Always, in the past, I'd felt like a failure at the task of being satisfied by nature's beauty. Hiking in the West, my wife and I had sometimes found our way to summits unruined by other hikers, but even then, when the hike was perfect, I would wonder, "Now what?" And take a picture. Take another picture. Like a man with a photogenic girlfriend he didn't love. As if, unable to be satisfied myself, I at least might impress somebody else later on. And when the picture-taking finally came to feel just too pointless, I took mental pictures. I enlisted my wife to agree that such-and-such vista was incredible, I imagined myself in a movie with this vista in the background and various girls I'd known in high school and college watching the movie and being impressed with me; but nothing worked. The stimulations remained stubbornly theoretical, like sex on Prozac.

Only now, when nature had become the place where birds were, did I finally get what all the fuss was about. The California towhee that I watched at breakfast every morning, the plainest of medium-small brown birds, a modest ground dweller, a giver of cheerful, elementary chipping calls, brought me more pleasure than Half Dome at sunrise or the ocean shoreline at Big Sur. The California towhee generally, the whole species, reliably uniform in its plumage and habits, was like a friend whose energy and optimism had escaped the confines of a single body to animate roadsides and back yards across thousands of square miles. And there were 650 other species that bred in the United States and Canada, a population so varied in look and habitat and behavior—cranes, hummingbirds, eagles, shear-waters, snipe—that, taken as a whole, they were like a companion with an inexhaustibly rich personality. They made me happy like nothing outdoors ever had.

My response to this happiness, naturally, was to worry that I was in the grip of something diseased and bad and wrong. An addiction. Every morning, driving to an office I'd borrowed in Santa Cruz, I would wrestle with the urge to stop and bird for "a few minutes." Seeing a good bird made me want to stay out and see more good birds. Not seeing a good bird made me sour and desolate, for which the only cure was, likewise, to keep looking. If I did manage not to stop for "a few minutes," and if my work then didn't go well, I would sit and think about how high the sun was getting and how stupid I'd been to chain myself to my desk. Finally, toward noon, I would grab my binoculars, at which point the only way not to feel guilty about blowing off a workday was to focus utterly on the rendezvous, to open a field guide against the steering wheel and compare, for the twentieth time, the bill shapes and plumages of Pacific and red-throated loons. If I got stuck behind a slow car or made a wrong turn, I swore viciously and jerked the wheel and crushed the brakes and floored the accelerator.

I worried about my problem, but I couldn't stop. On business trips, I took whole personal days for birding, in Arizona and Minnesota and Florida, and it was here, on these solitary trips, that my affair with birds began to compound the very grief I was seeking refuge from. Phoebe Snetsinger, in her pointedly titled memoir, Birding on Borrowed Time, had described how many of the great avian haunts she'd visited in the eighties were diminished or destroyed by the late nineties. Driving on new arteries, seeing valley after valley sprawled over, habitat after habitat wiped out, I became increasingly distressed about the plight of wild birds. The ground dwellers were being killed by the tens of millions by domestic and feral cats, the low fliers were getting run down on ever-expanding exurban roads, the medium fliers were dismembering themselves on cellphone towers and wind turbines, the high fliers were colliding with brightly lit skyscrapers or mistaking rain-slick parking lots for lakes or landing in "refuges" where men in boots lined up to shoot them. On Arizona roads, the least fuel-efficient vehicles identified themselves with American flags and bumper-sticker messages like IF YOU CAN'T FEED 'EM, DON'T BREED 'EM. The Bush Administration claimed that Congress never intended the Endangered Species Act to interfere with commerce if local jobs were at stake—in effect, that endangered species should enjoy federal protection only on land that nobody had any conceivable commercial use for. The country as a whole had become so hostile to the have-nots that large numbers of the have-nots themselves now voted against their own economic interests.


Next Story