J.C. and Katelyn gave each other The Look.
“You can’t hang this weekend….because you’re going….BIRDING?” Jacey wore an expression of disbelief on her face. "What's birding, anyway?"
My other friend was quick to join in. “That’s so stupid. And nerdy.”
I was quick to laugh their snide comments off. We would wait---the three of us---and compare jobs in thirty years. “Yeah, let’s see where we all end up in the next decade. Me--out in the wilderness, working an awesome job with wildlife and nature and all, and you guys in your little cubicles living your dream job of playing out one of the characters in The Office.” More glares and rolling of the eyes from the two.
On the inside, however, an old feeling of disappointed hurt resumed a familiar pathway down to my heart. These were the low points of birding: letting what other people thought of your passion get through to you, despite what society--teachers, parents, culture--had taught you about the brilliance of “individuality” and standing out in a crowd. Often I would stay awake at night, thoughts of self-acceptance and questions on replay in my mind. Why was I mortified when a teacher mentioned to the entire class that one of my hobbies “birding?” Was it the incredulous stares, the sarcastic murmurs, the vicious gossip...or was it just simply me, socially conscious; sensitive to criticism; a 14-year old teenager dreaming to be simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary?
But I’m not here to dwell over the social downsides that birding might have unintentionally wrought, I’m here to celebrate its highlights. The events, that once passed, bring to light the subtle ways in which birds matters. The way birds quietly shift lives. How a glimpse of something as simple as a House Sparrow or Red-tailed Hawk can nudge a despairing soul in the right direction. Through all my memories, that of a ailing girl in Junior High sticks out the most to me, a candle lit in a room of dimming daylight.
I was Denilla’s only friend.
Bereft by a family falling into the shambles that are drugs and alcohol, and with a dad whose name was heard only in conjunction with the words “car crash,” and “hospital,” Denilla’s struggle with depression was constant and she suffered from bipolarism, alienating what used to be close friends of hers. And with something so simple as a point towards an Ash-throated Flycatcher, or two Great Egrets standing on the cold branches of a tree by a creek, her mind was kept adrift on our long walks through the fields and roads of our school.
“What’s that bird?” I pointed a finger towards a large black and orange sparrow.
Denilla was cautious. “Spotted Towhee?”
“Great!” I felt the proud inklings of a teacher having successfully taught a pupil.
Soon enough, she could identify a few more species--mostly the distinctive species. Something about the Bushtits and California Towhees, their plainness, perhaps, made them hard to identify. But in the larger picture, such things hardly matter. The only thing that matters is that in one way or another, birds brought a tiny sliver of happiness into Denilla’s life. When she moved away to a place far, far, away; far from me and our creek and our field and her life, I like to think that she carried that small slice of birds with her into the next chapter of her life. I like to think that every time she spotted a House Finch or Great Egret her mind would throwback to this year, the year of 2013, the year of running along creeks listening to Bewick’s Wrens and Ash-throated Flycatchers. I could be dead wrong. But that’s I like to think: that birds are still her guardian angels.
Angel had set the stage. As I submitted the slippery slope of high school, all my field guides that had been long forgotten in the dust of disuse disappeared, having been immediately thrown by me at any friends who piqued the slightest interest in birds. Strangers whom I had conversed with for seconds were sure to know at least one thing about me: me and my birds. I became the go-to bird person -- an injured hummingbird, a yarn of a Rock Pigeon that lived in someone’s yard, the one time someone saw a “yellow” bird -- the steady flow of bird traffic gradually rerouted towards me. And until a year later, my heart didn’t skip a beat as I navigated it. For it is true, that the spirit of a beginner birder burns brightly with a desire to share knowledge, and simmers with enthusiasm impossible to suppress.
To this date, I believe that this spirit, this attitude, is the difference between a good birder and a great birder. And there is not a doubt in the world that for a split second in a short window of time, my world was on fire with it. The spirit that organizations such as the ABA embody. The spirit to make change. The spirit to change the world for the better for both birds and man. The spirit to share knowledge, and in the process, touch someone’s life, the way a single Spotted Towhee and Ash-throated Flycatcher touched Denilla, the way birds can touch the lives of anyone who lets them in. Yes...with this spirit alive in us, bird lovers around the world will work together to make the world better for man and bird, one lonely soul at a time.