Sunday, March 15, 2015

In the Field

My mind works better when my legs are moving. Thoughts are terrain, felt and experienced. There are things to be learned in the field that can't be learned seated in the classroom, or behind a desk.

My reading of late has been sucked up by Kenn Kaufman's "Kingbird Highway." It's a bit like "On the Road," if Kerouac was a birder. Kaufman dropped out of high school at age 16 and spent a year hitchhiking and getting himself around the country to see as many birds as he could. It's a look into the obsessed birding culture, as it was taking shape in the 1970s. He is now known as one of North America's top birders. I'm not a birder, but I've been a bit taken by certain members of the feathered fliers in recent months. Kaufman's book chronicles his search for himself and how he found his place on the road; in the field.

I dig the notion of field guides. Where those who have taken their search out into the world, share what they have found. Some field books describe geography, or species, some describe the writer's inner landscape as influenced by its surroundings. For some reason in the spring, I seem to reach for Seamus Heaney's "Field Work" and Robert Hass's "Field Guide." Their words, their experiences don't give answers, they make me want to get off the couch and go find things out for myself.

Words come up necessarily short. Hass gets it. Sitting in the woods, checking out birds and flowers, he wants to get them down, capture them:

                                    But I had the odd
feeling, walking to the house
to write this down, that I had left
the birds and the flowers in the field,
rooted or feeding. They are not in my
head, are not now on this page.

Warm sun on still snow-filled, frozen yard, we were building snowmen, throwing snowballs, exploring, laughing. In the trees all around us, in a moment of recognition were Eastern Bluebirds. They were close, they were playing, they were darting between pine trees. In my life, I have never seen anything like it; it was a totally new and novel experience. But I can't recreate it here. I can't conjure it or make it real for anyone who hasn't experienced the same thing, in the field. And I couldn't have known it from a book, no matter how well written. Though I guess I can recall it, if prompted by someone else's experience.

Science and spirituality have the same shortcomings, when left to be found and learned in books. I can know that the Earth goes around the sun and the sun rises in the east, but that takes on a much more profound reality when running my first ultramarathon on a 15 degree February morning, when the warmth of the sun hits a group of us runners, headlamps are switched off, and the heart and body are warmed and lighter. And whether sitting in a church or walking through the woods, faith or a glimpse or intuition of something bigger than yourself, something not quite explainable enters the soul of its own accord, not through words alone.

Clearly I have some spring restlessness going on. The need to get out and explore. But one of the things I am digging the most these days, are how many new experiences, in the field, are right under my nose; in my yard; nearby. Birds I've never paid attention to. Remembering the shakiness of being on ice skates. Running with good friends. Neither Thoreau nor Annie Dillard had to go far afield to find themselves, nature, the Universe. They just had to look for themselves.


Joel said...

This rang so true to me. Thanks for taking the time to put this into words.

Michael Valliant said...

Thanks, Joel!