“There’s our bird.” I pointed toward a Snow Goose perched on a rock above the March-cold water of the Sawkill Creek. The goose had a few feathers sticking out of place, like someone had ruffled it up. It shifted from one webbed foot to the other. Christina smiled, placing her binoculars to her eyes.
This goose blew in with Hurricane Sandy, which pummeled the east coast on October 27, 2012. It landed on the Tivoli South Bay, just off of the Hudson River one hundred miles north of Manhattan. As flocks of Snow Geese migrated through, it never joined its comrades en route from the Arctic to the Texas Coast. I had concluded it could no longer fly.
I was sure this bird wouldn’t make it through our northeast winter. But when I checked in December, it was there, floating placidly by the island. Again in January, it was holding out in a few patches of open water near the mouth of the Sawkill. The odds of surviving seemed slim when the coldest days of winter hit and the ice was so thick that people were ice boating on the South Tivoli Bay. But here it was, early March, carrying on its goose life. We didn’t know then that, come May, this goose would enter into a threesome with two Canada Geese. Through early summer, five goslings trailed the three adults. Christina named the babies Snooks — a hybrid of Canada Goose and Snow Goose, and we joked about — loved — the Snook family for the improbable miracle that it was. For now, the Snow Goose was not yet playing nanny; it was bracing itself for this final push of winter.
So, too, was I. It had been a winter of cold then warm, of deep sadness then giddy happiness; I had been tired, and often melancholic. This flow of emotions are familiar. But because I am over fifty, I have decided to label all of this a mid-life crisis. Images of men in red sports cars dominate our thinking about the mid-life crisis while women who agitate in mid-age are discussed in near-shamed whispers as menopausal. I prefer crisis — that has energy. When I lie down at night, unable to sleep for both the thoughts that torment my mind and the ache that laces through my lower back, I take comfort in my new identity. It’s great having a shorthand to explain why I feel what I feel and why I do what I do, as well as my recent acquisition of expensive items, typical of a mid-life crisis, only I am not partial to fast cars or jewelry; I own Zeiss binoculars.
Looking at the Snow Goose, I was envious. I wish I had half of this bird’s will to live. The Snow Goose — and all of the birds, in fact — force me to think about the short, focused, intensity of life. At fifty, this is what I think about anyway — how did I land at fifty? And what have I done in these fifty years? And so it’s good, sobering, really, to look out on the natural world, a world that is definitely not going through a mid-life crisis. This bird can’t be that indulgent; a mid-life crisis is a luxury. The goose has the straightforward but difficult job of finding its next meal; I want bigger things: the next book contract and a new house. I say I want the next love, but nothing in my behavior indicates this is true. People who are looking for love attend parties and sign on to Match.com and go out for coffee with strangers. I spend my free time usually alone, tromping through the woods looking for birds. Finding a mate will not end or soften this mid-life crisis; finding a good bird might.
The Snow Goose shifted on its shaded black rock, the water swirling just below its orange webbed feet. As I watched, teaching, writing and my loneliness vanished. Birding, I had discovered, was the great escape. Suddenly, surely, I was there, admiring this bedraggled, determined bird.
It is possible to spend a lifetime believing that tomorrow or next year you will learn Spanish, build a boat, travel to Nepal, memorize the song of a Blackburnian Warbler — or even know what a Blackburnian Warbler is. And then I hit fifty, and I realized I likely would not do any of these things. Something inside unraveled; it was like falling off a cliff, fast and sickening. To defy gravity, I have thrown myself into learning birds, as if lunging for the next hold.
I drive listening to CDs of bird songs, frustrated when I can’t identify the Wilson’s Warbler and shaking my head at the worst of the mnemonics: little old ladies don’t chew chew (is that really what the Northern Waterthrush is saying?). I cozy up at night with Sibley’s Guide to Birds in hopes that I will remember the Tree Sparrow has a bi-colored bill. But also, I have become that slightly goofy teacher who imitates the peent of the Woodcock in class, and arrives at meetings out of breath with stories of creatures seen. I get up at five in the morning and am in bed at nine. I travel nowhere without my binoculars.
Christina is the only student from my nature writing class who shows up for my Wednesday morning walks. She is five foot ten, broad shouldered and all legs. Her hair, tied back in a ponytail, almost reaches her waist. At twenty-one, Christina is full of exuberance, and learning the birds is not a counterweight. It’s pure pleasure. She can’t begin to know the turmoil inside of me, and I don’t want her to know. If she looked up midlife crisis, she would see that one thing we midlife crisis folks do is hang onto younger people. It makes us feel young. More importantly, I need Christina’s young ears and eyes; often she hears and sees things I cannot or do not.
After twenty minutes of walking the narrow packed trail through hardwood forests of the South Tivoli Bay that abuts Bard College, we arrived at Buttock’s Island, which is two mounds of eroded dirt, cracked with a narrow trail. The trail is rimmed with spiky water chestnut seed pods, which look like thousands of black dice tossed on shore. From the tip of the small promontory, we were able to scan both north and south into the bay.
