Sunday, March 8, 2015

One could do worse than be a watcher of birds

(Part of this was worked over from a blog post from my Conservation Big Year.) Laura and Pip!

Three weeks ago, I had a mild heart attack. I realized it early on, and Russ rushed me to the hospital before there was too much damage, but the following week I had a bad reaction to a statin drug and ended up back in the hospital again. That turned out to be more debilitating than the heart attack itself, but I'm pretty much recovered again. Even so, intimations of my own mortality, which have been whispering for a few years now, suddenly have grown more insistent.

In addition to the heart attack, the past two months have provided a couple of other disturbing signs of advancing age. In December I had two basal cell carcinomas removed from my face. Considering how much time I spend in the sun, I'm lucky I've never had any skin cancers before my 60s, and this is the least dangerous form of skin cancer, but it was nevertheless disconcerting.

Then last week I got fitted for hearing aids. Of course, people much younger than I need them, too, and my audiologist assured me that most people can deal with my level of hearing loss without hearing aids at all, but I need to hear high-frequency bird songs for both my field and radio production work. I've spent time with older birders who insist they haven't lost any of their hearing even as I watch them missing nearby birds singing away. I wasn't afforded that luxury of denial—for several months, I've not been able to hear part of a Cedar Waxwing recording I've been using for many years, even when I crank up the volume to the maximum. Realizing I'm losing my high-frequency hearing has been distressing but, like skin cancer or my heart attack, is exactly the sort of problem that can be solved only when faced full on.

As mortal as I suddenly feel, I’m hardly ready to turn in my binoculars. Jack Kerouac wrote, “Why think about that when all the golden lands ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you're alive to see?” I'm getting a puppy in two weeks, and looking forward to having her in my life has definitely given my days a luster of gold. It had never even occurred to me when I arranged to get her on the day she was born, January 2, that it might be possible I'd not outlive her. Ironically, I'm actually less likely to suffer a heart attack now that I'm on blood thinners than I was before we knew I had a congenital aneurism in a coronary artery. Yet, regardless of statistics, I have an unsettling, visceral sense of my eventual demise that I'd never felt before—a feeling that will be forever reinforced by the little vial of nitroglycerin I'm supposed to keep with me at all times, prescribed by the same professionals who say my chances are excellent that I'll never need it. Being certain Pip will be loved and cared for no matter what gives me a feeling of security and peace even as I love being pretty sure I'll be here to enjoy every day of her life.

Every morning, the sun rises earlier than the day before—at least if we keep our bodies set to Standard Time—and every day the birds in my yard get more vocal. One chickadee seems to own the territory right by my upstairs window, and starts the morning singing for three or four minutes before he takes an interest in mealworms. There's something reassuring in the certainty that he and my other chickadees are doing just fine, and will be singing, mating, raising young, and carrying on no matter whether I'm there to watch them or not, even as each day that I see them feels precious in a way I never appreciated before the heart attack.

For several weeks now, redpolls and siskins have been descending upon my feeders at first light. They're eating more than 30 pounds of seeds each week—about 20 pounds of sunflower and almost 12 pounds of nyjer. The bustling activity is keeping my spirits buoyed even higher than the longer day length and singing chickadees are raising them.

Watching these birds keeps me grounded in a world that is natural, true, and sincere, and enlarges my capacity for honest and joyous astonishment about astonishingly genuine, beautiful elements of this planet. And in two weeks, I'll be able to enjoy all this with a new puppy at my side.

I'll be starting the list of birds I see with Pip starting March 21, the day I get her. She will be coming with me on several trips this spring, as far as Ohio and Florida. If all goes according to plan, we'll see at least 200 species together between now and the end of May.

I don’t know how other people get through their days without at least occasionally blocking world and national events from their consciousness. I don't know how any of us can sustain a dream of making the world a better place without knowing, deep in our bones from real experience, just how beautiful the world can be. And I don't know how other people deal with the grim sense of their own mortality. All I do know is that one could do worse than be a watcher of birds. And how could one possibly do better than be a watcher of birds with a puppy?