I don’t know why, but things tend to present themselves to me in recurring bunches: from finding people’s wallets on my Sunday morning walks, to seeing silhouette after silhouette of roadside foliage that happened to be in the way when the line painters came through, to discovering headstones with a long-ago birth date and a dash, but no death date—that sort of thing. I can’t account for how these random items repeatedly end up on my radar, but it’s always amusing to see what comes after my awareness has been heightened with a first observation, the one that opens the floodgates.
I remember watching a documentary (the one on HBO a few years back, about birding in Central Park, if you happened to see it) where a late-to-the-game birdwatcher described the difference from his life before, when he’d cross the park only vaguely aware of pigeons and sparrows, and his life after, once his sister had introduced him to the creatures he’d been missing. “It was as if the trees had been decorated with bird ornaments, but they’d been invisible to me, because I’d never known to look for them them before.” There’s a special bonus when you discover the little wonders that are hiding in plain sight.
Noticing: being aware, searching for details, paying attention–these are skills and gifts, simultaneously. They require some slowing down, plus a willingness to not be so ambitious about multi-tasking. I used to plug in and listen to music or NPR on my weekend morning perambulations; I wouldn’t think of it now, for fear of missing the cry of a kingfisher or fledgling red tail hawk. There’s a delight in the possibility of encountering the unexpected that trumps the value of doing two things at once. That, plus I’ve pretty much convinced myself that I really do have time to do one thing at a time. Or maybe, as my mental wiring frays, I function usefully only when I’m not trying to two things simultaneously. Whatever the cause, I feel like I’ve returned to a place that I occupied when I was very young, back when I lived for this time of year. Because autumn was when drives up north provided long stretches where I could stare out the window of our station wagon, peering through the naked woods, sure that if I paid attention and was very lucky, I might see something magical.
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Here’s the thing about things you didn’t used to notice that start popping up all over: you can’t un-see them. Which sometimes leads to a heightened awareness of things that make it hard not to worry about the state of the world. There’s the panhandlers in Harvard Square, the acid rain damage on those headstones, the missing immature night herons from this summers’ Black Nook offerings. What happened? What changed, to make an environment uninhabitable, unwelcoming, disintegrating? You can’t not wonder, once you’ve start noticing.
And now, this. An outgrowth of my ramped up attention to the birds is the fact that I have started noticing particularly beautiful ones lying on the ground. The first was on my back porch, a victim, I’m sad to report, of our professionally squeaky cleaned windows. My poor friend JZ got my inevitable cell phone photo with the message, “What was this?” She knows birds like nobody’s business, and she always shoots messages right back. “Ruby Crowned Kinglet,” she replied in a trice, “Fluff up the feathers on the top of his head.” She admitted she likes to investigate such things; I’m a little more squeamish. But boy, it was a beauty, that little kinglet.
A week later, sigh once more. I surely wasn’t expecting to encounter any fauna while I was walking in the concrete canyons of midtown Manhattan. I was looking skyward, enjoying the view of my all-time favorite skyscraper, lit up in autumn’s late afternoon glory. How I managed to take that view in and this sad sidewalk vignette, I’m not sure. But I did.
As usual, I took a photo and shot it off to JZ. As usual, she reported back posthaste. Poor little creature, a victim of those shiny windows, just trying to get from summer home to winter home. On the train ride back to Boston, I did a little google research. “Woodcock displays are given at dawn, dusk, and all night when the moon is full. Male rises in the air in wide circles. After he reaches about 50 ft., his wings start to make a twittering sound as he flies higher. At 200-300 ft. the twittering stops and he gives a canary-like flight song while starting a zigzag descent.” Somehow, knowing that that creature was capable of such dramatic displays both amazed and saddened me. I found myself hoping that this remarkable woodcock had at least gotten a pleasant stopover in Central Park, on his great migratory trek. I suspected that such displays don’t take place en route from here to there, but still, I fervently hoped that this bird had had his moment to shine.
Okay, true fact: I’d prefer to be oblivious to dead birds in my daily life. But that’s the thing–once you start noticing, these things stick. And beyond thinking that it’d be okay if a decade or so went by before we get around to having professionals come around to our house to clean up our windowpanes, I don’t know what to do with this phenomenon that I’ve become altogether too aware of.
It turns out that being observant is both a gift and a burden. The little things can make my day, and can also make me weep. Being aware can cause sleepless nights. But somehow, being aware makes me feel more alive, and more actively human. And lord knows it can be both a gift and a burden, to live life keenly, to pay attention, to not turn away or mute the realities before us. Which, I suspect, is a small price to pay for the moments that make our hearts soar.
Some people say the devil’s in the details. Some say God. I suspect it’s a bit of both. Either way, I’m planning to keep paying attention.
A little bit of quartz that repeats in the new granite curb in front of the Fogg Art Museum. I’d like to think someone hand picked that slab of stone for the beauty of this vein, echoing down the sidewalk. Probably not…