping is relaxing and often puts me into a dazed almost sleep, but listening to the wind and looking at the sky make me feel happy too.

My favorite thing to do back when I had a front porch was sit and watch a thunderstorm roll in. The smell of the storm, the view of the clouds, the wind, the energy in the air, and then finally the sound of the rain all make me feel exuberant.

John Evo said...

Very nice piece of writing, Ex. But then, I expect it of you. Like Lynet said, it's kind of a shock when, every now and then, you show us that "other" Ex. Hey, maybe you're bi-polar. Want some of my meds? Want to feed my squirrels? Adopt our second cat? Call me names?

PhillyChief said...

Well gramps, very sly way to make a point at the end of a long, windy and wonderful trip through the bird land of your backyard.

I do share the Bum's opinion, though. I don't get depressed thinking about the end. I simply don't have time to, and I will probably be pissed when it happens because I will have many things left unfinished.

The Exterminator said...

Lynet:
Not even the mention of the word 'fuck' or the gratuitous pun at the end can break the mood.
Well, I had to let you know that it wasn't ghost-written, didn't I?

Bum:
I'm not troubled at all.
Bum? Bum? Hey, Bum? That's so weird ... the guy used to exist.

Lifey:
Because I could use another excuse to buy more books, another pair of binoculars, and whatever other cool gear I can get my hands on.
And don't forget those "Birding by Ear" DVDs. And the lens cleaning "pen." And the owl-calling tapes if you really enjoy pretending you're a rodent in the nighttime. And those little bird squeakers, which I've owned twenty of but have never successfully called any birds with.

By the way, Central Park is one of the great birding spots. I wish I'd been a birder when I still lived near there.

chappy:
I've found that a walk in the woods alleviates the blues very well.
Yeah, I hear Thoreau had a robe just like yours the whole time he was living at Walden.

tina:
I clean house.
Is there any chance I could get you to move next door? Surely one house is not enough for you when you have a real blue funk going. Not that I can imagine you in a funk, blue or otherwise -- you always seem so fucking jolly.

By the way, feel free to email me if you have any questions at all about feeders. My wife and I are no experts, but we must be doing something right. And I've got a very good friend who actually is about as knowledgeable about birds as a non-ornithologist could be.

OG:
I'm glad the birds cheered you up.
And I also love sitting on the porch when a thunderstorm is rolling in. The sound of my wife screaming, "Get inside, asshole, you'll get struck by lightning," is very relaxing.

Dysentery:
I wanna know where the blue jays are getting those peanuts. You don't live near a circus, do you?

bullet:
I like sitting at the window with my cats and watching the birds.
Through the years, I've been joined on the porch by three different cats, and not one of them has been interested whatsoever in the birds twittering all around them. It's a good thing they're pampered by a sucker because they wouldn't last an hour if they had to hunt for food.

Evo:
I'm not bi-polar. I'm just identical cousins. Like Patty Duke used to be.

Philly:
I will probably be pissed when it happens because I will have many things left unfinished.
I think if you don't have many things left unfinished when you die then you haven't lived your life to its fullest.

In fact, I've still got half a pizza in the fridge.

tina FCD said...

Funny you mentioned living next door. My youngest daughter lives two doors down from me. Everyone was shocked to find out that she actually wanted to live that close. I guess some people just don't get along with their parents.
I go down there and keep an eye on things, especially her Black Lab, Jeb. I end up cleaning her house too. :)

I do need some tips on how to keep the stray cats from eating the birds.

PhillyChief said...

Get a better dog. Strays avoid my house like the plague due to mine. ;)

JP said...

I hope Trinity can make here way over to Evo's blog. She always has the right words.

JP said...

her...not here.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

I sorta knew there would be a post coming when I read your comment over at Evo's.

Since I've been coming here, I put out 2 tube feeders, one in the back and one in the front, along with a suet cage, AND bought a bird book. I blame you. Now the cat insists I open the window every morning so he can watch the birds at the feeder and cage. I never thought I needed anything to pull them closer to the house. Out there in the woods was fine for me. Now I think I'll get a hummingbird feeder this spring.

The rest of nature is far more peaceful than humanity and its artificial creations. Yesterday morning I watched a rafter of turkeys, about 40 of them, dancing round in my back yard. One of them spread his tail and primped and strutted, eventually herding the rest of them up into the woods. This evening I came home to 6 deer in my front yard and 5 in the back. The cacophony of the birds in the trees always reminds me of a symphony orchestra. The members all know their own instruments well enough, but they haven't figured out how to get them to harmonize, though I guess in their own way, they do.

In the late spring, summer and early fall, out back is where I end my day. Just looking at natural green, and listing to the sounds along the tree line is enough to ease out of the day peacefully.

I'd never move.

John Evo said...

SI said: The rest of nature is far more peaceful than humanity and its artificial creations

LOL! Hate to come in here and bring MY darkness, but...

That's an illusion! Nature red in tooth and claw?

Yeah, this crazy, mechanized, fast-paced, warring world is indeed something that we yearn to free ourselves from at times. And I love the birds and the squirrels as much as you do. They give me the same sense of tranquility that you write about.

But let's face it, the modern world we created has served to make the natural world APPEAR so calm and refreshing. Had we not done it, we'd still be running naked on an incredibly beautiful savannah scared shitless 97% of the time. From that perspective the traffic jammed, smog-filled, elbow-to-elbow, streets of Manhattan would look like paradise.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

...we'd still be running naked on an incredibly beautiful savannah ...

So, you've seen me in my backyard, have you?

