Once the snack hits his bloodstream, the six year old jolts into action, running headlong up the trail, stopping briefly at the turns only to make sure I am still in view (at my insistence), or to pause as we point things out to one another. Otherwise, Ezra is all about conquering territory, using his whole body, and marveling at the gestalt of the great outdoors, the big trees, the sky peeking out above the branches, and whatever he glimpses on the run.
*Photos by me, unless noted that they’re by Alan.
The nine year old is on a different sort of journey; carrying a notebook and pencil (much as her mother did way back when) plus a bird ID book, as she hopes to find more birds to add to her Life List. The afternoon heat at the Portland Audubon Society is heavy, and the birds stay hidden. She makes the best of it though, and draws what she observes; trees, a self-portrait in the trees, and a self-portrait of herself as a bird, which might be the point of all of this watching and waiting. She chatters along the way, narrating her experience, craving connection, and possibly eliminating any hopes of a bird venturing near.
Rosa has been captivated by birding this past year, and I can’t think of a better pandemic outcome for a young child unwillingly tossed about by limitations and cautions. Like us, the silence and the long uninterrupted hours opened her up to observing nature in its infinite possibilities, giving her a new sort of patience.
At first we were drawn to identifying the birds just outside our windows. A flyer from Audubon showed us the nine most common species in our area, and we all grew increasingly captivated as each backyard bird became familiar by name, characteristics, calls, and behaviors. Rosa’s interest turned to passion once we began using binoculars and gave her a camera. Ezra was happy to watch in the wings, as usual enjoying almost anything that Rosa enjoys.
As nesting season evolved, Rosa sat quietly in our yard for long stretches, waiting for a visit from our resident scrub jay family. She set out strategically placed peanuts to lure them closer, then rushed back to her chair set at a respectful distance, camera already focused on the spot, hoping for the perfect shot. Now when she comes out the back door, the jays recognize her and squawk for their peanuts.
Sifting through the shots later to delete and edit means she and Alan can geek out about cameras and angles, lighting and focus. I’m hoping for a guest blog from her someday, but writing isn’t quite as fun for her as the other facets of this hobby.
From the backyard, Rosa runs in to bring us exciting news of a bird event, eyes lit, face flushed, hands waving, words tumbling. The crows and the jays are fighting over the peanuts! The baby jay came out! She describes in detail the fluffy head feathers, and the pattern of blues and greys around its neck. She owns these discoveries now, they are part of her.
When we told her about all the birds we saw at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington, Rosa began campaigning to go. But for now the Audubon Society would have to do as the perfect quick trip; nearby, short trails, a few rescued birds in cages (a kestrel, a turkey vulture, and a raven named Aristophanes), plus a fun gift shop full of bird related items. The more elaborate outing will have to wait.
As I’ve said before – birders are an enthusiastic lot, friendly in the extreme. We encounter people along the way who are happy to stop as she explains about her Life List, the birds she’s just seen, the birds she wants to see, and anything else she can think of to talk about. In turn they share their expertise and offer their own observations. An immediate bond is formed; she may have found her people.
“I never realized nature is so messy,” she says as we walk along the narrow Jay Trail, happy that the path is well enough maintained that she doesn’t have to brush up against stray ferns and blackberries and other creeping, tickling vines. For a cautious and organized girl, nature is a bit of a challenge, but one she eventually embraces, especially when she sees her younger brother diving in. On the Creek Trail we have a little spot on Balch Creek to ourselves. Ezra happily throws himself into exploring the creek, quite literally, and she soon abandons her sketchbook and joins him.
A sign warns us to not wander beyond a fence, and Rosa wonders if it really means us in particular. I am brought up short by this echo of my father, who would park in no parking zones and pronounce, “It doesn’t say absolutely.” When does the scofflaw gene kick in?
I had explored another section of this creek a while back, and the stories of the violent Danford Balch and his heinous mis-deeds back in the mid-1800s come back to me as I watch the two kids play with sticks and leaves and rocks, teetering precariously, and daring themselves to greater feats of balance and leaps of faith. It’s so familiar, all the years with my own two children, all the creeks and rivers and lagoons and lakes we traveled to and camped near, all the habitats and dams they built and destroyed, each with their own approach to nature’s untidiness.
I suppose my Nana Life List includes getting the kids out to the rivers and roads of the world, paving the way for a strong connection with nature. Watching them find long sticks to poke and prod and submerge and float is even better than adding a new bird to my list.
There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.Johann Wolfgang von Goethe