I begin in memory, impression: images and stories.
A boy approaching adolescence—shy, bookish, growing up in south Florida’s perpetual summer—inaugurates a lifelong wonderment with wild birds, spending his free hours perched in ficus and Brazilian pepper trees, watching for warblers and cuckoos. He lives in a lush, tropical place, ten miles from the eastern edge of the Everglades, the wide and sluggish river of grass that flows from the southern margin of Lake Okeechobee ever-so-slightly-down the bottom of Florida into the Gulf of Mexico. Even the names of the birds there tattoo mysterious rhythms into his head: anhinga and ani, egret and heron, flamingo and spoonbill, ibis and bittern, limpkin and gallinule.
With paper route and lawn-mowing money, the boy buys his first pair of binoculars from Sears and his first bird book, Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds: Eastern Land and Water Birds, the 1947 second revised and enlarged edition, sponsored by the National Audubon Society, printed on heavy paper with rain-resistant covers. When he goes shopping for blue jeans, he brings the field guide along, checking to see that it snugs in the back pocket. He begins keeping his Life List in the front of his Peterson’s, especially proud of the following entries:
- Marsh Hawk, 1/8/1975
- Bald Eagle, 3/19/1972?
- Everglade Kite, 12/10/1972
- Pileated Woodpecker, 1/10/1976
He finds the first sentence of Peterson’s appendix on “Accidentals” mesmerizing: “The great hope of every field man is to see rare birds.” Before long, he will record a few Life List names in the blanks under the “Accidentals, Strays, and Others” heading:
- Bahama Swallowtail and Bahama Bananaquit, Andros Island, Bahamas, 6/17 to 6/30/1973
- Scarlet Ibis, Greynolds Park, 6/8/1974
The boy has a recurring dream. In this dream, he can will himself skyward, moving his arms up and then down, firmly but not frantically, in all sorts of Technicolor locales, and he glides over buildings and trees, swooping down from high places and catching an updraft, swimming in air as he can in the water, where he actually spends much of his time.
He reads what will become one of the favorite books of his youth, a novel by Jean Craighead George called My Side of the Mountain. It tells the story of Sam Gribley, a boy about his age, who runs away from a cramped and congested New York City to his great-grandfather’s abandoned farm property in the Catskills and makes his home there in a hollow tree. Sam captures a peregrine falcon nestling, names it “Frightful,” and trains the bird to hunt small game for him. He befriends a weasel that he christens “the Baron.” Eventually, Sam abandons the woods to come home to New York, realizing he needs human contact.
He studies a book given to him for Christmas one year, Survival with Style by Bradford Angier, festooned with drawings of how to erect shelters and descriptions of how to collect condensation in the desert. It includes a section on wild, edible plants. One day, the boy rides his bicycle west to the edge of the river of grass and sets a temporary camp at the side of a canal. He gathers cattail roots to roast and, with a hook, makeshift pole, and line, he catches a bream. Lighting a small fire with flint and steel, he cooks and eats the fish and cattail, the latter of which tastes a lot like muddy canal. After of couple of hours, he climbs back on his bike and heads home for dinner.
The boy’s eighth-grade English teacher—who one Friday afternoon in spring reads aloud “The Scarlet Ibis,” James Hurst’s sentimental story about sibling rivalry, a rare bird, and mortality—encourages his experiments in verse and tells him he can become a great poet. He falls in love with the idea of being hailed as the next John Keats, but he does not find himself compelled to be actually writing. The lure of imagined fame occludes the tangible act that might produce it.
In the summer of his junior year in high school, his former eighth-grade science teacher, Miss Kicklighter, calls on a Saturday morning to tell him that scarlet ibises are nesting at Greynolds Park. He borrows his parents’ car, drives to North Miami Beach with a friend, and meets Miss Kicklighter there to witness spectacular, deep red birds swaying in green mangroves. Like the bird in the short story, these ibises are far from their usual home in the Caribbean and South America. Accidentals.
Such stories trace the imaginative topography of my growing up, a landscape perhaps more featured with desire than accomplishment.
Fast-forward 33 years. I’m preparing to go with a group of Guilford College students on a three-week van camping excursion around California, teamed up with a colleague who’s teaching the course entitled “The American Landscape.” We’re reading about the history of landscape painting and photography, how they shaped American environmental consciousness, and we’ll be taking photographs of iconic landscapes in the Sierras, Mono Lake, Yosemite, and along the Pacific Coast. Prior to our departure, we’re down at the Guilford Lake, and my photographer colleague is teaching us how to see with a camera lens. I keep trying to get pictures of a flitting eastern towhee with my point-and-shoot. I’m ill-equipped and impatient, and the bird is too fast and too far away. I show my colleague Maia the results. She says: “You want what you can’t have, don’t you?”
