It was a perfect spring day, with sparkling sunlight and a hint of a breeze. I was out in the woods, binoculars in hand, watching birds on a count day. There are several times a year when birding organizations ask volunteers to take to the fields, waters and woods and record the species and numbers of birds they see.
For me, this is a very special time. I listen carefully for songs both nearby and distant. I thrill to the flutter of feathers overhead. I also am aware of animal signs at my feet. I celebrate each blossoming woodland flower, searching for the ones that I found last year and taking a quick photo of any new discoveries.
It’s a healing time; good for the soul. Rarely do I make time and practice what I preach. I tell people all the time that walking in nature is relaxing, strengthening, quieting. My heart rate slows; my mind is released from all the thoughts of daily stresses. I forget about deadlines looming, chores as yet undone, the argument I had with somebody yesterday. I become immersed in the present, immersed in the sounds, in the sights and the smells in the natural world.
I wander through my woods, up from the creek bed of the ravine and then I break out of the shadows, to the shoulder of the road. It’s often here, on the edges of the woods, where life is most abundant. In the bushes there is the hum of insect life that can support so many other species. I am attracted to a call down the road. It is a song actually, that of the Alder Flycatcher. I know there’s a break in the woods there – a small, marshy area. As I walk along and focus on brush and the reeds in the marsh, my ears pick up another sound. There is a car in the distance.
I am intent on watching for the bird, so I don’t even look up to view the approaching car. I am far enough off the road that they will not need to swerve or slow down. I’m in plain view, so I shouldn’t startle them. Maybe they will be curious, who’s standing by the road and a little concerned for my safety. I hold my ground and don’t even look away from the bush where I’m sure that little flycatcher must be.
Then it strikes me, as I stand by side of the road, buffeted by the passing of the car, that my silhouette, that instantaneous perception that the passing people will have, is that of a person with binoculars. What might flash through the driver’s mind in the instant I am observed: a nature lover, a bird watcher, a tree hugger? What will be the emotion attached to that flash of recognition? I know that some people will greet the scene with pleasure, others grudgingly. However, binoculars don’t cause strong emotions in people. Most likely, they won’t even remember that they have seen me.
It causes me to ponder. My mind begins to race along an unexpected train of thought. What if my binoculars, which for me symbolize my reverence for the natural world, caused others to feel threatened? What if some people felt a rising anger at the sight? What if I would feel the need to watch the car, to see if the driver was friendly, or might even swerve toward me?
My thoughts run to snakes, often maligned, hated and killed simply for being snakes, belonging to a family where a few dangerous ones have given the entire group a reputation. Or bats. Or spiders. Simply for being what they are they are often feared or despised. The animals cannot change what they are.
And then, what would my reaction be, if I felt the binoculars might be offensive to others? That not about me, but about others. Would I try to hide them from view? Would I avoid the roadside altogether, or would I stand proud to be a person who finds strength, direction and inspiration from the natural world?
I raised my binoculars once again to find the bird. The sound that beckoned me to the roadside to begin with, attractive and enticing, was the same one that led me down the road of thought for what is loved and hated and why and the complicated spectrum of affection and dislike.
I suddenly counted myself fortunate to believe in things that are within the mainstream. What a relief to feel I have the freedom to enjoy those things important in my life whenever and wherever I am. To be who I am with no apology. The other side of that coin, though, is my concern that this mainstream is becoming more and more narrowly defined. And I wonder if I have the strength of character to work to reverse that trend, and what it will take to once again live in a world where all feel they are safe, where fewer have the stress of knowing that their identity may actually put them in harm’s way. Perhaps it is time to continue my walk in the woods.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. Visit the trails to take your own walk in the woods, whatever your motivation. Open from dawn to dusk, there are over five miles of forest, fields and waters to ramble through. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. Visit auduboncnc.org or call (716) 569-2345 for information, or stop and visit just east of Route 62, on Riverside Road, between Warren and Jamestown.
Ruth Lundin is the President of ACNC.