I just finished reading an astonishingly and beautifully heartbreaking book, Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. The book has absolutely nothing to do with birds, but in the climax, we start thinking about the most important moments of each person’s life and how we hold onto these moments, for a lifetime and maybe even beyond.
That made me think about moments in my own lifetime that I can conjure up and viscerally feel, even years later. Some are sad—the moment I heard the phone ringing in the middle of the night when my Grandpa died, the moment my brother told me my dad had died, the moment I saw on TV an airplane crashing into a tower, and then the moment that whole massive tower collapsed.
Most of the lifetime moments my brain clings to are happy ones—some lovely ones with Russ, my kids, my favorite teacher. And then there are the moments with birds. When I look over my lifelist, I can sometimes remember the first time I saw a particular species, but not usually in a visceral moment kind of way. Yet there have been some moments with birds so powerful that I can feel myself back in the exact time and place.
The morning at winter’s end in 1975 when I set out to be a birder, I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing to actually find my first bird. I wandered rather aimlessly through Baker Woodlot for what felt like quite a long time before I noticed anything alive at all. But suddenly, there was a bird—on my left, sitting in a very fine twig, just about exactly at eye level, no more than four feet away. I say sitting, but it wasn’t resting—it looked wild alive, like it would take off at any moment. It was close to begin with, and when I pulled up my binoculars, the sparkle in its black eye was so vivid, and its black eye so moist and shiny compared to the equally black feathers surrounding it! And it was looking directly into my eyes—well, into the enormous lenses of my 7x50 porroprism binoculars. When it did take off, it flew right, alighting in another shrub just a little further away, and then into another shrub to the right, closer again. I can remember the facts of those perches, but not the visceral feel beyond the moment I first saw it and caught it in my binoculars.
I remember the moment a Ruby-crowned Kinglet alighted on my finger. This, too, was in early spring, at dawn, and the pinkish sunlight dazzled on the frosted twigs where the bird, even tinier than a chickadee, was flitting. I have no idea what impulse made me pull off my glove and reach out in the first place, but suddenly my hand was there and the suddenly the bird was on it. The feeling of those two tiny, cold feet grasping my finger—the bird felt utterly weightless and yet so vivid and real—it was magic!
Considering how viscerally I can still feel that moment, it's sort of surprising that I’d have to search through my field notebooks to work out exactly when it happened. I can remember exactly how the spot at Picnic Point in Madison looked, but don't know if I could find it again, and I can’t remember what month—whether it was March or April—or even what year. But I don’t just know it happened as an intellectual memory. I can still sense it—how the bird looked, the tiny sounds it made, the feel of it on my finger are as real right this moment as they were in that moment, whenever it happened.
That makes me wonder about our whole concept of a moment. At the time I started writing this, I googled a website that told me that I’d lived exactly 34,656,480 minutes since my birth, or exactly 2,079,388,800 seconds. Of course, that sounds much more accurate that it could possibly be, because no one wrote down the exact second of my birth—just the minute and date. And the second one reports how long it's been since anything happened, more seconds start passing.
None of our brains could possibly hold the memory of each of the minutes, much less seconds, we've been alive, so we have no word for any kind of unique importance of one second or minute. Yet we do have a word for the unique importance of a moment. It may be a moment of tragedy or even terror, or a moment of such grace and beauty that it makes our heart beat a little stronger, our eyes blink with more moisture, but whatever gives a moment its importance, that is what makes it not just any old second or a minute, but truly momentous.