I attended the symphony this morning. Yes, there’s a multi-voiced orchestra that performs every morning in my neighborhood. In fact, right in my backyard. Today, it began with short, bold bursts of sound, a bit dissonant, just as I often am first thing in the morning. Sweeter notes followed that rousing opening—high trills, gentle coos, and cheerful chirps. Before last week, I couldn’t name the instruments that created this chorus. In fact, I still can’t identify the source of much of the music, but I have some new information to add to my wonder at the size and diversity of this orchestra.
Those of you who enjoy and study birdsong know I’m talking about a symphony of two-legged, winged creatures that carry their instruments in their throats and chests. Today I’m setting aside my embarrassment about too many years of inattention to write about my heightened awareness and appreciation for the endless concert just outside my door.
I have my friend, author Heather Durham, to thank for this long overdue (and non-judgmental) introduction to another of the beauties that surrounds me. Heather, a self-described “bird nerd,” visited over the weekend as she and I participated in author events on Orcas Island and Lopez Island. We were acquainting readers in the San Juan Islands with Heather’s new memoir-in-essays, Going Feral: Field Notes on Wonder and Wanderlust (Wandering Aengus Press). Heather had wandered from the foothills of the North Cascades to read excerpts from her book and talk about her deep connections with rivers and mountains and the creatures that call them home. And her own search for home.
We met as students at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts MFA program, and we’ve cheered each other on in our writing over half a dozen years. Like me, Heather was working on a second master’s degree at Whidbey (hers in environmental biology, mine in nursing). We both found our writing voices in creative nonfiction, especially the short memoir form called the personal essay. When Going Feral came out, I finally could savor essays in print that I’d heard at student readings, along with many of Heather’s new works. Together, these twenty-five pieces chronicle her search for home—both geographically and among wild and human species. It’s often been (and continues to be) a pothole-laden ride.
Despite detours—or perhaps because of them—Heather stays true to her quest. She brings her reader along with her through poetic prose informed by a naturalist’s wisdom. Whether or not you’ve ever been in the vicinity of cougars, coyotes, black bears, bats, or eagles, Heather’s descriptions will show you their magnetism for her. And no matter if, like me, you can identify only a couple of birdcalls in your back yard or from a city high-rise balcony, Heather’s writing will lure you into these creatures’ languages.
Which is exactly what happened one morning after I finished reading Going Feral. As the sunrise and my coffee mug warmed me, I lost count of the number of different songs and calls I heard from my deck. Lucky for me, Heather arrived a few days later. I handed her a pen and paper, and we sat, listening. My “bird nerd” friend soon filled a long strip of paper with twenty names; the next day, she added four more.
I wonder why it took me so long to closely attend to the sounds in my own backyard. Being able to identify them by name isn’t important to me (although I’m delighted with the new Sibley Birds West guide the Naked Hiker gave me for Mothers’ Day).
But I do want to notice and acknowledge more deeply these creatures I share land, sea, and sky with.
Headlines reported this week we’re not doing so well with sharing; we humans are threatening 1 million species with extinction. I hope getting to know these neighbors better will push me to greater stewardship. I do know that as I continue to study and learn about the peril our planet is in, I find comfort, wisdom, and courage from its wild inhabitants. I wouldn’t say I’m “going feral,” and my lust for wandering is rather low at the moment. But I’m grateful for the companionship of Heather Durham’s words as I find I’m more full of wonder than ever about my winged neighbors. I’ll be spending more time listening to and watching them in concert.