Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

In My Prime

Black-capped Chickadee

As of Friday, November 11, 2022, for the 20th year of my life, I’m officially in my prime, thanks to 71 being the 20th prime number. I’ll have to stop saying I’m in my prime next year about this time, but will have two more prime years this decade, assuming I make it to 73 and then 79.   

As much as people my age seem to hate anyone referring to people in their seventies as “elderly,” I can’t think of a single boomer who was so prickly about calling people this age “old” when we younger, even as late as our fifties. The Beatles’ recorded “When I’m Sixty-Four” for Sergeant Pepper when Paul McCartney was 25, the same age Paul Simon was when the song “Old Friends” appeared on Bookends with the line “How terribly strange to be seventy.” Even if we don't want to call 64 old, the Biblical “three score and ten” is the quintessential definition of old age.  

Wawa, Dee Dee Nana, and Bear

Also as of Friday, I’m not just in my prime—I’m the precise definition of what a 71-year-old looks like. My whole life, the multi-billion-dollar cosmetics and fashion industries have been hell-bent on making everyone feel dissatisfied with our own faces and bodies. I’m pretty good at ignoring the constant barrage of ads for beauty products—they don’t feel personal except for one ad for Botox looking down at me above my dentist’s chair. It’s bad enough knowing the dentist and hygienist judge my toothbrushing and flossing habits—are they also using their magnifying lenses to study my wrinkles? That is the kind of thought I try to banish by thinking about birds.  

Maybe it’s because I focus my eyes and optics on birds rather than the mirror that I don’t mind being whatever age I happen to be. I’m still in good health, but even when I’ve faced surgeries, two heart attacks, and cancer, paying attention to nature has had real medicinal value. 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

In April 1978, I had abdominal surgery back when they made incisions bigger than they do now. The doctors and nurses told me to go slow with walking and stay off uneven surfaces, and that lifting would be especially bad. I don’t remember the precise weight limit—just that my 7x50 Bushnell binoculars exceeded it. But hokey smokes—it was April—spring migration! The morning after I got home, Russ took me to my favorite birding spot. When I heard Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, I forgot all about my incision as I charged up a small hill to see them, and the pain magically stayed at bay. My recovery took way less time than doctors predicted, thanks to birding.  

Barn Owl

On January 12, 2020, days after my second heart attack, a Barn Owl turned up at the Sax-Zim Bog. I was thrilled—the experience definitely speeded up my recovery—but the poor owl, so far north of its range, died a few hours after Russ and I left. I’d wanted to use this poor bird as a sign of resilience and hope, but instead, it reminded me that we’re all muddling through life as well as we can for as long as we can. All of our days are numbered. 

Black-capped Chickadee

That lovely owl also reminded me that no one on this planet—avian or human—is obligated to serve as a symbol of anything for anyone, nor to be burdened with lugging around some dead person's spirit. When I die, my kids will probably think of me when they see chickadees. But those chickadees will not, in any way, shape, or form, be embodiments of me. Chickadees have been bringing me comfort and joy just about every single day that I've been home or anywhere else in their range since I saw my first on March 2, 1975. Seeing these lovely sprites who have brought me so much joy for almost 5 decades should be good enough for anyone. 

The medicinal value of birding is not unique to me—during my father-in-law’s final months in the late stages of cancer, he was up and at his chair by the living room window every morning at first light to see the birds arriving at his feeder. Over the years, a great many other people have told me how birds brightened the final weeks and days, and sometimes hours and minutes, of loved ones.   

The therapeutic value of birding isn’t just anecdotal. New research from King’s College London found that seeing or hearing birds is associated with an improvement in mental wellbeing that can last up to eight hours, including for people diagnosed with depression. Johanna Gibbons, co-author of the study, said that the dawn chorus is “A multi-sensory experience that seems to enrich everyday life, whatever our mood or whereabouts.” She continues, “This exciting research underpins just how much the sight and sound of birdsong lifts the spirits. It captures intriguing evidence that a biodiverse environment is restorative in terms of mental wellbeing. That the sensual stimulation of birdsong, part of those daily ‘doses’ of nature, is precious and time-lasting.”   

The value of birding isn’t limited to mental health. Ontario writer Robert C. Bell contracted a debilitating case of Lyme disease in 2013 when he was in his late 50s. He had to take early retirement from a job he loved in the mining industry and thought his life was pretty much over. But he got so engrossed in birds at his feeders that he started going outdoors to see more birds, got more serious about birding, and took up bird photography. He says, simply, “Birding saved me… It’s given me a real spark and purpose in life.” Bell just wrote a book about his experience, Out of the Lyme Light and into the Sunlight: Birding as Therapy for the Chronically Ill, which will be out this month by Hancock House—I have it on pre-order from the publisher.  

None of us can turn back the clock except in a Standard Time vs. Daylight Savings Time sense, and even the U.S. Senate knows how stupid that is. As with every living thing, each of us is given a finite set of years, months, and days, and no beauty or fashion products or injections of botulism toxin can change it. Why squander valuable moments of my finite life fretting about my reflection in a mirror when I can reflect on and enjoy real beauty? Life doesn't have many guarantees, but birds, from everyday chickadees and jays to much harder-to-see species, are guaranteed to bring beauty and fascination to our lives if only we open our hearts to let them in.  

Walter and Dr. Blue Jay