Wonder and savvy
June around here has been full of rainbow flags and booster shots, culottes and tank tops, salsa bands and floor toms, Oak Titmice and Hooded Orioles, January 6 hearings and bear markets, inflation rates and gun legislation, campsites reservations and patio gigs, home improvement and recording sessions, Supreme Court opinions and fledging birds.
There’s a lot of noise to cut through. I’ve been taking refuge in the local open space, looping around the Jean Sweeney Park, binoculars at the ready every morning, newly amazed at the diversity of my suburban neighborhood and its subtle changes from day to day. I’m working on learning how to ID birds by their songs alone, a practice in listening that feels like a daily treasure hunt.
I keep thinking of the Tom Mustill* observation “To be alive and explore nature now is to read by the light of a library as it burns,” quoted by Elizabeth Kolber in her New Yorker piece “The Strange and Secret Ways That Animals Perceive the World.”
I read that sentence two weeks ago and its haunted me ever since. Across from the open space, the Star Harbor development, with its hundreds of new housing units and thousands of square feet of retail space. It’s exciting — reminding me of New York’s Chelsea Piers — and a little daunting. How will it change this landscape, my daily habits? Those of the local flora and fauna I’ve come to know?
One morning, I arrived at a local intersection and saw a woman standing with her leashed dog in front of a grounded crow. "I think it's injured," she said.
The bird was quiet. It looked up at the dog, the dog looked at it, ears up, more curious-looking than predatory.
The crow rustled its wings a little but didn't move when I approached. I thought of picking it up, how I'd encircle its shoulders, wondering if we had a good box, remembering information I’d read about which intake vet to go to when Lindsay Wildlife , the closest place to take injured or abandoned birds in Walnut Creek, was closed.
Then I saw it had blue eyes. Many birds have different eye colors in their first year, just like humans. Crows travel in family groups and I guessed that its siblings weren't too far off.
After another 30 seconds of standing around, making calculations, the bird moved its wings again and took a low flight to a nearby yard.
"Ahah!" the woman with the dog exclaimed.
I continued on my walk. A hummingbird buzzed low in front of me then hovered over a patch yard. I stood and watched zip back and forth, hovering every few seconds. I walked a few more feet then noticed several more crows landing on the wire overhead, cawing loudly. I kept on walking and noticed they seemed to follow me for the next half block, squawking away.
Several more crows flew in and landed on the two largest trees on the block. I walked back to the yard the grounded crow had flown to. No crow. When I turned around all the crows who'd just been calling were gone, too.
A few days ago, a neighbor dropped off the book Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, a 2011 title by Lyanda Lynn Haupt that already feels like a friend.
“Wonder feeds our best intelligence and is perhaps its source,” she writes. She also observes “Modern naturalists must be both biologically and politically savvy, which can be a rude awakening.”
Here’s to wonder … and savvy.
*Mustill has a book coming out soon, How to Speak Whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication, which I’m also looking forward to reading.