Culture & Criticism Since 2003
One cold and windy morning about ten years ago, I was waiting for the bus at the shopping center in Mount Shasta, California. Errands were done, and the bus wasn’t due for another half hour, so I tried to read the local paper, but gusts of wind were making the task difficult. And then all of a sudden I heard the distinct alarm-ding-a car makes when you open the door with the key still in the ignition. I glanced up, curious to see which car was dinging. But no car engine noises, and no signs of people nearby. I shrugged, and resumed trying to read the flapping pages.
But just as suddenly, I heard that dinging again; this time it was coming from behind me. Directly in back of me stood a small patch of unimproved wetlands, fringed by sickly cedars and discouraged hawthorns. Beyond that was a car-charging station and a hotel. The windy day made it hard to track sounds.
But again – the dinging. Only now it wasn’t just behind me, it was above me, too. “Hell of a place to park a car,” I thought to myself. I looked up, and a large raven in the nearest cedar peered back down. The bird opened its mouth and dinged. Then it cocked its head and gave me that one-eyed glare ravens delight in as it sidestepped along the branch. I imagine if that bird could have broken into a wicked grin at that very moment, it certainly would have.
Later that night, I told my wife the raven I’d seen was likely a male, and what I heard was probably his mating call. He was hoping for an escort. Failing that, a Malibu or an Outback.
In retrospect, I was probably not far off the mark with that joke. Birds have incredible plumage and build fantastic nests, engaging in complex and amazing dances to attract a mate. It stood to reason that a bird that could mimic as well as a raven would come up with as unique and challenging a sound as possible to attract just the right bird.
I recalled this day from long ago, and the dozens of other unique interactions I’ve had with birds over the years, while reading Michael Baughman‘s marvelous new collection, An Old Man Remembering Birds (Oregon University Press).
I’m not a bird watcher nor an ornithologist, and I tend to think of birds as just part of the background hum of life, particularly here in the mountains of Northern California. Nevertheless, just as happened with me, nearly everyone reading Baughman’s new book is likely going to recollect similar experiences when birds touched their lives in mysterious, exasperating and entertaining ways. And Baughman writes:
“[We] feed the birds because we need them. To maintain the link between ourselves and Tolstoy’s Nature—Our Nature—we need to see them, hear them, simply know they’re there.”
Baughman’s journey with birds began over 60 years ago, in Waikiki, when he encountered an injured Myna chick. With the help of a local groundskeeper, he nursed the chick. But this story has a tragic ending which serves as fair warning to the reader: These aren’t going to be happy little pieces of fluff about cute birds singing in the trees. Instead, these are real life stories reflecting the ways creatures – both human and avian —try to get along in this world. And as Baughman observes, their shared experience is universal.
Baughman left Hawaii and moved to Southern Oregon 50 years ago to teach literature, and the creatures and forests of his current locale look very similar to the terrain where I live. But that hardly matters. You could live in London, Bangkok, or the Gobi, and have similar stories to tell. As Baughman shows us, birds and humans relate in much the same ways where-ever they coexist.
Baughman tells some cracking good stories in his book, and they open many doors for the reader. I’ve personally refrained from sharing any of his stories in this review because they should be discovered fresh by each individual reader. Ultimately, Baughman’s tales should invoke your own personal, animal-centered vignettes, and my initial perceptions shouldn’t color yours.
But here’s a taste of the movie I saw and heard while reading An Old Man Remembering Birds:
“A titanic snowstorm, lights out, town closed, so silent I could hear the hiss of the falling snow. Then the sound of geese, somehow flying southward in the middle of this monster storm. My dog’s stymied, frustrated expression when a raven learned to mimic his bark exactly. The protracted and sometimes violent war between my Russian blue cat and the local Steller’s Jays who consider his fur prime nesting material. The diffuse disappointment we felt one spring when that eccentric finch we called ‘Four Note Charlie’ didn’t reappear to add his unique call. And the sound of a raven flapping his wings on a chill March morning…”
If you’re lucky, you’ll have similar experiences as you make your way through Baughman’s book. In the end, these stories were written to teach us to appreciate the birds in the trees that inform and enrich us on a multiplicity of levels.
Bryan Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Canada and raised in London. He has lived in the Mount Shasta area since 1990, which he regards as the finest place on earth. Jamieson has spent the past 25 years as a graphic layout technician, web designer and writer, with over a thousand essays, a dozen short stories, and two novels – Ice Fall and Snow Fall – to his credit. In addition to his wife of 30-plus years, he normally lives with a dog and several cats, none of whom are impressed by him. Reach him through The Electric Review.