by Roberta McDonald
“If you stare long into the abyss, the abyss will stare back at you.” Fredrick Nietzsche
Humankind stares into the abyss of modernity - the black hole of wealth pursuit, obsolescence of consumer goods, destruction of the environment, disregard for the welfare of nonhuman creatures and a lack of harmony with the world. How many of us rekindle the inherent inclination to bond with the natural world, to acknowledge that we are a part of that world not merely overseers that often fail at the task or that realize that one seemingly insignificant experience in which nature caresses our spirit can bring peace to our tired souls. I have had the good fortune to experience those moments, some sought, others gifted to me by a universe that identifies the need and unwraps the opportunity if we are willing recipients.
Several years ago after a week of stress at work and home, unending traffic jams, and a mountain of responsibilities I was presented with a gift that will forever remain in my memory. It was one of those rare moments when the gulf that separates humans from their primal origins is rent.
One of my favorite birding spots was an isolated area only minutes from home. A trail leads through woodland beyond which are an extensive marsh and an open habitat of fields and scrub. The marshes are nesting habitat for bittern, Northern Harrier and Sedge Wren, a variety of ducks, coots, moorhens, and rails. The surrounding woodlands provide suitable habitat for a plethora of songbirds including warblers, House Wren, Eastern Pewee, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Wood Thrush and more. Kestrels, sharp-shins, coopers and red-tails are also found here. The very lucky will observe the Peregrine Falcon dancing across the sky performing loop-the-loops, figure eights and tumbles. It is a nature lover’s paradise.
On this particular day the weather was sublime: the fingers of the rising sun played its sacred song in eternal celebration above a cloudless periwinkle sky, the temperate embraced the world with a warm hug and gentle breezes whispered to vibrating leaves the arrival of another day. The sweet fragrance of clover filled the air, a cardinal’s lips
declared the morn, crow transcended gravity, a diminutive warbler skittered through the branches of a sapling and goldfinch stole seed from atop teasel.
Twenty feet down the trail as I watched a cormorant speed past to unknown tasks a call broke the air with fervent disdain. Chuck, chuck. Behind, to the right, hiding among the
undergrowth, unseen, it called again. Slowly with the stealth of a cat, retracing footsteps taken, vainly I searched the dark recesses of the earth’s carpet. Chuck, chuck, movement,
secreted by the frolicking foliage. Flitting into sight, lighting on a branch, a thrush came into view. Which one? Then out from the thickets it dashed to a bush in front of me, its white eye ring, spotted breast and reddish tail that gleamed in the sunlight declared its name - Hermit Thrush. Still as a summer’s evening lest it fly away, I watched. Moments
passed before I grasped that this small, shy woodland bird was studying me with the same intensity that I was it. Perhaps it was wondering what this enormous, immovable and strange creature could be. Or was I imagining that it was looking at me, was it merely wishful thinking on my part? A mosquito drank a healthy gulp from my arm, another buzzed my ear but I dared not move knowing that once I did the bird would fly. How many minutes passed is only for the timekeeper of the world to know but during that interval the bird hopped from branch to branch, turning one eye and then the other, always on me. The mosquito that had feasted well most assuredly had trumpeted the call that there was a meal to be had for soon there was a feeding frenzy and I was the dinner so with regret I moved on entrusting the incident to the storehouse of memories. As I walked away the soft chuck sounded behind me and as I turned the world of the
impossible opened, it was following me, ahead, behind and next to me like a puppy on a lease. Twenty, fifty, a hundred feet down the trail the thrush remained near. Unable to bear it any longer I stopped once again to cherish the wonder of the moment convinced that now it would fly away. It was perched ten feet ahead, it cocked its head and took to wing but rather than returning to the woodland understory that is its home it flew to a branch not five feet away, so close that I could have reached out and touched it. After a few moments we continued down the trail to the wood’s edge where as quickly as it had
appeared it fled. I heard chuck,chuck one last time.
In over thirty years of observing nature I have had numerous strange, wonderful and at times heart stopping moments. I have witnessed the dramatic courtship ritual of a Red-tailed Hawk pair locking talons and somersaulting to earth until it appeared they would crash into the ground but at the last minute releasing their grip. Another time I came upon a five inch Yellow Warbler feeding a young cowbird twice its size and there was the time that I was fortunate to observe a male cardinal’s mating display, one that is both comical and spell binding as he struts in front of her head bobbing from side to side, red crest held high while emitting portions of their familiar song. Chickadees have eaten seed from my hand; I have stood within five feet of a Northern Saw-whet Owl. Birds and mammals alike have stopped, taken a quick look before flying, sauntering or speeding away or at times staying close until the tiniest of movement on my part sends them fleeing. Each of those encounters and many others have straightforward explanations but how to account for the inexplicable – a notably shy bird that hides among the woodland’s floor
disregarded its nature to spend time with a creature that would normally cause it to flee. How to explain the unfathomable? Better not to try, merely accept with gratitude those moments that the universe reveals itself, simply say thank you for the gift.