I sighted Bufflehead through my binoculars, and then set up the scope to get a closer view. Male Buffleheads have white bodies, black capes and look like they are wearing a white half-helmet on their small black heads. We scanned for a while finding Great Blue Heron wading in the shallow water, Mallard and Black Ducks puddling about, Common Mergansers scooting along the far edge of the bay. A Bald Eagle soared overhead, putting up a flock of Ring-billed Gulls.
“OK, I need to get to work,” I said, satisfied. I folded up the scope.
If you look at what triggers a midlife crisis, you will see that everyone should have one. For instance, having children and then having them leave home can cause the crisis, or not having children at all. Both the absence and the presence of children can lead to the midlife crisis. Experiencing physical changes can bring it on. Show me a fifty year old who doesn’t ache, isn’t contending with some illness or surgery. And we all sag somewhere, the triceps pulled south to dangle unceremoniously. Over fifty, the human body starts to break down. It hurts. A mid-life crisis can occur with the end of a marriage or not having a relationship. Basically anything to do with being involved with another human being can bring it on. That pretty much covers it. Of course I’m having a midlife crisis. I’m fifty-two and alive.
What differs is how we express the crisis: depression, purchasing expensive items, switching mates, drinking too much, changing jobs, remorse. Few of these responses are considered positive. There should be an alternate, constructive list, filled with activities that are do-able for the aging — nothing too strenuous — that also allow for spending lots of money. Fly-fishing would be on this list. Sailing — anything to do with a boat — is ideal. Knitting could be if you used gold knitting needles and wool from rare creatures raised only in Nepal. Though birding can be a low-cost activity, it’s easy to make it very expensive. Good binoculars are important; a scope is necessary, as is a decent camera to document all of the special birds. That comes to around $8,000 and is just the baseline. Plane tickets to far-flung birding locales add up. Four grand in order to see a Bristle-thigh Curlew? Why not? But above all, birding does what we all need to do in mid-age: look outside of ourselves. Really look.
On our return, Christina and I stopped on the wide lawn below the Blithewood mansion and scanned north into the bay. “Hang on,” I said. “Those birds at the far end aren’t Mergs. They have dark chests.”
Christina looked through the scope. “You’re right, they are different.” She pulled out her guide.
“Look up Canvasback,” I said. We both peered at the guide; what we saw on the water and what was in the book was a perfect match: a large duck with a white body, black chest and a dark red head. It has a big black doorstop of a bill. We both grinned like lunatics.
“I’m sorry, but we have to go back and take pictures,” I said. Now I was late for work.
I was forty-nine years old when I decided to learn the birds. This is a bad time to learn something so complex, my mind softer, slow to trap songs or a peep at dawn. But that was actually the point: Could I learn something at my age? An attention to detail and a musical ear — both talents needed to be a good birder — are not ones that I have ever had. So I was trying to learn new skills, on top of learning the birds themselves. What I did have was the gusto to vault out of bed before dawn, endless patience to look inside of pine trees for a roosting Long-eared Owl, and the ability to squat for hours next to a marsh anticipating that a King Rail might wander out. Years of outdoor adventures meant that I could kayak out to find the juvenile Little Blue Heron, or that I could hike to the summit of Slide Mountain with ease to find the Bicknell’s Thrush. So if I did not have talent, I had energy and enthusiasm. I had the desire to learn. Since I teach, I know that desire is sometimes the most important ingredient.
Most birders can give you the tale of how they were hooked, what bird drew them in. I have that story as well, but what got me beyond a specific bird or moment was the realization that birding was its own world with its heroes and ethics and history. I felt like I had discovered a new continent. One that had its own language. I delighted in listening to birders talk. We “used our bins” and “scoped the bay,” and we “twitched” — drove hundreds of miles to see one bird — and “dipped” — walked for miles only to not find the bird. Then there are the names of birds: the Wigeon, Purple Gallinule, Mississippi Kite, and the Boreal Owl, to name but a few, all had that ring of special adventure. Wandering Tattler — nothing more glorious.
But it gets better. There are the local names like the Timberdoodle (Woodcock) and nicknames that hint of a loving intimacy. “Did you see the Hoodie and the Buffie?” Who wouldn’t want to get up before dawn to see a Snowy, Swainy, or Swampy? And the big and dignified Canvasbacks? We call them Cans.
Christina and I trod through the leaf-bare trees along the edge of the bay, creating our own path, or following one set by deer. It wasn’t easy going, bushwhacking our way closer to the Cans. We approached as quietly as possible, dry leaves crunching underfoot. None other than Alexander Wilson, who is considered by many to be the father of American ornithology, has captured Canvasbacks in poetry:
Slow round an opening we softly steal,
Where four large ducks in playful circles wheel;
The far-famed canvass-backs at once we know
Their broad flat bodies wrapt in penciled snow;
The burnished chestnut o’er their necks then shone,
Spread deepening round each breast a sable zone.
