Once Were Warblers


It’s Thursday, May 16, and I feel like I’m backsliding into nothingness, into a bog of scatterbrained depression where I fear I may spend the rest of my life. Because of my disorganization I managed to miss the second half of my midterm in MITx biology, putting me in danger of not earning a certificate of completion. Who cares about a certificate of completion? I don’t know. It may be spiritual. Any faltering in an online course, especially if it’s my own fault, seems to me proof that I don’t deserve a second chance and will never amount to anything.

When Primo Levi (one of my favorite writers) was in Auschwitz, he volunteered to take an oral chemistry exam so he could work in a factory and get better rations. After being kept waiting on his feet for ten hours, he was taken into a room with a calm, banal German officer who could easily have condemned him to die. And he, nervous, literally starving, out-of-practice, exhausted, embarrassed of his appearance, and working outside his native language, passed that exam. In chemistry. Which is hard. This is the sort of anecdote that is either inspiring or unbearable depending on one’s situation. Right now it makes me feel like a nematode.

My solace, as is often the case, has avian sources. This past Sunday I went up into the Cumberland Mountains with my family to look for nesting birds. It was a clear, sunny day, surely one of the last cool days of an unusually cool spring, and wildflowers were in bloom all across the forest floor. The leaves on the trees at that altitude were not yet completely unfurled; they glowed light green in the sun. I confess that I separated myself from my family so that I could absorb this bit of Appalachian quietude into my own skin, accompanied by my own thoughts. I heard Northern Parulas buzzing in the treetops, but I could not get a look at them – which is normal, because they are tiny and prefer to stay hidden in the canopy.

After I had absorbed enough Appalachian quietude, I intercepted my search party on the gravel mining trail. My timing was lucky. We ran into a cell of neotropical migrant birds, including a black-and-white warbler (like the one in the photo), a rose-breasted grosbeak, a hooded warbler, a blue-winged warbler, and some Eastern wood-pewees. Our most impressive find in birder’s terms was a blue-headed vireo yelping from the branches of a tuliptree. It was my first blue-headed vireo: life bird #139. Stephen has already blogged the vireo.

There is no failure in birding, except perhaps in the most competitive circles. Finding all the warblers made ours a fruitful outing indeed, yet even if we’d come up empty we could have still wandered among the wild rhododendrons and called it a victorious nature walk. How ironic that bearing close witness to the trials, travails, and little chirping results of evolution is the one thing that frees me from the idea that everything is about fighting and judging and winning and clawing one’s way to the increasingly unattainable American dream and being hard on oneself because that’s what winners do. It’s not that birds are an excuse to be lazy so much as an excuse not to collapse into suicidal depressions over mistakes and obstacles. To both the prophets of old and the secularized geeks of the 21st century, they are a constant reminder that the petty, psychotic social world of human beings is not all that exists in the universe.