30 – January 30
“The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.”—Eric Hoffer
I’m a city girl. Born and bred in suburbia, visits to the country were visits to another planet—rare and alien. Then I met Stan, who was raised on a farm in Montana. As our relationship progressed, he suggested a visit to the farm to visit his parents.
I was not his parents’ vision of the perfect woman for their son: Six years his senior, an actress in Hollywood, and divorced. I had never been on a farm. It was with some trepidation that I agreed to go—and they agreed to have me.
“Big Sky Country” they call it. Montana’s sky is vast, blue, and sometimes thunder cloud-filled, where eagles sweep through craggy mountain passes and geese honk in V-formation flight squadrons. My heart drank in Nature as I bent to drink from pristine snowy waters. My soul roamed among the billions of stars that filled the night canopy, completely visible at last, away from the garish lights that keep cities skies small. I loved it.
I loved fishing in the lake for perch and sunfish, after digging for fish-hook night crawlers just before dawn. I gloated over my catch and laughingly reeled in fish after fish, blissfully unaware of the “you catch ‘em, you clean ‘em” rule. I loved collecting the eggs from underneath the hens, milking the cow, and then eating the fruit of our labors at meal-time. It was haying season, and Stan worked with his father and brothers in the fields. His mother, Mae, his sisters, and I took our turns driving the tractor and cooking (all that fish!). I left my fancy clothes in my unpacked suitcase and wore denim every day. No fancy cars, no TV, no makeup, no angst; worry was only for whether or not you’d get the hay baled before the rain fell.
One morning after breakfast, when Mae and I had finished the dishes and the men had gone out to the hay fields, Mae said she was going birding. “Could I come along?” I asked.
Surprised, Mae said hesitantly, “You want to come?” Yes, I nodded and she said okay.
That’s when I developed a life-long fascination with sneaking up on our feathered friends and watching them, collecting the names of different species I had seen for my “life list.” We saw bald eagles, evening grosbeaks, hairy and downy woodpeckers, marsh hawks, Canadian geese, and dozens of ducks. We went birding down by the river every morning. I had bought my own field guide and binoculars by the end of the week.
When the time came to head for home, I lamented that there were no birds in the suburbs of Los Angeles except sparrows and pigeons (oops, I mean “rock doves”; no respecting birder calls them pigeons). “Take another look,” Mae said with a twinkle in her eye. “There are more birds there than you think.” Of course she was right. I just hadn’t been looking.
Mae and I started writing to each other with tales of our different lives, the city girl and the farmer’s wife. As Stan and I fell out of love, Mae and I fell in. When Stan and I broke up, she called me with tears in her voice and said, “I’m not just Stan’s mother. I’m your friend.” And so, although Stan and I lost touch with each other, Mae and I never did. It’s been twenty years now. We still write. I sometimes think I just met Stan in order to meet Mae.
Life presents us with many gifts—they’re just not always the ones we think we’re looking at.
Remember to be grateful for your surprise packages. You might find a dolphin in a lake.
“I gratefully receive and enjoy life’s surprise packages!”
Let’s see, it’s been many, many years now, and I still have fun birding* whenever I am outdoors. Although Mae passed from this experience several years ago, I still think of her fondly and thank her for sharing her wonderful hobby with me. One year, as I said goodbye to my dad after seeing The Social Network, I saw a little hummingbird buzz around the tree outside his front door. I pointed it out to dad and we stopped to watch it for a moment – then laughed delightedly as it landed and sat on its tiny nest!
Birding is a great activity to get you involved in nature. Birds are everywhere, some of them are incredibly colorful, and they all have distinct behaviors and calls. I love my Field Guide to the Birds of North America published by the National Geographic Society that I use daily here at home, but when I travel, I get the field guide to wherever it is I’m off to – Southeast Asia, Europe, Mexico, etc. It’s pretty cheap as hobbies go, too, unless you become one of those fanatical types that flies all over the world just to see a rare bird they haven’t seen before.
One vacation I jetted off to Club Med Cancun with a girlfriend named Janice. The fun started right on the plane – everyone was hooting and hollering and getting rowdy already. They had to shut down bar service because the toilets got too full! True story.
In between all the partying, swimming, snorkeling, there were side trips to Tulum and Chichen Izta. I saw the most beautiful bird of all at the Well of Sacrifice there – the Turquoise-Browed MotMot (yes, birds do have some funny names, don’t they?)
But the highlight was the boat trip to Isla Mujeres – Bird Island. Oh, I had to go there!
So early one morning, I joined a group ship-bound to the island. We divided up into smaller groups in small motorboats that each circled the island with a guide. Happily taking my Field Guide to Mexican Birds by Roger Tory Peterson and my binoculars with me, I drank in the sight of hundreds of birds roosting on the island and waited for the guide to identify them.
Oops. He called the Least Grebe a Cormorant, the Little Blue Heron was misidentified as an Egret, and he couldn’t tell a tern from a gull. Clearly, he was a terrific skipper as a boat but not so good as a bird guide.
I was sitting near him, so I started showing him in the book and pointing out the birds, and he’d alert the people on the boat with the microphone, but after awhile he just gave me the microphone and I had a ball being the tour guide for the rest of the trip. I spotted my first Brown Booby and Collared Plover which I proudly added to my Life List (birders keep a running list of every new bird they see, where it was first spotted, date, weather, etc. I saw these on 7-16-85).
Later during the week, I was walking along the beach looking at shore birds, and a man came running up to me.
“You’re her!” he exclaimed, “I’ve heard about you!”
“You have?” I asked quizzically.
“Yes,” he replied. “You’re the Bird Lady of Cancun!”
I treasure that.
*Secret Code Alert:
Audubon Society members call themselves “birders” and bird-watching “birding”. I didn’t explain that on this page, I just used the terms so that all the birders and Audubon Society members would know that I’m not just talking about watching birds, but I am seriously “one of them”. It’s fun to use some insider terms so that your inner group knows you’re one of them. I do things like that throughout the book, so in this blog, I will alert you to them when I do.