Wilson is not remembered for his poems, but rather his devotion to birds, which developed after he arrived from Paisley, Scotland in 1794. He had a series of jobs before landing near Philadelphia, where he had a position teaching. There, he met William Bartram, son of the famous naturalist John Bartram. Looking at Bartram’s records “filled [Wilson] with a kind of creative enthusiasm,” and his passion took off. He travelled endlessly, restlessly (he called himself a “bird of passage”) throughout the East Coast, finding birds but also subscribers for his proposed ten-part volume of American Ornithology. He completed eight before he died of dysentery in 1813, aged forty-seven. He left more unfinished: there are many tender letters to Sarah Miller. Yet Wilson died a bachelor.
Reading Wilson’s journals is invigorating. He had such energy to travel and such determination to name and order the birds. And then there are marvelous details, like his affection for his pet parakeet, which he carries “in [his] pocket from Big Bone Lick in Kentucky to New Orleans.” But as surely as Wilson’s Ornithology and his letters result in a literary high, they can also lead to what I think of as my environmental despair. That Carolina Parakeet, which he so enjoyed, is now extinct.
At one point, Wilson journeyed 720 miles down the Ohio in his “batteau,” named the Ornithologist, which someone mistakes for an Indian name. On board, he had a tin cup “to bale her, and to take my beverage from the Ohio with.” Oh, to drink directly from the Ohio! And the wealth of birds he writes of is almost more than I can bear — two thousand million Passenger Pigeons flying over Kentucky. Now extinct. And in a field he once saw thousands of male Clapper Rails. I feel lucky that I have seen one.
So birding, which renews my love of this world, also often leads me to gloom as I get to know species like the Grasshopper Sparrow, a little bird with a weak flight, or the Rusty Blackbird, a black bird with a piercing white iris, only to learn that they will likely be extinct in my lifetime. For both species, breeding grounds — grasslands and boreal wetlands — have been cut, altered or polluted. Since 1800, we have destroyed 95% of tallgrass prairie; a lot of birds need that habitat to breed.
Habitat destruction is the biggest challenge, but on a daily basis, we’ve created an obstacle course for birds. Here are but four. Glass. The Toronto-based organization FLAP — Fatal Light Awareness Program — estimates that every year 100 million to 1 billion birds are killed colliding with windows. Wind turbines. Wind farms kill about 572,000 birds a year. Cats. A 2013 study estimates that cats, both domestic and feral, kill 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds a year. Planes. “Avian ingestion” or BASH — Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard — forces one plane a day to land; the cost to the industry is in the millions. But what is the cost to the birds? It’s hard not to fall into a feathered hopelessness.
But that hopeless depression gets me — and the birds — nowhere. Conservationist Michael Soulé writes in the summer 2013 issue of Living Bird, published out of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “…there are no hopeless cases, only people without, and expensive cases.” Hope. For the birds, I hang onto my hope.
Christina and I crept through the woods, snagging on bushes and stumbling over fallen trees. I wanted to get to the water’s edge for a clear view. I had seen Canvasback one other time, and from a great distance. These birds were passing through the Hudson Valley on their way to the Arctic to breed. They would not stick around long. This was my chance to take in the Canvasback beauty.
Christina was now late for class, and as one of her professors I recognized I was encouraging irresponsible behavior. But I couldn’t stop myself. I was in the grip of a sort of duck fever, sailing into a birding high. For a moment, I felt bad that I was taking Christina with me, and then I realized from the look in her eye that she was on her own duck ecstasy.
“I’m sure my teacher will understand if I tell her I was looking for a Canvasback,” she said.
“Just don’t mention my name, whatever excuse you come up with,” I mumbled.
We continued forward, stopping whenever we had a peak through the leafless but still dense shrubs. It was Wilson who named the duck Aythya valisineria after the wild water celery vallisneria (yes, Wilson misspells vallisneria), which the duck feeds on. And that is what the bird was doing, dabbling about, grazing amongst a small flock that included Mallards and Black Ducks. We watched and took photos and whispered our excitement. Part of my thrill was that, once again, a bird was reminding me of all that matters: to dabble, to graze, to float with your flock. In this way, the world goes on. So simple a realization to have after fifty-two years of living; on that day, it was a realization felt.
In the grip of a bird high, all else mutes: work, the buzz of loneliness, the need for the next thing. The next thing had feathers; the next thing was at the top of the oak tree or the middle of the bay or deep in the cattails. All I had to do was look.
SUSAN FOX ROGERS is the author of My Reach: A Hudson River Memoir, which chronicles her adventures, large and small, in a kayak on the Hudson. She has edited twelve anthologies relating to place, adventure, and the natural world including Solo: On her own Adventure, and Two in the Wild. In 2004, she travelled to Antarctica on a National Science Foundation grant and produced Antarctica: Life on the Ice. Since 2001, she has taught writing at Bard College. In addition to the birds, Rogers has found that a nice house on a hill in the Hudson Valley with views of the Catskill Mountains helps ease the midlife crisis.