Trills and caws fill the room. Rain is falling, bouncing off the birds and making the squirrels dance underneath. A yellow-bellied sapsucker (a term only ever used by me years ago on a schoolyard) pecks the suet as a pair of warring grackles fight for corn. The pond in the background sways with swimming mallards and Canadian geese.
My cat and I sit transfixed as we watch this on YouTube, virtual birdwatching, our new shared hobby. Our sick and tired dog lays limp on her pillow, unfazed by the wilderness that paints the living room in mosaics of greens and browns and blues.
I am new to nature, despite being over 50 years old. My family’s approach to the outdoors can be summed up by my mother’s phrase, “You’ve seen one tree, you’ve seen them all.” I went camping once as a child, a father-son Cub Scouts camp-out. My dad suggested I take an older cousin instead of him; he had experienced too many tents in the army. We were inner-city dwellers, happy with our concrete boxes and games in the streets.
After I turned 13, my family left the city for the country. North Alabama to be precise. To get to school we passed a pasture filled with Brahman cattle, all owned by the convent nearby. These were literally holy cows. My neighborhood friends, a collection of good ol’ boys (who were rarely good and not old) invited me to overnight camp with them. I took a sleeping bag, hot dogs, and marshmallows. They packed guns, beer, and a half-bottle of peach schnapps. That was my last camping trip of high school.
My girlfriend bounced into my life and turned me green. Her vacations are usually a month in Yellowstone (in the past, usually alone) or hiking trips in state and other national parks. Now we go camping often. I pile books into a bag along with our gear, the dog, and beer and we set off for adventure.
Our camping trips have been filled with wildlife. Moose in Maine. Bald eagles in the Catskills. A pileated woodpecker in the Adirondacks. My girlfriend laughs when I feed the ducklings seeds by hand, or when I am first to point out a circling raptor. My camping gear now includes binoculars and identification books for North American birds and mammals. I have started supporting ecological causes as well as my usual social justice and literary organizations. Wildlife has broadened both my worldview and my world.
When the shelter-at-home edict was put into place, I started working from home. No longer tied to my bookstore job, I had time to write and work on my website. Soon all my website projects were finished. Having time to write and the motivation to write don’t always align.
In the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, our schedules were often set to politicians’ press conferences. Mayor de Blasio at 9:40, Governor Cuomo at 11, President Trump at 5, with news coverage in between. The days blurred together as politicians and newscasters sang variations of the same song every day, and I found myself dulled not only to the epidemic and its coverage, but to the world itself. It was hard to write, or even read, among the noise.
My girlfriend taught her young science students from our kitchen table via video and started looking for online videos to aid her curriculum. She researched live YouTube feeds of bird feeders for a lesson on biodiversity. I caught the videos out of the corner of my eye, and was entranced by both the visuals of colorful songbirds and woodpeckers and the symphonies of the woods. After weeks of venturing out only when masked, viewing every passerby as a possible infector, watching birds infected me with a sense of space and freedom. Even hope for the future.
Our cat, Mr. Kibbles (or as I call him, The Notorious KBZ), started sitting down next to me on the couch as I wrote, his eyes fixed on the birds. His stillness and focus inspired me to live in the moment.
We have birdfeeders on our fifth-floor fire escape now, so if the power goes out there is still something to watch. Our feeders aren’t as exciting as the ones in Panama or Upstate New York or Alabama. They attract mostly pigeons, squirrels, and mourning doves. The occasional house sparrow or wren. Occasionally I check the feeders out back, coo to the pigeons. Then I return to my office with the view.
David Gutowski is a writer who lives in New York City and publishes the Largehearted Boy website. His work has appeared at Longreads, The Millions, The Morning News, PBS, and elsewhere.