When I Can't Sleep
When too many thoughts weigh on my mind and keep me awake well past sunset... I pick up one of the many volumes in my library, purposely the most ancient and droning of them; the fewer line breaks and the smaller font, the better. Usually this ends up being one of Arthur Bent’s Life History of North American Birds books. I then methodically pore through each word until my mind is clear of troubling thoughts again. What fascinates my mind is not entirely the content, which anyone can find in a much more compendious and up-to-date fashion these days.
Rather, it is the dates of Bent’s books, -- 1923, 1924, 1995, and on --- they’re the oldest books I have to date. Each wonderfully eloquent passage excerpted from Tolmie or Nuttall writings harkens back to that time. An alien time. A time when leading ornithologists cited shooting a bird as the prime way to study it, a lost time when the words “whistler” and “oldsquaw” were commodities of the average naturalist. Reading these books is a capsule to another century, to the time of manifest destiny and daring explorations.
But of all these antiquated elements, the most fascinating one is the writing style of each passage. Paragraphs where each sentence is reminiscent of a novel. Words that alive the senses of discovery and wonder in a New World so unknown. In this modern date, such refined nature writing is passe.
Perhaps I am simply being sentimental about the passing of time. After all, a fair share of writers in the 21st century continue the tradition of refined nature writing. But the years in which beautiful tableaux were the standard of observation, is indeed, long gone. Before we grieve, however, we must remember that in the scene of things there is no need to mourn -- for the passing of a era is not so much a loss as a change. After all, so long as birders continue to read and reminisce on the writings of early naturalists, the age of the Wild West and looming ornithological revolution will never be lost.