Un-Common

Photo by Rose Elena

Anyone who’s traveled with me knows I’m crazy about birds. Boating across The Netherlands, friends laughed at my incessant waterfowl photography (quickly dubbed Duck Porn.) In Zimbabwe, I destabilized our canoe after spying a Little bee-eater — not a smart move, what with hippos and crocs skimming the water only moments before.

And we won’t even talk about the Spruce grouse incident in Alaska.

It all goes back to my “spark bird,” a Great egret spotted in 1979 on my first day in Georgia. He was mesmerizing to a six-year-old Washington-state transplant, barely his equal in size. I named him Aristotle, because he looked old and wise, and delighted in his occasional appearances for years.

My mom loved birds, too. Northern cardinals were her favorite, but their ubiquitousness bored me. Life was too short for the mundane, and I was willing to travel to the ends of the earth to find the rare and exquisite.

It took twenty years and strangers from across the country to show which one of us was the real sophisticate.

One cold Saturday morning in 2012, I took a group out on a birding walk at the nature center where I worked. A couple visiting from California lost their marbles when a cardinal appeared in a barren tree against the winter sky. There were far more exciting birds overhead, like Northern harriers and Cooper’s hawks, but that flash of red was all they could talk about.

An hour later, the couple was still going on about how lucky I was to see something that breathtaking every day, and my mind raced to figure out exactly when I had become so jaded. Good grief, had I recently referred to cardinals as trash birds? Somebody punch me.

Embarrassed and repentant, I looked at the woods around my office with new eyes. So much for me being the guide.

It was easy to slip back into old habits, though, and to walk around with blinders on in my own backyard. But that lesson came to mind at dinner the other night, as Brad and I swapped stories about the day’s events. He had baked bread with the back door open, while a bird sang its head off for hours. “I know it was just a mockingbird,” he said, “but it was beautiful.”

Just. Just a mockingbird.

Mockingbirds are a dime-a-dozen here, but does that make their ability to mimic hundreds of calls any less astounding? When a “trash bird” belts out hour upon hour of unbridled song, is it any less enthralling than a symphony?

I’m beginning to question our automatic disregard of the common.

Philosopher Alain de Botton agrees, as he writes in “Art is Therapy” that:

We are confused about the merits of rarity. Because good things are in short supply, we might unreasonably conclude that being in short supply is a requirement, a sign, of quality. We start to get impressed by rarity itself. This is an unfortunate habit of mind. Actually we should resent rarity…

Since that dinner, I’ve tried to lose my marbles at least once a day. To be impressed by the quality of the quotidian. Like when a robin clucks in the trees beyond the farm’s blueberry bushes. Or when one of the dozens of blue herons around here wades in the Chattahoochee, fishing at dusk. Or when a Carolina chickadee sings those same four notes over and over again as I leave the barn first thing in the morning to begin harvesting.

And when a cardinal hovers in a nearby tree, I hear Mom’s voice in that bright metallic chip, and allow my breath to be taken away.

Photo by Suzanne D. Williams 

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