I felt vaguely ridiculous, even guilty, getting up to go chase birds last Friday.
Three days earlier, like millions of other Americans, I had watched the election results in anguish and disbelief. Like so many, I was shocked at the course the country had taken, terrified about what might lie ahead, and grief-stricken that my nation seemed to have abandoned its highest ideals and lurched instead toward hatred and oppression. Literally overnight, the world had taken a dark and dangerous turn.
Given all that, the thought of going out to look for pretty birds seemed absurd, almost surreal. What could possibly be more frivolous? Shouldn’t I be out looking for barricades to man, or at least petitions to sign?
But I went anyway. More out of habit than anything else. I was running on the sort of foggy autopilot that keeps you putting one foot in front of the other after a death in the family, and so I did what I normally do on the weekend: got up early, brewed some coffee, grabbed my binoculars and camera, and headed outside. I couldn’t save the republic, so I went looking for birds.
Besides, I thought it might help me find my feet again. Wandering around in a miserable daze wasn’t doing anyone any good. You’re supposed to put on your own oxygen mask first before helping other people with theirs, right? For me, the purest oxygen is going out where the wild things are. On top of which, I thought, if you give up the things you love, the bad guys win. Screw that. So off I went.
Into the Marsh
Federal Point at Fort Fisher is a broad peninsula that culminates in a sharp arrowhead of land pointing west into the wide expanse of the Cape Fear River. It’s superb for herons, egrets, and shorebirds, and at the very tip of the arrowhead lies a wedge of reedy salt marsh that is perfect habitat for the trio of coastal marsh sparrows: Seaside, Saltmarsh, and Nelson’s.
Of the three, I’d seen only one before: a single Nelson’s Sparrow, a few years ago right here at Federal Point. All three are notoriously reclusive; they stay hidden deep in the reeds. To find them, that’s where you have to go.
I set out along a little ridge of high ground — meaning about six inches high — into the soggy marsh. Very soon, my shoes sank into water up the laces, and reeds taller than my head closed around me. Visibility was terrible, but a flash of movement up ahead caught my eye, and then another. Sparrows?
A Common Yellowthroat flitted into view, doing a split as it straddled the reeds. A scolding chatter erupted, and a Marsh Wren peered out of the foliage.
And then, a few feet further, on, a hefty potbellied sparrow emerged from the forest of honey-colored stalks. Charcoal-gray, smudgy breast streaks, yellow lores behind a heavy graphite bill: Seaside Sparrow.
The swaying reeds made it impossible to get a clear look, but I snapped what photos I could, and then retreated. The water was too deep, and the way was too dense.
Back on dry ground, I circled the perimeter of the marsh and found a muddy footpath hugging the shoreline. Sparrows began to appear, popping up out of the thick growth and then driving right back in before I could get a decent look. Presently, though, I spotted a small bird clinging to the reeds, a lovely sparrow with a soft gray ear patch set in a butterscotch face, faint dark streaks painting a caramel breast: Nelson’s Sparrow, to my eye one of the prettiest of its kind.
On a little rise with a slightly better vantage point, I came upon a bird that at first glance appeared to be another Nelson’s Sparrow. But its bill was bigger, its streaks were crisper and darker, heavy pencil rather than watercolor, and its pale straw-colored bib contrasted with the darker gold of its face: Saltmarsh Sparrow, a life bird, the third and last of the marsh sparrows I’d come to find:
Back Out of the Marsh
I realized, as I emerged from the marsh, that from the moment I’d entered it, I’d been purely and completely focused on what I was doing. All that other stuff — the election, the state of the nation, the battles ahead — had fallen away. My thoughts, my attention, and my senses were all attuned to where I stood on the planet at that precise moment, and nowhere else. I felt the cold water against my feet, the breeze on my skin. I heard the gulls calling, and the soft clattery rustle of the reeds brushing against each other. I saw the telltale flicker of movement in the grass, the color of a bird’s cheek.
Not to get too crunchy on you, but that sort of focused presence is deeply soul-filling. I have friends who draw their sustenance from yoga, or from running, or from going to church or playing punk rock music. In my case, for whatever mysterious reasons, few things fill me up more than going out into the woods to look for birds.
It doesn’t last, of course. You have to keep going back to the well. And all the stuff I’d left behind when I walked into the marsh was still there when I walked out. The ugliness and uncertainty in the world certainly hadn’t gone away, and neither had my own sorrow and fear. But I felt ever so slightly revived, ever so slightly better able to stand up straight to meet it.
It’s true, I think, that thing about the oxygen mask. You’re not much good to anyone if you can barely move yourself. You have to give grief its time, and you have to take the opportunities, when they come, to do the things that calm your heart and clear your head, even in hard times. Especially in hard times.
As I headed back to my car, and all the troubles of the day came rushing back to mind like dark water filling a tub, a big part of me wanted to turn around. I wanted to go back into the marsh and just, you know, stay there. But that’s not how it works. I cast a look back at the reeds rustling in the wind and began walking back to the world.