The Opposite of Familiarity

This morning I set off on a familiar walk, but with an unfamiliar task: participating in the Great Backyard Bird Count (whose rather loosey goosey rules allow said count to be done anywhere). Two miles in, I had seen the usual suspects (mourning doves, verdin, Anna’s hummingbirds, house finches, grackles, curve-billed thrashers) as well as a few occasional shows (red-tailed hawks, roadrunners). Good fun, if you like that sort of thing, and it turns out that I do.

As I paused at one corner, I thought I saw an American kestrel about a block away. Since I was observing birds for scientific purposes, I diverted from my planned route, trying to get close enough to confirm the identification without flushing the bird. Mission completed, I turned back to my main route, glancing idly at the irrigated field on my left. I almost fell off my walking shoes.

Huge, gray birds were lollygagging along a planted row, halfway across the field. I blinked. My subconscious pattern recognizer tried to fit them into something I knew.

“Great blue herons?” she suggested, meaning to be helpful I’m sure.

“No,” I answered. (I may have snapped.) “Great blues don’t hang out in groups of — let me count them — seven (!) birds. They don’t feed by hoovering up a crop of some sort. They stand more upright. They aren’t that shade of grey. They don’t have such a chunky body, short neck, heavy head, and short bill. And they don’t have red on their bills. Red!”

No, these birds were new to me. I suspected a crane of some sort, although I’d never seen any sort of crane in the wild. But whatever they turned out to be — and I knew they couldn’t be truly rare, not in a field in Gilbert — they were new to me. As I headed off to finish my walk, grinning, my subconscious — still smarting, maybe, from my peremptory rejection of her helpful suggestion — offered up something else for my consideration.

“The Little Red Caboose!”

Three hours into an endless drive along an endless road flanked by endless scrubby spruce, a shocked voice speaks from the backseat. We don’t quite swerve off the road at this unexpected intrusion into our numbed state, but I know my breathing stops until I can classify the nature of the shock I am hearing: not alarm, but awe. My processing pause slows my response time, so he speaks again, more urgently.

“The Little Red Caboose!”

Driving to Jasper from Edmonton in May 1976, the front seat inhabitants have been staring glumly at the road (did I mention that it was endless?). The infant in the backseat is, thankfully, sleeping through most of this five-hour trek. The not-quite-four-year-old sitting behind the driver, though, is watching out the window for points of interest. Who knew?

“The Little Red Caboose!”

It’s the tone that’s stayed with me for almost 39 years. The slightly breathless voice said it all. A storybook character had materialized in front of him, without any warning. Wonderful!

Wonder: It’s an emotion I associate primarily with little kids. It starts sometime after three, likely because it requires a decent gestalt of the world, so that there is a basis for recognizing new and surprising things. It peaks somewhere before six, maybe because it requires a limited acquaintance with the world, so that there still are many new and surprising things.

Wonder: It’s an emotion whose absence in our adult lives our society purports to regret. “If only,” we say, “we could be again as little children, full of wonder.”

Yes, if only. Yet, day to day, with the best of intentions, I can’t summon up the will to feel much wonder as I prepare a familiar meal, wander down familiar grocery aisles (with a disturbingly familiar recalcitrant cart), or navigate my familiar neighbourhood walking trails.

Pleasure? Sure.

Enjoyment? Absolutely.

Wonder? Not so much.

And yet, this morning, as I stared through my binoculars, trying to observe and remember enough details that I could later identify these birds, it was wonder that I was feeling.

In birding terms, I am the equivalent of a four-year old. I know enough to recognize new-and-surprising; I know little enough that I keep seeing new-and-surprising. It’s a wonder-full place to be.

Of course, I can’t stay here forever. The more I learn, the harder it will be to glance left and see a new-and-surprising bird. I can never again see sandhill cranes for the first time.

But birding is only my current new window on the world. It need not be my last.

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14 Responses to The Opposite of Familiarity

  1. Jim Robertson says:

    Congrats on getting in on a bird count Isabel and then to see a “lifer” !!!!
    And then you wrap it all up in the beautiful context that you did….

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim R – Many thanks! It was quite a day – I also saw a Harris’s hawk for the first time outside the county park where I (very ocasionally) see them (which is about 30 minutes away by car). Lots of “firsts.”

  2. Sandhill cranes — in the flesh! They are extraordinarily beautiful birds as my research for Nebraska By Dummies (pgs. 57-8) showed me. Where did you see them? How far south & west do they migrate? Are you in Arizona?

