#38 Around the Campfire; Five Little Birds and Their Lessons
Ten years ago at the end of a three-week trip in Argentinean Patagonia and the rain-soaked, glacier-whittled southern Chilean coast, I took a nasty fall. After flying home to New Mexico, my back, which had never bothered me before, grew steadily worse over the coming months. I soon had to stop running six miles a day and cut back sharply on the weight machine. Then I had to give up my greatest love, backpacking, and I haven’t been able to hoist a pack onto my back for nine years now.
Though my days as a wilderness trekker seem gone, thanks to fusion surgery, strong pain meds, shoving from my wife Nancy, and some help from my friends, foremost John Davis, I have done several long raft and canoe trips in the Southwest and in Arctic Alaska and Canada. Nancy and I have begun to scuba dive. Nonetheless, most of my time is spent working in the living room recliner where our feathered friends who visit our birdbath and spread of feeders endlessly enthrall our fluffy black cat Gila and me. I’ve tallied sixty-one species in and over our yard. I cannot overstate how thoroughly I need and love these birds—they are the wild things without which I would not want to live.
Thanks to my living room birding blind, I’ve gotten to know some birds and who they are well. They have taught me much, five birds most of all, and I think that they can teach my fellow Cannots much, too. (A Cannot is one like Aldo Leopold, who wrote that there were some who can live without wild things, and others like him who cannot.)
You will see that these birds are not those often held up as beacons of certain virtues such as eagles or owls. Nor are they bright flashes of many-hued loveliness such as orioles and hummingbirds. But in their behavior and mood they are anything but drab. As I have gotten to know them better, their true grit fairly blazes.
So, let’s meet them and hear their tweets of wisdom.
Bushtits are tiny, drab, and gray, but lively, lovable, and winsome in a way that springs out. They move through our neighborhood in a throng of twenty-five or so, swarming into a piñon tree and cleaning it of bugs and caterpillars, then—zoom—they are off in a straggling, chattering rush to another tree, without a blatant leader. They are not seedeaters but pack predators. Were they raven-size, Bushtits would be the fright of Earth.
I have had wonderful meetings with wildeors from leopards to wolves in sprawling, deep wilderness over the world. In the summer of 2010, I narrowly dodged being trampled and gored by a cranky bull musk ox on the banks of the Noatak River above the Arctic Circle. But one of my greatest wildlife run-ins was that same summer in my yard with a Bushtit. I was watering a little patch of Rocky Mountain Penstemons and went to scoot the sprinkler to a dry spot. As I lifted the hose with the sprinkler head drizzling down, I glimpsed a sudden flash of gray from a nearby New Mexico Locust. I looked down and there was a Bushtit winsomely perched on my toe and showering under the sprinkler. It fluffed and fluttered and flapped its wings for half a minute then flew off. I was in wild-bliss for what was left of the day.
As I wrote, Bushtits have no out-and-out leader. For all I know, some (grandma and grandpa?) may show leadership now and then thanks to knowledge, age, or wisdom, but overall their might is in the flock. They teach the strength of grassroots work. Historian Stephen Fox sees two traditions in conservation: Amateur and Professional (to wit: John Muir/Sierra Club and Gifford Pinchot/Forest Service). These pathways are not split by whether or not one is paid to do conservation work, nor do they have anything to do with how good one is. The cleavage is in feeling, with amateurs working for wild things out of love and professionals working to manage land and resources because it’s their job. Some of us who have worked for conservation outfits all our lives are yet amateurs . . .
Please click on the attachment below to read the entire “Campfire”