Stay in place and if you need to go out for necessities, then maintain social distance. That is the advice given to flatten the curve of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. For me, that means spending more time looking out of my window watching birds at the feeder and perhaps birding in natural places where few people are found.
While watching birds my thoughts turned to a small book, Birding In Babylon -A Soldier’s Journal from Iraq, written by Jonathan Trouern-Trend during his service in Iraq. Thoughts of confinement, birding and present danger formed an odd connection between me and the author’s time in Iraq. Sergeant Trouern-Trend was confined to a military base as a part of a medical unit from New England. What struck me in reading this short book was how his location and dangerous duty were not the only things that were on his mind. He had been a birder since the age of 12 and so birds were never far from his mind. Their movement and presence did not escape his notice nor did they fail to interest and delight him, even in the midst of danger.
His book started as an online journal, “Birding Babylon”.
He was surprised by the responses he received. He writes, “I received so many comments, some recounting how they cried – maybe not knowing exactly why – when they read about my often mundane birding on base. Knowing that the great cycles of nature continue despite what people happen to be doing is reassuring, I think. There is an order we can take comfort in and draw strength from.”
He continues, “For me, the familiar took the form of birds I knew from back home or from my time in Europe. The first ducks I saw, a flock of shovelers, could just as easily have been seen in Connecticut. The barn swallows migrating over our Kuwaiti staging area reminded me of those I could find at our town lake in early April. The wood pigeons and coots on base were identical to the birds I had seen at St. James Park in London. Even the ubiquitous house sparrows, residents of every McDonald’s in America, were with me in the most remote desert outpost. The birds gave me both excitement of the new and exotic (as with the hoopoe) and the anchor of the familiar. In the predictable migrations of shorebirds, followed by the land birds and waterfowl, I found continuity and reassurance.”
People are longing for a sense of continuity and reassurance.
What we need, in the midst of the craziness that we are experiencing, is a larger frame in which to see and live life. This present moment in which we live has its dangers. It also has moments of beauty and wonder as in Birding Babylon.
The author writes, “Our convoy up from Kuwait had to stop because one of our humvees had a flat. We all piled out of the vehicle and set up a defensive perimeter with our weapons point out. It was a surreal scene; I am lying on the ground with my eye on some guy racing around in a pickup truck, wondering if he is going to take a pot shot at us (which would have been suicidal), while a pair of crested larks were not even 10 feet from me, the male displaying and dancing around.”
What strikes me in the account of that incident is that while he was fully engaged and ready for action, he also saw more. He saw the pair of larks and noted the courting dance. If one is in the grip of absolute fear, then one sees nothing but the fear. To have a larger awareness, seeing more, makes one a calmer and more centered person and more able to deal with what is before them. Fear and anxiety are not the controllers of our frame of reference.
What was true for the Sergeant in a time of danger can be true for us.
A larger frame of reference not only adds meaning to our life, it also probably keeps us safer. There are obvious applications for us now as we move through the battles of today and the uncertainties that accompany them.
The journal entry for Thursday, April 1, 2004 reads:
“Today I had an absolutely fantastic day, finally getting outside the wire into the surrounding farmland on a civil affairs mission, delivering school supplies to children. Not many new birds. I was trying not to drive the humvee into an irrigation canal. I did see a few egrets in the field (maybe cattle egrets) and a group of blue cheeked bee-eaters hawking for insects and perching on power lines.”
Here again we have an example of a person who has an expanded frame of reference, keeping an eye open for birds. He also finds satisfaction in getting out into open country and carrying out a mission to help people, in this case school children.
The author is now home and living in Connecticut. He hopes to return to Iraq one day armed only with binoculars and a camera. He writes, “Perhaps an Iraqi friend and I will drive around searching the deserts, the river valleys, the marshes, and the mountains for birds I missed. We will talk about how wonderful it is to be free of the fences and able to go where the birds are instead hoping they will fly into our compounds. No matter how long it takes to get to that future, I know the birds will be waiting.”
I found this to be a very hopeful and helpful book.
During a time when the predictability and comfort found in daily routines has been totally disrupted, people are looking for hope, comfort, and meaning.
The author’s open and expansive frame of reference is one that can serve us well in all seasons, and especially now in these times of uncertainty and vulnerability. Yes, the dangers are there but there is also more. Being open to, and participating in, a larger frame of reference can serve us well, now and into the future.
(Birding Babylon – A Soldier’s Journal from Iraq is published by Sierra Club Books, copyright – 2006. It is still available.)