“The earth is not just the environment we live in. We are the earth and we are always carrying her within us.” Thich Nhat Hahn
In the early 1970s, I lived alone in a one bedroom cottage in a pocket of private land within the confines of Yosemite National Park. I worked at the Wawona Hotel, an historic Victorian design dating back to 1876. The hotel operated seasonally, from March through October. During the off season, I collected unemployment, tried to write, and traveled.
The cottage rented for $85.00 per month. These days, it is a short term rental and runs $182.00 a night. Right next door to me was an identical unit. During the five years of my stay, its occupants came and went. One winter, it housed an itinerant National Park junkie named Jimbo.
Jimbo was burly in build, borderline obese, a soft spoken bear of a man with bad ankles, and a full beard. His gentle soul chose, like me, to navigate life low on the food chain. He had recently departed Grand Teton National Park. He had a singular passion for bird watching. We became fast friends.
Together, we tramped through the surrounding forest, onto the meadows, and along the shore of the South Fork of the Merced River. He labored on his stressed ankles but rarely missed our daily walks, all the while educating me on the wonders of our avian neighbors.
In the evening we dined on simple fare. Our favorite was boxed macaroni and cheese dishes, enhanced with tuna fish and a red onion. Without a TV or radio, we relied on my small collection of vinyl records for entertainment. We played chess or discussed the day’s discoveries, passing back and forth his copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds. So it was we shared the muted wilderness of that winter. Eventually, intimations of spring aroused a restlessness in Jimbo. Without ceremony, he departed one day for the wilds of Wyoming. I never saw or heard from him again.
In his absence, I purchased a two-year subscription to Audobon magazine. The wonders of birdlife captured my inquisitive soul. And, this being decades prior to the internet and the University of Google, my options for more information were few. The forest became my library and the magazine its research material.
Each month I’d glean information from the glossy pages. Essays and photographs, regional status reports and international trends expanded my understanding. However, an underlying theme emerged and cast shade on ornithology. Even the most bouyant articles or photo essays warned of the numerous dangers facing birds. Habitat loss, prolific use of pesticides, and unregulated game management represented some of the threats. It was in the 70s when the distant thunder of global warming first rumbled behind the horizon of my consciousness.
Later, I would come to sadly accept the words of Aldo Leopold from his A Sand County Almanac: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”
My awareness of birdlife evolved, long after the subscription to Audobon came to an end. But other activities diverted the passive momentum of my life. One winter I played harmonica and sang with a jug band. I fell in love with the washboard player. We moved in together. We married. We immigrated to New Zealand. Two years later we returned to Yosemite for one final twelve month fling in its wonderland. Then, we headed north to Oregon to raise a family.
These days, I am still living in the 70s. Only, now it’s my age group and not a period of history. Due to the quasi quarantine of the pandemic, my life is uniquely quiet, much like it was 50 years ago. I see few people. I read, I write, and play my ukulele. I walk alone along the Columbia River and observe the numerous waterfowl. I still live with that washboard lady, only now she plays the marimba.
During those solitary years in Yosemite an affection for birds took root in my life. Here, in Hood River, I paint the boughs of our flowering cherry with peanut butter and hang suet cages from the barren branches of lilac bushes. I enjoy the scuffling of the winter visitors as they take turns feeding. Later, this spring, they will return the favor and feed me a daily chorus of birdsong. (click it!)
Looking back, many people pass through our lives. Most leave behind just a dust mote of remembrance. Jimbo was different, an unintentional mentor. He left behind a gift. He planted in me the seed of love for bird life. He taught me to admire the complexity inherent in the simplicity of a bird’s existence and to appreciate that their presence is essential to a balanced ecology of the Earth.
Along with that admiration came a worry for their well being, for love brings with it a risk of pain. Yes, it hurts to see threats to our environment fall upon our most gentle creatures. But it’s a gift, nonetheless.
Dead Bees, another song.