On Birding and Time

This, like many things lately, is a different type of content from The Wild Life. Who knew you could learn so much about authentic expression and finding yourself from producing a podcast? In this episode, I go out for a birding excursion with a major time constraint and ponder on my relationship with time itself.

If you’re listening or reading this, I would really appreciate some feedback or a simple “hello” so that I can get an idea of, well, if anyone is really out there, and if anyone has any thoughts on the show.


It’s May 24th, 2022. 7:45 am

The air is autumn apple crisp and the sun is glowing softly through a blanket of downy clouds.

I was the first car in the parking lot. I guess not many others shared the same thought that I had for starting a Tuesday morning.

In fairness, most days I wouldn’t have had the thought either. I’m trying to do better. Well, feel better. I, like so many, have found myself stuck in a pattern of actively doing things that I know aren’t good for me, helpful for my mental health, or things that I know will only make things worse. 

Yet, I know the things that do help. I know what makes me happy. I know what I love. I just, I don’t know…having an awareness about it comes with a sense of guilt like I’m engaging in self-sabotage.

I’m walking down a path no more than 6 feet wide, not long after a deer if the tracks are any indication. On my right is a small wetland. Snake grass and cattails, adorned by the occasional red osier dogwood. On my left, the water quickly drains as the lichen armored alder forest takes hold. Color bursts from the ground like geysers in the form of sporadic marsh marigolds.

There: Two orange-beaked yellow birds, one capped with black, the other a color resembling what’s left when a yellow marker picks up black ink. They’re perched on two spindly, low-hanging branches of an indecisive red oak which juts sharply to the right ⅓ way up before correcting itself back upward. It’s a male and female American Goldfinch.

They make a dive, skimming the surface of the grass below as they make their way to a birch tree across the path with a bouncy undulation like that of a beating heart. Presumably, a breeding pair judging by their nearly identical call in flight.

I’d recognize that sound anywhere. Where are you? 

There you are.

A gray catbird. I mean, sometimes common names are confusing or misleading. Not this one.

A medium-sized, long-tailed, stormy gray bird with a black cap and cinnamon undertones. They’re excellent mimics. Some of their songs last as long as 10 minutes. Before I knew what they were, I genuinely wondered why there seemed to be many stray cats in the woods around here. 

I’m not sure what it is about the act of birdwatching that brings me so much peace. Maybe it’s in part because it requires a certain amount of presentness that I don’t experience often. It’s a pause in time, that really puts into perspective how fleeting time is. It’s a lens on living that, of what life and time spent could be, if only I, we,  made different choices.

Come to think of it, my time here is fleeting. I have to be at work at 8:30 and yet here I am, staring at birds with awe and envy. I’m limited on time but I have to know if she’s here.

Time to keep moving.

I continue down the blooming green corridor, the wetland on my right losing depth as moss-covered boulders and fallen trees emerge in the sort of no man’s land that divides it from the forest. I take a right, at a towering birch, which, if you didn’t look higher than 6 feet, you would think was an oak judging by the thick brown bark at its base. 

Damn.

Mud I can handle, but I’m wearing white shoes…before work…and the path ahead of me is a mixture of 2-3 inch deep water and a thick oobleck soup of mud and water.

I can get around this.

Off-trail I go, around an exposed root system reminiscent of a metropolitan interstate system, through a patch of buckthorn, god I hate that stuff, into a low squat beneath some sugar maple branches, and…screw it, I’ll walk through the mud from here…

The trail turns dry as it transitions to gravel and grass, and there’s an opening in the trees ahead which is letting through a windows-down-at-30-mph breeze. I’m almost to the prairie, which means I’m almost to her…

I hope

Out of the forest, sort of. This prairie exists as a bubble within the forest as a whole. 400 or so feet wide across, extending ⅓ mile or so back, surrounded by trees and trails on all sides with a sometimes pond, well, right in front of me. This is one of the times it is here. I love this time of year. I know it’s officially Spring when I begin to hear the western chorus frogs and spring peepers.

