In the rapacious suburbia of southeastern Michigan, where from every shopping center you can gaze out in almost any direction to find … another shopping center, I find birds in a wetland park not far from my mother’s condominium complex.
On Saturday morning, as I watched a Palm Warbler pumping its tail, a man and woman toting many thousands of dollars worth of camera gear approached on the trail.
“Any good warblers?” he asked.
The answer, of course, is that ALL warblers are good warblers. But I knew what he meant. “Nothing rare,” I replied. “The usual good stuff.”
At which point the couple whisked past me and sent my Palm Warbler flying away into the woods. In this violation of birding decorum, photographers and birders (who should know better) too often fixate not on what’s here and now, or even prosaic, but rather on what’s next.
So I reversed course and found my respite, my here-and-now, among swallows. Upon a narrow dike, with water and wetlands to my left and right, I stood with the sun to my back as swallows sliced and swooped and swirled around me. (The banner image above, which I captured only after the swallows had mostly moved on, shows my spot — just ahead of my shadow.)
Rough-winged Swallows, brown and brash, sliced the morning air and issued their farty calls. Tree Swallows, metallic blue, jockeyed for a nest cavity nearby. And the Barn Swallows fanned their elegant forked tails and flashed their sexy cinnamon undersides at me. So close were these birds, about two dozen in total, that I half expected some of them to fly between my legs.
Among swallows there is no what’s next. There is only audacity and performance. Among those swirling birds, I needed no binoculars, no camera — only the ability to stand, to listen, to look.
At one point in this exercise, which is one of my most favorite things to do in all of nature, I called upon my brain to reacquaint myself with the different ways swallow species move in flight — subtleties about flaps and glides I have discerned during decades of my watching these birds on the wing. And yet I cut short the reacquaintance. My eyes and ears and legs were enough. No brainwork here. Only joy in flight. An embrace of swallows.
No brainwork here. Only joy in flight. An embrace of swallows.
I love my family here in southeastern Michigan, even as I don’t care much for where they live and I mourn the relentless eradication of what’s wild here. Yet what a privilege to celebrate Mother’s Day with my mom (who turns 87 on Wednesday) and my sister (also a mom) and her husband — my first visit with them since before the pandemic. Even so, later today I will wish my mom a final happy Mother’s Day and birthday — and farewell — as I hit the road for home to Vermont, where south winds and attending warblers have been scarce.
But those winds and warblers will surely come. And they’ll be good warblers — all of them (or at least what’s left of them). Until then, all of us have the good fortune of swallows … or whatever else might walk or hop or slither or swirl within reach (even in suburbia). But only if we remember to do little more than stop, breathe, turn off the brain — and observe.
More Essays About Slowing Down in Nature
A Vireo Underwater
Here on Monhegan Island, off Maine's midcoast, I noticed a Philadelphia Vireo this morning it was underwater.
The Extinction of Meaning
My essay, first published at Medium.com, about our fading ties to wildlife and wild places. After all, what good is a butterfly that does not tweet?
Butterflies and Joy
Two hundred orange butterflies in a meadow of purple wildflowers — next to the ocean. It reminds me to slow down, lose the gadgets and find the joy.