Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Birding for the Soul

The natural world is a gateway to the timeless and the infinite. We can never understand it completely, and so for us it serves as a bridge to the infinite.
 -- Thomas Moore, "Ageless Soul"

"These are the times that try men's souls," MH tells me as we slowly walk down a gentle incline, kicking through beech, red oak, white oak and tulip poplar leaves, trying to avoid the rocks and roots. He is not talking about what's going on in the world now. He is quoting Thomas Paine regarding George Washington and the War of Independence.

Looking back up from the hollow. (Margo D. Beller)
We are on a narrow trail through woods at the Morristown (NJ) National Historic Park known as Jockey Hollow. Washington and his army camped at Jockey Hollow twice, the first time for a few months in the winter of 1777 and then for a longer period starting in the winter of 1779 - much more time than the better-known winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pa.

I do not like winter, and since my last post on the subject, MH's father died. As we walk in the woods, past tall, century-old trees that sprang up after Washington's army left after clearing the original trees to build huts and cook their food, it is cold and quiet, only us except for the occasional dog walker.

There are a lot of hills and valleys in this park. This particular trail, named for the New York State Brigade, is leading to what may be THE hollow for which this park is named.

Our hike here was not planned. I stopped here because I like driving the paved tour road through Jockey Hollow when we are headed elsewhere, and then I had to make a stop to adjust something. MH suggested we hike the path near us. Our motivations were different. I was looking for a place for us to walk and maybe hear a few birds. He was thinking of our recent hike at Washington Crossing State Park, the area where, on Christmas 1776, Washington brought his army across the Delaware River into New Jersey to surprise the British at the Battle of Trenton. We hiked near the river after looking at the artifacts at the park's museum. I was not expecting to find any unusual birds but I was pleasantly surprised to find a yellow-bellied sapsucker - a woodpecker I rarely see in our backyard - and a brown creeper.

Brown creeper, front yard (Margo D. Beller)
So here we were at Jockey Hollow. We walked a long while before we heard the contact calls of black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice and juncos, but MH heard something else - the scream of a red-tailed hawk. I did not hear it the first time but I did the second time, and so did the birds, which went quiet. I set about trying to find it with my binoculars. We slowly continued along the path.

Then, it flew from one tree to another.

I watched it watching me. It called several times. It must've been a juvenile - a male, judging by its size (female red-tails are larger) - because an adult would know that screaming would not get it any supper, winged or otherwise. Finally, it got tired of watching me and flew off. A minute or so later, the small birds started chattering again and MH said he wanted to start the hike back up the hill to our car.

I did not want to leave. A few winters ago I had to have surgery, and in the long recovery afterwards I only started to feel like myself again - well - when I went to the local park and started walking along the familiar trail and tried to find the birds I heard calling, something I enjoy doing.

Another red-tail in another tree
(Margo D. Beller)
In his new book, "Ageless Soul," Thomas Moore makes the point that there is a difference between aging well and getting old. As with the other book I recently read about global warming, this book has made me see another view of what I consider a negative experience. You can't change time. You can't make yourself younger, no matter how many pills you take or how much plastic surgery you have.

What you can do is enjoy the world around you, expand your horizons and make a difference.

"Work without play is a burden," he writes. "Play helps relieve some of the weight of labor."

For me, play is going outside for a walk and trying to find and identify birds, even if they are familiar ones I can see at the feeder from my kitchen. Birding is good for the soul and has been a way to help me heal through several winters of personal and professional changes.

The starkness of winter, Jockey Hollow (Margo D. Beller)
I think of all those Saturday mornings I felt compelled to get up and out of the house and go birding after a particularly hellish week when I was working in the city, away from home for 12 hours a day including work hours and the commute. Since working from home I sometimes feel a waning in my birding interest. "I've seen all these birds before. Why bother going outside?" I thought. That, I now know, is the wrong attitude.

As Moore writes, "[I]f you work without play, that soul work is neglected, and your work doesn't age you well. You get older as the years pass, but you don't get better as a person."

Like Scrooge on Christmas morning, I now know I can change my ways before it is too late.

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