We crouch in a cluster of rocks on a high ridge over a valley beyond which is Idaho, a wall of mountains in another time zone. We watch a cold front seep around the mountains’ shoulders and drop toward us, an unappealing cloud of precip and wind. Stuck into our pile of rocks is a long pole with a plastic owl tied at the end, making us look like children with a single, tattered puppet. Owl-on-a-stick is supposed to tempt birds of prey to dive within the range of visibility. Our chilled fingers grip binoculars, but there’s nary a bird in sight. Welcome to the raptor migration study.
I had not pictured my day this way. The birds are smarter than we are: they read the forecast and stayed wherever birds stay when they want to be out of the weather. Other days, volunteers report sighting up to 250 birds. Today, we wrap ourselves in plastic layers and train binoculars against the wind on a faraway spatter of wild ponies, or an intern crossing a field with her baby. After an hour, we give up and hunker in the truck, pretending to watch for the stray hawk as drizzle speckles the windshield. But, our lack of raptors notwithstanding, I think we are in exactly the right place. It was worth it to drive down the long, gravel road to be here today. Here is why:
As we sit in the truck comparing our brown-bag lunches, the guy in charge of the volunteer project, unexpectedly a George Clooney lookalike, explains the process of brain tanning to a twelve-year-old who just got back from India, where his mother translates Bibles into rare Indian languages. Apparently the brain is the best leftover part of a deer to use to seal its raw hide with a nice, oily, water-resistant finish. You can even drill out the brain plate and make a nice little decoration for your hat out of it, braided around the brim with some buckskin rope. Meanwhile, the mom tells me about life in Kerala.
How would I have ever found myself privy to such conversations had I not volunteered to count raptors today? Here on the MPG Ranch, we are situated in a migratory corridor: the perfect confluence of hills and valleys and wind currents for an avian interstate. And is it not possible that this is also the perfect place for all of us today, appearances to the contrary? If I weren’t here, I’d be, what, sitting at home doing what I usually do? Going on the same walk, making oatmeal, listening to the radio?
Nothing against the lovely habits of life, but it behooves a body to shake up the routine once in a while. Find the little events in the paper that always looked interesting, but were never the most important thing to do. Sometimes: do them.
You might end up picking trash out of the local river with a bunch of Kiwanis on a Saturday morning. Your crew might find a parking meter, a cat skull, and a full-size couch down there in the reeds, where you thought nobody ever walked, in addition to the usual beer cans and candy wrappers. When the shore’s all cleaned up, maybe you’ll be sitting in the sunshine when a mentally different man on a bicycle rolls by to tell everyone about his cow-charming skills. How he gently called the cow to his side, took his knife and cut away the barbed wire coil digging into her leg, and knew just the spot behind her ear to rub to make her feel even more glad. And you’d wonder afterwards how else you might have thanked the universe for all the good times you’d had on that river. Or how else you would have remembered the people who most days you passed by unthinking, unspeaking, unlistening, assuming you already knew what needed to be known about them.
Give yourself permission to do the less than necessary. I told my aunt that I felt spoiled, examining native flowers on Mount Sentinel, going to an Indian dance concert by myself, listening to people read their poetry at a bar. My aunt replied: “I object to your feeling spoiled. Where is it written that it’s not okay to have fun?”
Plus, these outings can be good for everyone. What is less than necessary for one’s own survival is often beneficial to others’. Small acts of non-auto-pilot can knit us into a community. Friends sit with another friend after surgery, hold hands, say the serenity prayer. They save coins in baby bottles that go to teen mothers on Mother’s Day, and when they see the colored bottles on their counters every morning, they think of young women they won’t meet–or won’t they, maybe, someday, if they keep reaching out of their routines? These tiny gestures invite variables into our lives, bring us into unexpected contact with the world and each other.
What is the strangest small thing will you do this week?