Reflecting back on all this now, I wonder if the two most besetting sins of my life have been a lack of patience and a tendency to dream the muddled impossibility, to indulge in that truancy of the imagination twentieth-century British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch calls “fantasy.” For Murdoch, such fantasy takes multiple forms, but her fiction testifies mainly to its witchery in realm of human love. In The Sea, the Sea, her 1978 Booker Prize-winning novel, for example, the narrator, Charles Arrowby, a formerly famed theater director who has retired to a remote ocean-side village, begins to realize how his completely unrealistic attempts to rekindle a relationship with Hartley, his first and truest love, are leading him into emotional paralysis:
Some kinds of obsession, of which being in love is one, paralyse the ordinary free-wheeling of the mind, its natural open interested curious mode of being, which is sometimes persuasively defined as rationality. I was sane enough to know that I was in a state of total obsession and that I could only think, over and over again, certain agonizing thoughts, could only run continually along the same rat-paths of fantasy and intent. But I was not sane enough to interrupt this mechanical movement or even desire to do so.
In a philosophical study, Murdoch echoes this fictional character, claiming:
The chief enemy of excellence in morality (and also in art) is personal fantasy: the tissue of self-aggrandizing and consoling wishes and dreams which prevents one from seeing what is there outside one.
“Almost anything that consoles us is a fake,” she says. Whoosh: there goes every romcom I ever loved. There goes Pride and Prejudice. There goes chocolate.
Murdoch’s call to reject the consolation of fantasy may seem a bitter physic, but she isn’t rejecting human imagination itself, only certain pernicious forms in which it depletes our capacity to engage fully and honestly with the world and other beings. For her, love is the imagination’s poison, but it is also its best medicine. For although love can lead us into the temptations of fantasy, it can also propel us into ethical, possible, real care for others, who exist outside what Murdoch calls “the fat, relentless ego.” Her picture of the ego unleashed as a bloated, self-absorbed Jabba the Hut is not a pretty one, but it helps me to recognize in it a certain resemblance to a boy dreaming of wilderness survival or poetic greatness while not expecting to do anything much to earn it. To manage that admittedly ravenous ego well, however, becomes the key to a radical acknowledgement of the claims of the other, which for some thinkers is the core of becoming ethical. To make charitable, not egocentric, love the first motion (to paraphrase John Woolman) is to embark on the ethical path.
Murdoch’s ideas about love, the ego, consolation, and attention—she also talks about paying attention as a mechanism for counteracting illusion (The Sovereignty of Good)—recall the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, the practice of focusing in the present and filtering out illusion and other forms of wishful thinking. If, as Thomas Lowe Fleischner says, in an essay about mindfulness and keen observation of the natural world, “we are what we pay attention to,” then keeping our attention focused on the possible, in the here and now, seems like a very good thing to be doing. Mindfulness, akin to what Quakers call being “centered,” trains our attention away from fantasy. We could call it the practice of keeping it real, of tending the possible.
Becoming centered challenges me to reject romanticized fantasy, to do something more complex and paradoxical. It calls me to live imaginatively in what is possible, in fervent desire for what I and the world can indeed become. I cannot simply sit back and accept everything before me as what is meant to be; nor can I wallow in longing for that which will never come to pass. The same is true for love as for social justice. Neither is possible without reimagining the present into something different and new; neither will come into being without such striving remaining tied at all four corners to what is possible. I could photograph wild birds quite well, but it would take the patience of sitting in a blind, hour upon hour, watching, waiting, and letting things be as they are. I am a writer only when I adopt the discipline of daily composition, the practice that scratches down the furrows into which seed words may fall.
On or around December 1, 2015, a strange bird showed up amidst the ordinary flock of Canada geese that keep cropped the front lawns of the college campus where I work and decorate our brick walkways with greenish leavings. It was an accidental, a Ross’s goose, a large white bird with black wing tips about the size of the Muscovy ducks that plod about the quad occasionally. The Ross’s goose caused a minor sensation in the local birding community. Sometimes they show up in the very northeastern corner of North Carolina, but their main migration routes lie hundreds of miles to the west, down from Canada through the plains states to the Gulf coast of Texas and farther west through Montana and Idaho to California and Mexico for the winter. In Greensboro, North Carolina, this was a rare bird indeed.
That accidental and absolutely real goose reminded me that rare things, while unusual, are possible, and that to conceive of myself or the world as better—without resorting to fantasy—is a good and rightful thing to do. It reminds me today that to work mindfully toward the betterment of all lives, human and non-human, can keep me tending toward the center. The Ross’s goose stayed around the campus and nearby ponds for about a week and a half. More than a few birders dropped over to watch it picking the lawn with Canadian cousins. And then, as is the way in this world, it was gone.