Posted by: Dan | January 18, 2007

You Can Become a (Bad) Birdwatcher Too

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So I finally got around to reading How to be a (Bad) Birdwatcher, and I found this book to be an absolute treasure. Simon Barnes does an excellent job of capturing the joy and wonder associated with the simple act of just looking, being aware, of the birds that are just outside our windows.

But as much as I appreciated this book, it wasn’t written for me – I own a pair of binoculars, a field guide, and I can name just about any bird that I’m likely to see within the part of the country in which I live. No; this book would have been more appropriate for me a few years ago, when I set up my first bird feeder and began to watch, and before I could tell the difference between a nuthatch and a grosbeak.

Simon Barnes comes across as a bit of a Zen guru, as he talks about birdwatching as a state of being, not an activity:

But before the understanding comes the wonder. Comes the delight. And that is the first aim of being a bad birdwatcher: the calm delight of the utterly normal, and the rare and sudden delight of the utterly unexpected.

The only real skill involved in this perfect birdwatching moment was the willingness to look. It was not skill that gave me the sight; it was habit. I have developed the habit of looking: when I see a bird I always look, wherever I am.

I think that that is all birdwatching is about – it’s really a simple way of looking at wild things that you take with you; not something that you do, rather,something you become.

In writing this book, Barnes is trying to attract people to a “revolutionary” way of thinking about nature: an intimate concern for the welfare of the environment. It’s what E.O. Wilson refers to as “Biophilia.” Afterall, if there were more birdwatchers out there, environmentalism might have a higher political priority. Maybe. Or maybe just more people would enjoy something simple and wonderful.

But no book on watching nature would be complete without a reference to Darwin’s “endless forms most beautiful,” so below the fold, I’m going to quote a wonderfully written 2-page passage, simply to share it with others. Go forth and enjoy – read, and observe!

From chapter six, “Teeming hordes”:

Every field guide that was ever printed is not merely a book of helpful hints on how to tell one bird from another. It is also a hymn to biodiversity: a song of praise for the fact that such a wonderful variety of creatures exists and has its being in our country, on our continent, on our planet. That line about “endless forms most beautiful,” already quoted, is the last line of The Origin of Species, and every field guide will tell you about an awful lot of forms most beautiful, and if the beauty dazzles and the endlessness of the forms boggles, stick with it. You are, afterall, on your way to understanding the meaning of life, and that’s not supposed to be easy.

“Biodiversity” is a bit of a buzzword, and it has become for many an eyes-glaze-over word. It means, at bottom, the fact that there are lots and lots of species. But it is more than that. Biodiversity is not just variety; it is also the fundamental strategy adopted by life on earth. For diversity is rather more than a conundrum for the observer. It is nothing less than the way life works. Life doesn’t work by trying to make one perfect species. It works by making lots and lots of different species, each one talented at making a living in its own particular way.

There is a myth about evolution: that evolution is a search for perfection. It is one of humankind’s great self-glorifying misunderstandings, for guess which species always seems to embody that perfection – the paragon of animals, noble in reason, infitine in faculty? Yes, the whole point of evolution is you and me. Vast suns whirling through space, spinning planets, the collisions of asteroids, the primordial soup, the rise and fall of the dinosaurs: all of it was planned and preordained in order to produce me, writing a book about birds, and you, looking through the window at the bird feeder and wondering why the blood doesn’t rush to the head of the chickadee as he hangs upside down on the feeder.

That is the myth. But there is a real story of evolution that is much grander, much bigger, wider, and higher – and infinitely more glorious. No one can say that a man is better than an arctic tern – a bird that spends every Northern Hemisphere summer in the Arctic and every Southern Hemisphere summer in the Antarctic, commuting the entire length of the globe to live a life of almost perpetual sunshine. What human could do that? Or want to?

No; evolution – life – isn’t looking for perfection; it is looking for survival, and life has come up with uncountable millions of survival plans. Each species has a different plan, and they all work. The summit of evolution is the arctic tern, or the woodlouse, or the blue whale, or the brown rat.


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