Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, January 16, 2012

Moments That Take Our Breath Away

(Transcript of For the Birds for January 16, 2012, sponsored by Vickie and Barry Wyatt. Thanks so much!)

Grand Canyon at sunrise

“Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” Last week someone posted that quote on Facebook. The words deeply resonated with me, and apparently with a lot of my birding friends, who instantly pressed the facebook “Like” button. I think over a lifetime, we who spend time in nature are given more opportunities for having our breath taken away than many people are. Whether we’re blown away by a view of the Grand Canyon, a spectacular sunrise, a particularly brilliant and flowing display of northern lights, a sudden glimpse of a Respendent Quetzal, or a chickadee alighting on our finger, the more time we spend in nature, the more we get to experience magical moments.

Resplendent Quetzal

Of course, it’s hardly as if birdwatching is the only thing in my life that has given me genuinely breathtaking moments. If I could retrieve from memory every single moment that took my breath away, the list would include lots of moments not remotely connected to birds, such as the moment the boy I loved with all my heart, who became my husband, first told me he loved me at a Chicago Cubs game; the moment I first held each of my newborn babies; moments when I witnessed some of my children’s firsts; the moment I made a sudden and unexpected breakthrough with a student struggling with math; and the moment I opened an email from a former student who recounted what I meant to her—those have been among the most sublime, thrilling moments in my life.

Katie and Orange-crowned Warbler

But any list itemizing my breathtaking moments would include a lot connected with birds. One happened when I was seven or eight. My grandpa had told me that if I practiced whistling really hard, I could get a cardinal to answer. I tried and tried, and one morning when I was in my bedroom trying to match the song of a cardinal down the block, suddenly he flew right to the maple branch brushing against my window, peeked in at me, and sang back at me. “Breathtaking” is a lame and clichéd word for the joy I felt at that unexpected moment, but it was the literal truth.

Northern Cardinal closeup

Another magical moment came when I was birding in Madison on December 3, 1977, and whistled in my lifer Pine Grosbeak. If seeing him weren’t thrilling enough, I put out my bare hand, and he alighted right on my finger and looked into my eyes. He flew to a nearby branch within a second or so, but my heart thumped at top speed for a long time after.

Pine Grosbeak

When I was walking in downtown Los Angeles in 1994, I heard some White-throated Swifts overhead and wheeled to a stop to look at them with my binoculars. A homeless man who’d been lying on a bench under some newspapers asked what I was looking at. I answered, “White-throated Swifts!” He said, “Huh?” so I handed him my binoculars. He looked up with a confused expression, but the moment he caught sight of the birds, his face broke into a delighted smile, and I could feel my heart leap at the sudden connection.

Birding is filled with magical moments—some between us and a bird, and some between us and another human being because of birds. That's why the quote “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away” so resonates with me and other birders. I don’t think it’s fair to say that the measure of the life of a birder is in any way better than the measure of the life of anyone else, but awareness of birds sure provides lots of opportunities to experience moments that take our breath away.


When I read the quote, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away,” on Facebook, it was unattributed, and so I tried to track it down. It wasn’t in my Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations—my copy was copyrighted 1980—so I tried a Google search. Many sources attributed it to Maya Angelou, but none with an actual citation to a poem, speech, or anything. Some attributed it to George Carlin, but debunked that. Others attributed it to a minister, but from what I could tell, it was being quoted from before he used it, so he apparently worked it into an essay without indicating it was from someone else. The most compelling information I could find was that it was written by a Canadian man who wrote it for a greeting card for Carlton Cards in the mid-1970s. I wrote an email to Carlton Cards asking about it, and will post any response they send.

Meanwhile, one of my friends posted a quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln that may be the original inspiration for this quote: “And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.” Unfortunately, so far I cannot find the citation, so don’t know whether this came from Lincoln’s words in a speech, a letter to someone, or what. Let me know if you have a citation for it, or any other information about the first quote I used.

(Production of today’s For the Birds was made possible in part by a generous grant from Vickie and Barry Wyatt.)