    Up to 450,000 of these big (7-10 lbs & 2.5 to 4 ft. foot high) beasts of the air
    migrate through Nebraska each year. They are able to stay in the air for hours, soaring on the thermals, with up to 10,000 in a single “survival group.” They live about 7 years, but have been known to live 21 years, being shot for “good eatin'” notwithstanding.

    According to the unnamed blogger of they taste “VERY unexpectedly beef like….think grain fed beef.”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Yes, I saw them in Arizona – Gilbert AZ. When I went to add them to my checklist for the Great Backyard (sic) Bird Count, it turned out that they are rare in this location at this time so seeing them was a bit of a coup. I had to provide substantiating details. Seeing them on the ground, it’s hard to imagine them soaring for hours. Chunky!

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    Wonder — yes, it is a wonderful thing. It goes along with awe, astonishment, delight, joy — all of which we tend to filter out of our lives as adults. After all, who wants to look child-like, stunned by the beauty of a mere bird. Or cat. Or catkin, harbinger of spring. But I think we can un-train the blase-ness of our adultified minds, and rejuvenate our sense of wonder. Partly, it’s just a matter of allowing ourselves to wonder, allowing ourselves to enjoy the experience of wonder… At least, that’s what I’m trying to do, occasionally.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – I find it easier to be awed when I’m in that childlike state of learning. But, yes, ideally, we could retain that sense without having to go that far. I wonder (hah) whether this is what Buddhist mindfulness is on about, even in part.

  4. Neighbour Dave says:

    Wonder-ful! I have recently shared in that delight during our southern vacation. I had never seen a Limpkin or a Tricoloured Heron before and it took a bit of research to find out about them. And the best part was not only seeing the beastie in the flesh, but having a record of it and searching to find out more about it later. Wonder – take 2!

    Thanks for a great recollection!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dave – I read once (probably in front of a greeting-card rack, where I do all my philosophical reading), that Anais Nin said, “We write so we can taste life twice.” It’s great when others get to taste their own lives again, too. I’ve had the same experience reading a friend’s travel blog when she’s writing about places I’ve been. Thanks for letting me know! And congrats on the limpkin and tri-coloured heron.

  5. One evening last week I discovered how properly to access your photos through my gmail account and spent a couple of hours full of soul-refreshing, indelible wonder from savouring “the opposite of familiarity.” Birds of dramatic shape and brilliant feathering, oceans of subtle hues, steaming thermal lakes, decorative mountains, spectacular tropical flora, rambunctious geography, animals fluffy and armour-plated, sunrise light and neon bright, a parade of architectures and economies and the personal touch of signage, of exotic edibles and aquatic incredibles. In your photos, the humans are tucked in among the splendours of God’s creation, a message of tremendous import: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they toil not; . . .” (Matt. 6:28) and “Consider the ravens . . . how much more valuable you are than the birds” (Lk 12:24). Your traipsing around the world with a camera and the eye to use it has emblazoned the canvas of my bleak, weary, Arctic-chilled winter. The lovely spinoff is a renewed appreciation and resilience for my real-time ordinary: perky little chickadees and nuthatches, swooping bluejays, woodpeckers, and cooing mourning doves at the feeder; a motley crew of cats and dogs, one mending bruises from a passing car and one with a snout full of porcupine quills; and two radically marginalized young men, one injured, one contending with heartbreak and a hostile legal system. Bless you for timely, long-lasting wonder!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna: Your writing never ceases to amaze me with its lyrical power. I’m delighted my photos lightened your winter. As for wonder – with old eyes, it is so hard to see as if with new. But what a gift when it happens.

  6. Ralph Gibson says:

    Nice find Isabel ! I consider sandhills to be majestic, even regal, birds and always a pleasure to see. Thete are a handful that are resident here in summer (or trying to be). I have seen photos and read descriptions of the Nebraska migration assemblages of these guys. Both suggest they are worth the effort to experience.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ralph – I think Barbara would say that Nebraska is always worth the effort, with or without sandhill cranes. But wow! I went back today and they were where, and as, I’d left them, grazing away. Fabulous.

  7. John Whitman says:

    Hi Isabel:

    Do you do any birding when you are in Ottawa, or are you too busy being an author and working on proposals?

    Every Saturday in the Ottawa Citizen there is a half-page spread on what local birders have seen during the past week, and I note that every fall, sandhill cranes are reported in the farmer’s fields in the Orleans area as they migrate or get ready to migrate south, perhaps even to Gilbert, Arizona.

    John W

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – I don’t do much birding in Ottawa. There, I have to drive to most places. Here, I can walk a few miles and be in very interesting country. But mostly it’s just habit. If there are sandhill cranes near Ottawa at any time of year, I’ll have to rethink my approach!

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