Listening to the birds

29868587Birds bridge the ordinary and the unknown as few other creatures can. In Birds Art Life: A Year of Observation, novelist, essayist, and children’s author Kyo Maclear details a year of urban birdwatching and life shifting in her home city of Toronto.

While coping with her father’s illness, the married mother of two young sons happened upon the photography of a musician and urban birdwatcher, and was riveted. “These birds lived in gardens of steel, glass, concrete, and electricity,” she said, but the message in the photos was not one of environmental sins, but of love for “the dirty, plain, beautiful, funny places many of us call home.”

The musician (as he is known throughout the book) became Maclear’s guide on a number of bird walks throughout the year. As so often happens when we take up something new, ostensibly to distract ourselves, the insights that emerge bring us right back to face the music, if we are willing.

Accompanying the musician to his father’s aviary of finches, for example, and feeling like a “galumphing invader” among the tiny, captive creatures, sparks reflection on the quality we most associate with birds: freedom. We are all captive in some way to something, Maclear said — such as the cages of ego and habit we may or may not recognize. A small birdwatching excursion to a marina on the edge of the city not only teaches her how to distinguish among trumpeter, mute, and tundra swans but becomes an almost meditative experience of simultaneous waiting and experiencing.

As she began to talk about the subject of this book, Maclear was surprised by the number and diversity of people who shared their own bird stories and passions — rich hobbyists, former POWs, people who traded the bottle for binoculars. “They had lost something, hoped for transcendence, wondered how best to live this life. Birds spoke to their irrevocably blue parts, their hopeful parts.”

The birders she encountered in books and in the world shared little except this, she concluded: “If you listen to birds, every day will have a song in it.”




What can you do for animals?

81sxcc1obelWhen the enormity of a problem makes you want to shrug your shoulders and turn away, that’s the time to break that problem down — into a million oddball pieces if necessary — and find something, however small it may seem, that you can do. Sometimes it’s right in your back yard.

Tracy Stewart’s book, Do Unto Animals: A Friendly Guide to How Animals Live, and How We Can Make Their Lives Better, does this with the savvy of a an animal advocate and former vet tech and with mom-next-door authenticity. The book also does it with Lisel Ashlock’s breathtaking illustrations, some of them simply capturing the natural world and others showing how pigs express sadness, how cats may react to catnip (“whoa, dude!”), and more.

Within these colorful pages, you’ll find everything from practical animal care tips (“Five Ways to Make a Cat Happy”) to recipes for homemade dog biscuits and horse cookies to hard-to-take information about puppy mills and factory farms. At no point in the reading of this book did I find the shaming, blaming, or manipulating that can seep into the most well-meaning literature that aims to benefit animals or the environment as a whole. Parents will find this book especially useful, as there are several activities (such as the “Hurtless Hunt”) families can do together.

So the next time you read or hear something that leaves you feeling overwhelmed with sadness and/or that nothing you can do could possibly help — first of all: Breathe. Then open this book.


Within arm’s reach

It’s impossible for me to watch shows like “Ocean Mysteries” and “Sea Rescue” without feeling torn up over the way we are tearing up our world. The seal with the fishing line tightening around its neck, cutting into the flesh. The pelican with the pouch someone slashed with a knife. And of course the oil-covered fish, birds, and other creatures. The lovely image above was the artist’s response to the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The world needs to know this and consider the implications, I remind myself. There is more to learn.

A recent episode dealt with a giant Pacific octopus who’d deposited some 20,000 eggs in her habitat at a marine life center. She would care for these eggs constantly. And that would be her final act, as octopuses die around the same time as their eggs hatch. Paul, the World Cup-match-predicting octopus in Germany, only lived to be two and a half years old, and that was considered a normal octopus lifespan.

This is not human cruelty or carelessness; it’s nature. We can do any number of things to take better care of our earth and help where there is hurt. All we can do about the incredible sadness of things like this is to stay present and keep learning. short time later, I found The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (Atria Books, 2015) at a bookstore. The book grew out of author Sy Montgomery’s article in Orion magazine about her unique friendship with an octopus named Athena at the New England Aquarium. Octopuses (not octopi, she says) are intelligent creatures who solve problems, change colors according to their health and mood, and recognize the people who care for them.

Most of the book centers around the New England Aquarium and the staff and volunteers who care for a succession of Giant Pacific octopuses there. Montgomery describes her first “handshake” with Athena — octopuses taste with their entire bodies, but their suckers are the most sensitive — as “an exceptionally intimate embrace.” When Athena died suddenly, Montgomery, who felt she was just getting to know this new invertebrate friend, was surprised by her grief.

Other octopuses would cross her path, notably Octavia. “I stroked her head, her arms, her webbing, absorbed in her presence. She seemed equally attentive to me.”  Octavia also mischievously hosed a high school student job-shadowing Montgomery for the day. As Octavia began to age, the aquarium acquired young Kali, an inordinately curious escape artist. Then there was Karma, who arrived with part of her second right arm missing.

Also compelling are the stories of the humans Montgomery works with, including sixteen-year-old volunteer Anna, who has Asperger’s syndrome, a few health problems, and a host of fish tanks at home. “Going behind the scenes at the aquarium changed my life,” she says.

Though I do have reservations about animals such as octopuses being kept in captivity, reputable aquariums serve a valuable purpose. They provide ways to learn about and connect with sea life that would be far less likely or impossible in the wild. This sort of connection translates much more readily to caring and conservation than, say, abstractly hearing over and over again about the importance of conservation. The aquariums that lean more toward amusement parks or other commercial enterprises? Maybe not so much.

Of course, caring comes with a cost, such as feeling torn up inside when animals suffer or natural wonders are trashed. Or grieving over the loss of friends (of any species) whose time on earth seems absurdly short.

Still, we reach out — to hold hands with an octopus, plant a garden, recycle a pop can, or do any other seemingly small thing that keeps the regenerative force of caring alive.