Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dreaming and perceiving

The scarlet tanager
is an otherworldly bird. "Scarlet" is far too tepid a word to describe the male's plumage. You can stare as long as you like at him, but your mind still flails trying to decide how to perceive the hue, how to categorize it. It is a color rare anywhere, in nature or the manufactured world. Only having seen scarlet tanagers in birding books, it was a dream of mine to see one in real life. I don't think they're all that rare, but rather hard to spot because they are a bit secretive up there in the foliage.

It seems implausible that such an outlandishly tropical-looking animal would ever exist here, even in the summer . . . but they do wise up in winter and go to South America.

The other night, a scarlet tanager came to me in a dream, joining a gaggle of the fantasy birds that occasionally rise up from my unconscious in my sleep. Next morning, I was in a small patch of oaks and pines, looking for birds. I was with an uncannily intuitive birder who, having no idea about my dream, mentioned what joy it would be to find a scarlet tanager here. Thirty seconds or so later, a bird gave a beautiful call. And there he was, a male scarlet tanager, in all his vermilion glory. I couldn't even call myself a novice birdwatcher at that point: I was just an awestruck person who happened to have a pair of binoculars in my hands.

On an ordinary day, spotting birds involves exercising facets of human perception that we often don't have a chance to use in modern life: judging depth, distance, speed, height, subtle markings, minute color variations and patterns, the way that sound travels, the optical effects and illusions different types of light create. We have a vast array of talents for looking and hearing; this, though, was perception of a whole other order. Unconscious perceptiveness. There must be so much we know without even realizing that we do.

I wish I took the picture on this blog posting. Instead, I searched the net and found this spectacular one. But despite some digging, I couldn't find out who took it so I could ask permission. Whoever you are, it's a beautiful picture, and I hope you don't mind that I used it.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Dreaming in birds

Some nights I dream of birds. Not birds I have seen -- even in birding books -- but species that don't exist. They crowd into my sleep, these fantasy birds, hopping on the ground, perching on leafy branches, feasting on blossoms.

Last night, my bird had a lustrous, impossibly purple head, the black beak of a crow, and a shiny emerald green body the shape and size of an American robin's.

Perhaps these fantasy birds are my brain's way of entertaining itself. Or the product of a deep urge to be free like a bird. Then again, how do I really know these creatures are not out there somewhere? If I traveled the world, searching, might I eventually find the secret colony of all the fantasy birds I have dreamed of for years? A friend once told me about a recurring dream in which she opens a drawer to find that it contains every umbrella she has ever lost in her life, each one vividly recognizable to her. Just like that, I imagine myself stepping off a pathway into a clearing in a forest and finding my dream birds quietly going about their lives, each one of them intimately familiar to me.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The voyeurism of bird-watching

It was a gray weekend here, with soft light. Tiny hyperactive, colorful songbirds are migrating through, but because the leaves have just begun to unfurl on the trees, spotting them is a tantalizing business. My ears have trouble distinguishing the sounds of one bird from another -- all that tzeezting and chipping high in the treetops -- so now I find myself compelled to stand and gaze through binoculars into the foliage, waiting for somebody to appear. And when they do, they take my breath away. So many impossibly colored and patterned warblers and orioles and small flitting things that I have never seen before in my life, vivid fast-moving flashes of tangerine, yellow, blue. I've never been able to grasp the urge some people have to hunt, but now I wonder if the thrill I feel of standing looking, scanning the scene, and locking on is somehow the same. I still can't imagine pulling a trigger, though. I can only imagine being awestruck by the beauty that is all around us if we can just find a moment to look for it.

And what a strangely voyeuristic compulsion it is to look for birds. It's spring, so there is a lot of nest building, strutting, puffing, preening, egg minding, and feasting on blossoms going on. A whole universe of activity, social arrangements, journeys. They don't know I can see them through my binoculars. They go about their busy tasks -- gathering the perfect twigs, snatching minuscule insects in midair, showing off their splendid plumage in an attempt to impress a mate -- with no idea that I am there, watching. Through binoculars on a cloudy day, a mourning dove in a cypress tree, who would be so easy to ignore because she is just like all those other doves I've seen before, is a work of art. She blinks gently, and the fine frosty pale rings around her liquid black eyes make her look innocent, fragile, and tender as she debates whether the strand of dried grass she holds in her beak is worthy of her nest.