Can you recall the last time you went birdwatching? And I do not mean giggling at the Birdie Sanders meme or rewatching Portlandia’s “Put a Bird On It” clip on YouTube. Glancing out the window and catching sight of a bird before returning to your laptop does not count either. I mean, sitting down and relaxing, perhaps with a pair of binoculars and a guidebook, to simply admire a bird. In my case, I cannot remember the last time I went birdwatching before my recent paddling trip down the Grand River Heritage Water Trail.
On the morning I left for the trip, I felt distracted. WMEAC’s Water and LID Director Elaine Isely asked me to join her team as they reported on the Reach Five stretch of the Grand River. I hopped into Elaine’s vehicle and tried to forget about the huge number of tasks waiting for me back in the office. As I chatted with Elaine about the water trail, I pushed aside the ghoulish image of my to-do list looming over me with an ominous grin. Paddling sounded fun but prevented me from tackling the monster head on. Plus I had no coffee.
I felt so distracted that I almost missed our first bird sighting of the day. Elaine and I parked, introduced ourselves to our paddling companions, and headed for the kayaks. The moment we pushed our boats into the river, one of our companions pointed up with a grin and told us to look. With my attention focused on balancing my kayak and matters far beyond the river, I glanced around. I got lucky – a blue heron glided its long thin legs through the water right in front of us.
The team paddled further down the river, and I noticed more details about the landscape surrounding the river. On the right side of the river towering trees, long grass, and fallen branches covered a stretch of undeveloped land. I looked and saw bass splash, turtles crawl over rocks, and a pair of warblers dart between rushes. I listened and heard a quiet breeze interposed by the soft call of birdsong and thrum of insects. I stretched out my fingertips and felt the smooth surfaces of lilypads.
After traveling for a few miles, the team stopped paddling, and I found my mind’s frantic energy slow down. Instead of moving or even thinking much, I allowed myself to just breathe and take in my surroundings. The summer sun washed over me, warming my skin. Dragonflies danced across the river’s surface and sometimes tickled my knees. A profound sense of calm came over me; my impending deadlines and task lists, e-mails and text messages could wait.
The longer the team drifted, the more apparent the level of human interaction with the river became. Some of these interactions were positive. I waved to a few teenagers splashing around on stand up canoes and two elderly men fishing off the side of an ancient wooden dock. Other interactions were less positive. The river’s peaceful sounds were often drowned out by the nearby buzz of leaf-blowers and lawnmowers, speedboats and helicopters. At worst, I spotted signs of carelessness. Among the water flowers, I spotted golf balls, McDonald’s straws, Meijer’s plastic bags, a half-empty bottle of Captain Morgan rum, and even a small gas can.
As I examined these items, I wondered if humans could ever make progress fast enough to prevent environmental harm. With modern technology, people can address environmental challenges in new, exciting ways. Brilliant thinkers make transportation more efficient, renewable energy sources more available. Average citizens promote green legislation and sign petitions all with the click of a mouse. But no amount of innovation or policy change can stop people from treating their river like a dumping ground.
Then it occurred to me that perhaps we should seek to slow down, rather than speed up, our lifestyles. What if in our dash to “Go Green” and “Save the Planet,” we have forgotten the natural spaces we longed to protect in the first place? Getting outside for an afternoon made me recognize how often I fail to treat the natural spaces around me with respect. The trip recharged me, reminded me of the true purpose of my work. I realized the truth in author Gary Snyder’s words when he said “Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.”
When we reached the end of the reach of water trail, the team and I discovered a bald eagle perched high up on a tree branch. The eagle stood tall and proud, puffing out the tufts of white feathers on its chest. After a few minutes, we marveled as the eagle spread its brown wings and took off into the sky. I sat transfixed, watching the great disappear into beyond the horizon.
I’ve never been much of a birdwatcher. Maybe it’s time for me to start.