I spent Saturday mornings this fall with borrowed binoculars around my neck, following a 91-year-old man named Arne up and down windswept Connecticut beaches. We bent our necks and lifted our lenses, scanning the sky for birds. Arne told me three types of stories: swimming (he often recited his daily mileage), opera (he puzzled over Wagner’s endings) and birding (he catalogued many of the species he has seen, making his life story sound like a field guide).
When I asked where he used to work before retiring a few years ago, though, he stumbled. He told me that it didn’t matter. After reciting memorized passages from his Peterson guide about the way a dowitcher’s bill moves in and out of the sand, he forgot the name of an agency where he worked for several years.
I am a bad birder. For all of the time I have spent with a borrowed field guide, I still can’t tell sanderlings from sandpipers. I exclusively remember random facts. For example, sanderlings, these small, grey-speckled, skinny-legged shorebirds, migrate thousands of miles from the Alaskan Arctic to the southern tip of Patagonia every year. Sandpipers, also small, grey-speckled, skinny-legged shorebirds, sometimes eat frogs. I love birds, but I have dabbled instead of committed — never memorizing the number of spots on the tops of their heads or the cadence of their songs. But I could recite to you every job I’ve had since I was 15.
This is a silly imbalance. Birds fascinate me, and I think the sanderlings skirting up and down the beach with the waves deserve much more attention than my lame résumé staring back at me from a screen. It’s easy, though, to fall into the habit of obsessing over and trying to calculate how a string of positions might lead to the next, and how one of those positions will someday be great and important. It’s what some people call a career. On the other hand, birds are, well, “for the birds.” Nowhere on my résumé will I have to puzzle over whether it is worth it to admit my so-called “proficiency” (euphemism for not and never going to be fluent) in shorebird identification. So, why improve?
Arne doesn’t stumble over this question; he has identified 373 species of birds in Connecticut. In total, 431 species have been recorded in the state. His state list, most think, is second only to Noble Proctor’s, the author of several field guides and ornithology textbooks. Birding has never been Arne’s career, but it has remained his passion. Reasons to keep improving and searching for new species may not be immediately obvious to non-birding-addicts, but for him, that’s no reason to stop.
There are many things I want on a moment-to-moment basis, without what some might call “reason”: a hilly trail marathon, a long poem to memorize, a tricky recipe for homemade bread, a poorly played harmonica or guitar session. This list of half-learned skills and brief fixations goes on, full of things I have done without a particularly firm grasp on how they might help me “succeed.” Sometimes longing is too near for logic.
When I’ve been lucky enough to hear myself through the hubbub of advice in this busy town, that voice has been the one thing that I trust. It drives me toward obsession and helps me shun mere mention of moderation. It has yanked me out of habit to have the kinds of adventures I crave. I hope I’ll be fortunate enough to have a career full of projects I’m addicted to, but I still cannot forget the importance of hobbies, even if the skills I pick up from them have no clear value in an equation for the future.
I still find shorebirds impossibly similar, but am trying to be more like Arne. I am trying to create space in my life for the things I love, even if I’m not sure why. I called him last week. Once the snow melts, we’ll be back to the coast with our binoculars, watching feathered wings flap over the water. Maybe soon, I’ll spot and identify some sanderlings. I bet if I make it to 91 years old and forget where and for whom I’ve worked, I will still remember the white bellies of those sanderlings gleaming in the tide-sheathed sand.
Diana Saverin is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .