If I had a blog, today I would write about the importance of The Mystery Bird.
The ultimate objective of birdwatching is, of course, identifying what you have seen, but this year I have come to realize that the best sightings are the ones that defy identification. A few days ago, Mom and I hiked down to the river and as we approached the field we call Big Valley, a flurry of activity in the wild rose bushes caught our attention. Mom was on point with her binoculars and I homed in with my telephoto lens, trying to make sense of the shadowy forms flitting about among the thorns. We identified two cardinals, a brown thrasher, and several sparrows, but then a flash of orange and white caught our attention. The bird was robin-sized, but robin’s have no white. The body was black or dark brown, but the shade of the underbrush made it hard to tell. Was the white on the wing or the breast? Was the breast orange or was it the wing? I took a couple of less-than-stellar pictures to look at when we got home, but until then, identification would have to wait.
Mom and I continued along the path Dad created in the swampy river bottom and there were birds at every turn. Goldfinches picked apart the seed-pods of poppy mallow, field sparrows gleaned the tall meadow grasses, and woodpeckers chattered at us from the trees at the edge of the valley. As much fun as it was to see our well-known bird friends, my mind kept turning back to our Mystery Bird and every time I thought of him, I could feel endorphins flooding my brain. There was something magical about seeing something unknown, something that didn’t quite make sense.
On the walk home, I thought about the rapture I felt when confronted with even a small slice of the unknown and it occurred to me that we need mystery in our lives as much as we need air to breathe, food to eat, and water to drink. The desire to explore, to learn, and to understand is part of our DNA, part of what makes us human.
The lack of curiosity I see in the world today troubles me. We work, we shop, we watch television, and we sleep. That is the daily round of most people. Weekends are for sleeping or watching sporting events or trying to catch up on chores. It leaves little time for awakening the part of our brain, of our soul, that craves exploration. We rush to and from work under a canopy of stars, yet we have no interest in the vastness of space. We mow the lawn and fill bird feeders, but we don’t identify the birds who depend on us, and we venture into the natural world with the goal of calories burned or miles traversed. Exploration is a dying art and with its death goes part of that which makes our species unique and beneficial to the world.
In all honesty, my 90-Day Journey to the Solstice is my way of staying awake to the world. I am as guilty as anyone of letting my “To Do List” rather than my “Bucket List” run my day, so I try to combine the two and give myself an opportunity to explore my own little corner of the world. Once I’m out in the woods, I feel dim parts of my brain light up as dormant neurons fire back and forth across their synapses; I feel life infiltrate every part of my body and, for a time, I feel part of something that defies description: A universe so vast and so full of mysteries it staggers the mind and scintillates the soul. For a time, I do not feel alone.
As it happens, our Mystery Bird was a Rufus-Sided Towhee. They are fairly common in our part of the country and both Mom and I have seen them before. On the same excursion we also identified two other newbies: The Lincoln’s sparrow and the clay-colored sparrow, also common migrants this time of year. Despite the fact that we had not discovered a new species or seen a migrant from Timbuktu, we counted our journey a success. You see, it is not the answer to the question that is important. All that truly matters is to have the willingness to ask.