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  • Char Robinson

They Call Us Birdwatchers: Finding Soulmates in Nature and Literature

This creative essay was a spring assignment for an AP literature class with a fluid due date. The open-ended prompt encouraged students to create meaning from a human mess that we encounter within literature and in the real world. The form of the final assignment–whether it be poetry, sculpture, or art–required conversation with at least two texts students had read that year. The author, Char Robinson, is a senior and a lifelong birder. Once Char began driving, a world of birding and hiking opened up within Dallas. See her birding photos below.



They call us birdwatchers as if we passively wait for the undulations of life to unfold before us. Never more wrong a word did exist for myself, and for others like me. Inaction breeds indifference; instead, we are acting constantly to maintain the fire of interest. We are not watchers. We are chasers, or trackers, or adventurers—truly I mean it when I say that this is an all-encompassing lived experience rather than a pastime. It sounds absurd—I know—but hear me out. 


Northern Shoveler

Never more wonderful did a love exist than for nature. True goodness lies in the adoration of things so totally beyond our control. Often we love what we can hold on to: our reflection, our accomplishments, our associates. But to seek the fickle, the ever-changing, the incomprehensible expanse of something so much larger than any one of us tells of good character. I expect nothing of nature when I step foot on a trail (unless we count hopes, of them I hold many), as whatever I may see through glass lenses was determined by the choices of thousands of creatures, of the ebb and flow of the tides. To let go of what one cannot control sets one free. 


Why, then, are nature lovers so often written off as insane? 


Often we love what we can hold on to: our reflection, our accomplishments, our associates. But to seek the fickle, the ever-changing, the incomprehensible expanse of something so much larger than any one of us tells of good character.

I see it in the media I consume, on the news, from my family. We are stoned hippies who would never understand the politics of the real world. We are child activists mocked and condemned for caring. We are creeps, freaks, and weirdos, outcast from society because of a fascination with what is not human. My family calls me a “tree-hugger,” inevitably on my way to jail over some silly protest where I will strap myself to a redwood trunk to prevent deforestation. My visions of a better world are reduced to silly anecdotes. Hilarious, of course, and they seem to all imply, why care so much? 


Northern Mockingbird

Books especially can try to paint us nature lovers as skewed, yet I relate to these kinds of characters regardless. One novel I read vividly as a microcosm of my plight is Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. Piranesi–the eponymous character enveloped in a surreal and fantastical world of infinite quartz, hallways of statues, and a violent ocean. As he watches the Albatross fly overhead, no doubt the large shadow of such a creature fully enveloping him for a moment, I found myself there in the House with him. The beauty of such a moment makes me misty-eyed. The salty ocean splashes the stone, breaking upward, just in time as the Albatross perches with its wings outstretched; the behemoth takes on the water as if it is only a drizzle. The sailor of a thousand seas chose to home here, where the seaweed drapes over rotting flesh in the perfect circle of life, out of all other places in its domain of the Earth—here it chose to honor us with its presence. Piranesi’s joy radiates from him. He smiles infectiously—naively, yet also all-knowing.  


Yet he is unstable. 


Yes, he only fixates on nature because he has become numb to the pressing issue of his imprisonment in such a foreign place. He has lost his mind. He is off in some fantasy land and needs to be grounded in the real world. Stockholm Syndromed by his cage, his adoration cannot be validated. Why must he care so much? 


I remain sure someone read Piranesi as the inane boy who lost it. He spends far too much of our time describing the algae, the seagulls, and the tides. He is annoyingly obsessed. Peers will say this to my face as my eyes glaze over. 


Recently, I had a dream.


Red Bellied Woodpecker

I am in a field of tall grass brushing against my knees (presumably, if I was there physically). In this clearing enveloped by tall pines on all sides stands a wooden fence running through the center of the field, from tree line to tree line. In the light of dawn—or dusk—exists nothing but the gentle breeze at first. Then suddenly, exploding from nowhere and everywhere, a murmuration of great horned owls; perching on posts, flying wildly through the air, locking talons with each other and diving toward the dirt. Though impossible behavior for owls I am instead suspended in the wonder of it all as thousands of some of the earth’s rarest creatures make themselves known. 


I woke up.


Black Vultures (Turkey Vultures)

Today my reading is due for Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, and still I have not yet done it. I find time in a corner on campus to quickly read the perspective of a protagonist I find horribly insufferable. As I open the pages, I land waist-deep in snow, lashes freezing to my face, my eczema no doubt flaring up. I trek to the yard of the narrator—who will remain nameless, as per her request, no matter how much I grit my teeth when hearing her talk. The wooden gate is easy to unlatch, and as I swing it open snow falls off in slabs. To my surprise I find her there toward the back, creating a mound of snow with her woolen hands. She buries the remains of a poor deer. She buried others, too. Here I am angry at myself for finding her exhaustingly relatable. A character who understands the importance of animal life enough to honor their death, to love what the world provides, and to appreciate the beauty of— 


My eyes stop on the words. Finally, a character who gets it. Finally, there exists a character who values all creatures, who cries upon their death, who honors them, who cares for them. I am here, in this book, attached to the most unbearable protagonist I have ever read. I am attached to a woman who puts bloodied fur on the desks of police. I am attached to a woman who murders men for their trespasses against nature. I am attached to a woman who locks herself in her basement so that the police cannot find her. Why does she care so much? 


How lucky am I to be associated with a character that is the definition of nuance? Only minimally so, I’d argue, as most students are not reading into this as much as I am (because they have better things to do). If not careful when reading, the narrator becomes another boiled down example of a nature obsessor. Crazed. Detestable. Vegan. I am sick and tired of being unjustified. 


Finally, a character who gets it. Finally, there exists a character who values all creatures, who cries upon their death, who honors them, who cares for them. I am here, in this book, attached to the most unbearable protagonist I have ever read.

Not tired enough to sleep, though. I lie awake this time in anticipation of tomorrow where I will have the opportunity to hike. What will I see? I am giddy with the possibilities of witnessing species I care so much about. I  memorized all four-hundred pages of the guide book so I could be ready. A Hooded Merganser? A Spotted Towhee? The narrator of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead would applaud my perseverance instead of advising me to stop the obsession. 


I blink and I am asleep in another dream, and in the snow again. 


I walk on an icy road with the fingers of tall, barren trees hanging over me. Shaggy Ravens scavenge through the white and hop about the frozen grass. I spot him—a white raven, completely albino, stands among them, unmoving. An angel allowing itself an appearance to the traveler, we meet eye to eye. I would follow him to the ends of the Earth. I would kill for him. 


I wake up. 


In English class my entire body shakes in happiness, in hopefulness. I see the Great Egrets in my mind, standing on the other side of the chain-link fence, nipping at my fingers. I want to join them. My eyes are glued to the window for when some Chickadee gets close enough for me to identify it. I switch my tabs between bird ID quizzes and the latest eBird sightings of American Kestrels. I can hold my own in a conversation. I can refrain from murder. I can keep a sane mind. I can function. I can even write a compelling essay. Yet I feel that, through what literature has taught me, I can still lose all credibility if I talk about just how much birds mean to me.  


Char Robinson is currently a senior in high school. She will be attending Trinity University next fall.


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