You know what I like about birding? No decisions. No anxiety. Just, existence.

The thing about life is, our every decision is based on either a past experience or an expectation, or hope, of some future. And it doesn’t have to be about only big things. It can be decisions about trying a new snack instead of your usual go-to.

The point is, we spend a majority of our present influenced by the past and endless possible futures.

This only makes sense. It’s essential to our survival. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes and a lack of planning and foresight could have equally devastating effects.

Those of us who struggle with anxiety have an overamplified focus on endless possible futures. In a different context, it may be considered a superpower of sorts, being able to foresee how poorly events may go in order to filter through the chaos and settle on the path with the least negative impact. Sometimes, you can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s overwhelmingly brilliant, and so instead you freeze like a deer in the headlights, crippled by the decisions to be made.

Oh my god, I can’t think of what that damn bird is…

There’s a western chorus frog. They, like many frogs of the north, astound me. The fact that they spend their winters frozen beneath leaf litter and the muddy bottoms of ponds, just to wake back up as the weather warms as if nothing happened…just wow.

I’m gonna lose it…what is that bird?

There’s another catbird, some red-wings, some silently cruising mallards…

Anyway, what was I thinking about? Oh yeah, freezing

Those of us who struggle with depression have an overamplified focus on the past, wishing things to be the way they were or having extreme difficulty accepting current circumstances and taking one step at a time from there. In some ways, those with depression are also hyperfocused on the future, except in this case, clarity of what that future is or what they could be is lacking. Something simply doesn’t feel right in the present. You don’t entirely know what, but you know you want things to change, yet you don’t know-how, or simply can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

If you experience both anxiety and depression, you are one of the lucky ones who gets to be haunted by their perceived and experienced past, as well as their possible futures, a majority of which see things going irrationally wrong.

Either way, the outcome is essentially the same: you aren’t living.

I’ve spent too much time in the prairie, I should turn back if I’m ever gonna have the time to see her.

If she’s even back.

Oh Oh! I got it. A common yellow throat, a small warbler, olive green and sandy with the exception of a bold black mask topped with white trim and an intensely yellow throat.

Canada geese fly overhead. What if reincarnation is real? Can you imagine coming back as one of those and that’s the sound that you make?

Living. Oh yeah, not living.

Here’s why.

The past and the future don’t really exist.

It sounds crazy, I know, but hear me out.

What I mean is, you could replace the words past and future with memories and dreams. It’s all a matter of temporal perspective.

In the precise moment I am saying this, I have done so in the past, present, and future. Which depends entirely on an arbitrary timestamp. If I pick the exact millisecond I pronounce a letter, I have long been in the future from that moment, everything prior was the past, and the present moment has long since shifted from the actual sound to where I am now.

There’s that frog again. Sounds like running your fingers down a fine-toothed comb. Anyway…

The present is simply the exact moment of now. Hell, even the thoughts that come to my mind before I type them were signaled by my brain long before I perceived them as my internal monologue. This actually all connects to something else I discuss with my students. How the whole universe is essentially information transmitted in some capacity, and with any transmission there is some type of lag, some in-between from the sending to the receiving.

A topic for another day.

I could leave the prairie a few different ways. 3 days ago I saw a cooper’s hawk in the tree by the hill. What are the odds it’s in the same spot today? Probably slim. What the hell, let’s see.

I’m making my way back down the gravel trail that borders the sometimes prairie pond, listening and looking for anything new. I veer left into the grass, towards the ephemeral pond where I last saw the hawk. No such luck today. Up the hill and over…quietly. I don’t want to scare anything away.

What time is it? Oh crap. There’s no way I’m gonna make it back to her and then back to the parking lot in enough time to get to work by 8:30. I should just turn around. I can come check on her later. 

I pause.

Damn my curiosity. Overcoming my need to know what’s around the next corner is like putting a onesie on a kangaroo. Good luck with that.

If I walk fast enough, maybe I’ll make it.