The Exterminator said...

tina:
I do need some tips on how to keep the stray cats from eating the birds.
Stop feeding the stray cats. Or kick Mr. Jeb in his ass and tell him to get busy patrolling the yard if he wants his Kibbles 'n' Bits.

JP:
Trinity can't comment on Evo's blog. She's too depressed because of something her cousin Faith-Ann said.

SI:
Since I've been coming here, I put out 2 tube feeders, one in the back and one in the front, along with a suet cage, AND bought a bird book. I blame you.
Yeah, my master plan is for me and the birds to take over.

This evening I came home to 6 deer in my front yard and 5 in the back.
When they start inviting antelope over to play, you'd better buy yourself a cowboy hat. That might not be a bad idea, regardless. You could use it to cover yourself while you're walking around your yard.

Evo:
The one big difference between "nature red in tooth and claw" and humans is that creatures usually kill one another for better reasons than having a wacko for a president.

SI and Evo:
The mental image of you two running naked on an incredibly beautiful savannah makes me laugh. I see you guys holding hands and moving in slow motion, with Mozart's Elvira Madigan concerto playing in the background. SI, maybe you should buy a hat for Evo, too.

John Evo said...

One fine morning in the month of May a atheistic old hominid might have been seen running naked on an incredibly beautiful savannah.

The Exterminator said...

Evo:
Hilarious. I'm glad to see your sense of humor is up and running at full speed again. Now if we can just get you to throw some clothes on ...

PhillyChief said...

Why am I picturing Lapland and the hunt for father christmases?

Spanish Inquisitor said...

That's better than what I'm picturing.

the chaplain said...

SI, that link is pathetic. Gag me!

Venjanz said...

Thought you would like this one man:

http://www.extremeinstability.com/08-3-7.htm

The Exterminator said...

Hey, thanks, Venjanz. Eagles are awe-inspiring and the photographs capture that feeling perfectly.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Hey, we've got a bunting up near here. Waaaaay out of his territory - li'l guy was probably illegally trafficked and escaped. Fortunately he found a feeder. Also fortunately the winter hasn't been too harsh.

John Evo said...

Also fortunately the winter hasn't been too harsh.

Global warming. Maybe he's in his NEW territory.

The Ridger, FCD said...

That could certainly be the case. A lot of birds are shifting northwards.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Hope you don't mind, but I put this in for I and the Bird.

The Exterminator said...

Ridger:

I'm honored that you recommended this post for "I and the Bird." I hope you made it clear that the photos are not mine.

I checked with my birding mentor about possible explanations for the painted bunting. Here they are:

(1) You're right that it was an escaped cage-bird. If so, good for him!

(2) The northern breeding boundary for PBs is usually listed as North Carolina. But birds don't actually read those lists. My friend thinks that you're not outrageously far away for an individual who happened to fly or get blown up the coast.

As far as (3) global warming, it's a little early to be jumping to that conclusion based on the wanderings of one possibly adventurous guy.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Oh, you're right - one bunting doesn't mean much on a climate scale. But some species are indeed shifting their patterns - not always from climate change, of course, they think sharpies have adapted to bird feeders, for instance.

And it was the words that made me recommend the post.

The Exterminator said...

Ridger and Evo:
Oh, yeah, species shift has happened and will continue to happen. Just two examples: The Northern Cardinal was considered a southern bird until the early 1900s. Slowly but surely it moved north, until by now it has bred successfully all over the continent. And most birders know that the ubiquitous cattle egret was not even seen in the U.S. until 1941.

And don't forget the 100 starlings that were brought to Central Park at the end of the 19th century by a Shakespeare nut. Granted, those birds didn't get to New York on their own, but every starling in North America is descended from them.

However, I've learned from talking to people far more knowledgeable than I am that there's no point in even starting to form hypotheses about rare-bird sightings until sufficient data have been collected.

And, on a political note, those of us who fully accept the fact that there is a current Global Warming for which humans are largely responsible should be extra careful not to blindly attribute natural phenomena to Climate Change. Every time we're wrong, in even the smallest detail, the igoramuses have another excuse to denigrate science.

bullet said...

"...And, on a political note, those of us who fully accept the fact that there is a current Global Warming for which humans are largely responsible should be extra careful not to blindly attribute natural phenomena to Climate Change. Every time we're wrong, in even the smallest detail, the igoramuses have another excuse to denigrate science."

*sigh*

Fortunately for the ignoramuses, there's science on both sides of this issue.

PhillyChief said...

Could someone just tell me why some people will stop at nothing to prove climate change isn't man's fault? I don't want a debate because I have no opinion either way at this time, but I've noticed some people pulling out everything imaginable to the idea man is responsible. Is it just good science or is there some ulterior motive? I suspect the latter, and that immediately makes me suspect religion because I'm a mean old atheist. Grr!

The Exterminator said...

bullet:

I don't think there are many reputable scientists -- at least among those who are not on the payroll of either the oil companies or the Republican party -- who don't think that humans are at least partially responsible for the current warming trend. I don't accept a lot of the alarmist rhetoric, but I think you'd have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to acknowledge the strong possibility that our species has lent a hand in fucking up the environment.

But let's not debate this here. Why don't you post about it over at My Pants (actually, your pants)? I think it would make an interesting discussion, but I don't feel qualified to frame it. So take the opposing viewpoint and invite the Atheosphere to challenge you.

bullet said...

I wasn't trying to start a debate. I just don't like being lumped in with those who deny all science just because I'm skeptical of the mainstream conclusions.

If I have time to do the proper research I'll certainly take you up on your challenge. Or maybe I'll just fly by the seat of my pants (rimshot) and let the commenters do my research for me. Or I could tell Pockets to do it. :)

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