My dad was tall and lanky. He moved slowly, was deliberate and precise with his motions, and also with the work of his hands.
He was the kind of guy who put on an old pair of suit pants with the crease still in it when he worked in the yard or basement workshop. Many times I witnessed him painting in an old white dress shirt. I never once saw a splotch of paint on them.
I suppose the reason I thought of him as I sat down to write this week is because he would have been one hundred and five on Friday. He died from a fall just prior to his ninety-third birthday. But the conscious reason I thought of him was bird-watching.
He was an avid bird watcher. “Avid” might be a little too zealous for my dad, who if anything, was only avid about moderation. But he had a life-list for bird watching. “Life list” is a thing for bird watchers, which is just what it sounds like: a cataloging of each species personally identified. I have so many vivid pictures of my dad bird watching in my mind’s eye.
What is that anyway? Out of the thousands or millions of gigabytes of experience stored in the crevasses of our gray matter, why do some photographic memories remain present always while others slip into the coils and are difficult to retrieve if not impossible. I can understand why trauma etches scenes into our brains that remain there like cave drawings for as long as we are alive. But why do random, ordinary experiences become permanent wall-hangings in our hippocampus?
Well they do, and I have some mental photos of my dad bird watching. In them he is usually wearing brown pants with a razor sharp crease and a light linen-colored jacket with lots of pockets. He wears a cheap trilby-style hat, the only kind I ever saw him wear. Big, heavy old-school black binoculars hang around his neck from a leather strap.
In the early spring, when it was still cold and leaves were as yet a hope, my parents dragged me to Point Pelee National Park in Canada, the southern most spit of that country that juts out into Lake Erie. It was not a happy excursion for me, and I remained mostly miserable. Somehow memories of watching my dad looking up at trees with the patience of a god, sits in a nest of pleasantness inside my brain.
I would park myself on the stone beach shivering in the wind and watch the watchers, frumping the whole time but kind of enjoying the resentment. To this day, now a casual bird watcher myself, I still love to watch people. I find watching people who are intent on doing something — whether keeping an ice cream cone from melting, fishing, or just sitting at a picnic table peering out at the lake — fascinating and meditative. Bird watching is cool, but people watching is even better. I wonder if my dad liked watching people too?
We forget that humans are part of nature every bit as much as a tree, seagull, or slug. I am thinking that our relationship to the planet would be so much healthier if we didn’t think of ourselves as separate from it.