Anyway, what was I on about? Oh yeah, the point I am trying to make is this. When we focus on the past, all that really means is that we are in our head focused on our memories. The past is not a tangible physical place, it’s data logged in your brain. When we focus on the future, we’re simply in our heads using flowcharts and attempting to make cause and effect predictions, most of which are highly unlikely outcomes that our brains are only formulating to ensure our survival, but more so like a helicopter parent than a seasoned and practical survivalist. Can dreams be a positive thing? Absolutely! But dreams can also be nightmares, and anxiety ensures that.

The end result is the same, instead of being aware of our surroundings and our actual present, we are spending our life in our thoughts. Every single second that ticks by is a second that no longer exists, and a second of our lives that is now gone. Every single second spent in our heads thinking about the future, is a second into our actual future (now present) that we were making wild predictions that more than likely never came to fruition.

Oh, someone else is out here. A woman, maybe mid 40’s. Shoulder-length brown hair, sunglasses, bright blue North Face zip up, and a Jack Russel terrier.

“Hi”

Oh god, I forgot I have blue hair right now.

Blue hair, done up like the joker, not dressed for the outdoors, binoculars, recording device, sweaty forehead that undoubtedly looks like I’m in one of those old Gatorade commercials. I probably look like a crazy person. 

Oh well, I guess.

I zone out. And only pop back into the front of my brain when I see the metal wire barrier reflecting out of the green at my 2.

I quiet my steps as I approach the edge. It’s a nearly 100-foot-deep pit in the ground. An old quarry. On the other side 130 feet away and about 10 feet down is a ledge. A ledge where for the last 4 years or so, she has been. A great horned owl and her nest. Always two eggs. Not always two make it. She’s normally here and nesting by now, but…okay binoculars let’s focus….sigh…not this year.

I wonder where she is? I’ve grown really fond of her over the years. Her inquisitive eyes. Her and her eggs precariously placed on a sloped granite ledge.

Great horned owls typically live 10-13 years in the wild. God, I’d hate to think that…I hope not. But I guess, that is life after all. One moment it’s here, the next…

Maybe she’s found someplace new.

This is weirdly hard on me. Like she’s just an owl…I’ll probably keep on checking until my denial subsides…

Crap, the time! Okay, back to the parking lot. No more time to stop and watch.

I pick up the pace, the gaps between the sounds of crunching gravel lessening. 

And I’m back in my thoughts. I just was thinking about how I don’t always need to be excavating memories and conjuring up dreams. Can you be quiet for 10 seconds?

No…

Of course, expecting to not be in our heads excavating memories and conjuring up dreams is a damn near impossibility. That’s how we function. That’s how we survive. That’s how we make educated decisions. But, and there’s always a but, spending too much of our time like that isn’t good for us either. We may be surviving, but we aren’t living.

Life is more than simply being alive, right? It’s about joy, and relationships, and experiences. All of those things are happening right now. Pay attention.

Shit. I tripped. Must have hit pause on my recorder because this is where the audio stops. 8 more minutes go by before I make it back to the parking lot at 8:28 am. Yeah, I’m gonna be late. I hit end on my eBird checklist, pack up my gear, and peel out of the parking lot. I made it to work by 8:35. Not bad!

You know, getting out of your head, the past, the future, and into the present can be difficult, but there are some strategies that can help.

If you need help, my favorite strategy, one that I use with my students, is called grounding. I especially like the 5-4-3-2-1 Method. When you find you’re spending more of your time as a narrator rather than the protagonist, pause and ask yourself the following:

What are 5 things I can see?

What are 4 things I can feel?

What are 3 things I can hear?

What are 2 things I can smell?

What is one thing I can taste?

and breathe.

I hope that someone out there comes across this someday and finds some peace or comradery in my ramblings.

Thank you for listening.

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The Wild Life was created in January of 2017 by, me, Devon Bowker (He/They) after finishing my degree in wildlife biology. It’s been amazing to see how things have changed over the past 5 years, both personally and here. I have tons of ideas and projects in the works and cannot wait to share them with you. Whether you’re a long-time follower or new to The Wild Life, thank you for being here.

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