An Ornithologist’s Response

I wish I could write only about birds.

view through a rainy window of pines, larches, and trees that had been burned in a forest fire.

That I could go back to how it was, when my dreams held shards of words and images of flitting sparrows, dreams of opening eyes to the wonder of the natural world through birds. Dreams of articulating connections with the earth so deep I feel the words but cannot speak them. These dreams are skies filled with murmurations of starlings, clouds of thousands of birds, so thick that all I can do is stand and watch as they swarm around me in mesmerizingly complex shapes. A cohesive flock responding as one but with no leader, sinuously pulsating and shifting, no bird touching another, close enough that I can feel the air from their wings as they pass inches from my face.

I want to write about the dipper, the water ouzel, the small dark bird the color of wet slate, a bird that lives the streams of my heart-country here in the West. The dipper pliés along the stream’s edge, barely visible against the slick-black rocks. Waiting, dancing a ballet in time to the music of the stream, bended legs and wings suddenly propel the bird into the water where it dives, plucking insects from under rocks to feed its growing young. I watch dippers when I need assurance that the world is not as harsh as it appears to be. The truths of the individuals are the truths of the species, we tell ourselves. I cannot watch all dippers to know what they do, as much as I might wish to. My sample size is only a tiny fraction of the whole. It’s accepted that what we see in these few means something about them all. As an ornithologist I accept this to be true, but as a human I sometimes refuse the evidence.

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Letter to the Editor; Orion Magazine

A shorter version of this letter to the editor was published in the Autumn 2018 issue.

As I read Benjamin Rachlin’s “Prescription for Change,” I couldn’t help but think about how the environment, these places that so many of us love dearly, could be destroying us. Destroying us as we humans have worked so diligently to destroy them. Perhaps not destroying us, but disabling us.

Though disease is not equivalent with disability, and most especially disability is not equivalent with disease, this article prompted thoughts on the effects of the environment on the experience of disability.

People with disabilities have long known how the environment affects health, and how changing the environment can have positive, or negative, effects on their lives. When our environment becomes unfavorable to healthy living, we become impaired. This is the social model of disability: that impairment is a function of external characteristics—the physical environment, societal attitudes, systemic barriers—not individual ones. Someone who uses a wheelchair isn’t disabled because they cannot walk; they are disabled because they cannot live up to societal norms, which are designed, for the most part, by those who are able-bodied. When we are in environments that allow us to be healthy and to live as we choose, we are not impaired, no matter our physical or mental diagnoses.

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This Is Excellent

And I thought, okay, okay, this is excellent.

I do not deserve more.

This is what you stash away and hope to remember when your time on the earth is just about over.”


— William Booth


Summer evening in Wilson, Wyoming.
August 2012.

Wildlife Linkspam for Your Reading Pleasure

If you haven’t been reading Rebecca’s nature blog, Rebecca In The Woods,  you should be! She’s a fantastic writer, and always has interesting observations about the natural world. She also has a link to my Cuteness Scale Poll, which if you haven’t taken yet you should! I’ve only had 12 people take it so far, I’m shooting for a much larger sample size before I start doing any stats. We need significant numbers here people, so let’s go!

And in the meantime, also check out Rebecca’s blog. Makes for some great reading!

Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog

I just got back from spending 13 days in the Yellowstone/Grand Teton area with my family. There will most likely be a series of blogs about this epic travel journey (and epic it was) once I go through all my pictures and videos, which may take days. I take a lot of pictures.

While you’re waiting breathlessly for my next post, read this book: Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, by Ted Kerasote. It’s quite good. Excellent, really. I picked it up at a Goodwill somewhere, liking the picture on the cover (Merle the dog on a mountain top) and I’m glad I did. I’d even consider paying full price for this one, which is saying a lot since I buy most of my books from Goodwill for $1 or less.

Bogie is particularly enthralled with the book.

However, I would not recommend reading the ending on a plane, especially not while sitting between a middle-aged man and a just-barely-post-adolescent man, both strangers. I cried. Twice. Well, I did manage to keep in the body-heaving sobs, but my eyes definitely teared up. If this book doesn’t at least give your heart a wrench, you probably don’t have a soul. I don’t normally cry when I read– in fact, I can’t really think of any other time reading when I was tempted to (not even when J.K. Rowling offed Dumbledore- but I think I was in shock)– so that says something about the poignancy of the subject and the writing.

The book is set out West, primarily in Kelly, Wyoming (in the shadows of the Tetons, where we were on vacation). Basically, the book is about Ted and his dog, Merle, and their lives together, starting when Ted finds Merle in the Utah desert and ending with Merle’s death (hence the plane sobbing). The book not only follows the relationship of Ted and Merle, but also delves into the relationships between people and dogs, where they originated, and how those relationships have evolved since then. Excellent writing, excellent subject, excellent book.

Our pets have it rough in the Smith household.

From the prologue:
“This is the story of one dog, my dog, Merle. It’s also the story of every dog who must live in an increasingly urbanized world, and how these dogs might lead happier lives if we changed some of our behavior rather than always trying to change theirs.
…[W]hat he taught me about living with a dog can be applied anywhere. His lessons weren’t so much about giving dogs physical doors to the outside world, although that’s important, but about providing ones that open onto the mental and emotional terrain that will develop a dog’s potential. His lessons weren’t about training, but about partnership. They were never about method; they were about attitude.And at the heart of this attitude is a person’s willingness to loosen a dog’s leash– in all aspects of its life– and, whenever practical, to take off its leash completely, allowing the dog to learn on its own, following its nose and running free.”

Ted Kerasote’s website, with information about this book and his others, including newer books about his dog after Merle:

Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, by Ted Kerasote.
c. 2007 by Harcourt, Inc.

The words of the world

Vedauwoo, Wyoming 2011
Washington D.C. 2011

I like to think that everything is made up of words. If you looked deep enough, instead of atoms you’d find that everything is a microscopic mass of words, quietly composing themselves into living things. Like atoms, words are always moving, vibrating in place with possibility, giving everything definition and substanance.

Utah 2011
Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina 2010
Words are life, they are everything I see and hear. Everything has its own words even if we can’t translate them.
Empidonax flycatcher, Erie Pennsylvania 2011
Glacier National Park, Montana 2009

I want to be a translator.
I want my words, the words of me, my essence, to be part of the words of the world. That’s all anyone wants, to be part of their surroundings, to be a thread in the fabric of life, to be part of the whole. If my thread wasn’t here, who would be in my place? Without my words, my noise, what sound would there be? There would be words to fill my gap, but the whole composition would be altered. Or so I choose to believe.

Cooper’s Hawk, Erie Pennsylvania 2011
Zion National Park, Utah 2008

We all need to be spoken and read.

Aullwood Audubon Center and Farm, Dayton Ohio 2009
New York City, New York 2011