A wise and poetic friend of mine recently observed that in these days of social distancing the background becomes the foreground. What she meant is that the things we took for granted, overlooked, and walked past have now become the very things we focus our attention on each day.
That is a double-edged sword of course, because for anyone with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, the details can be mesmerizing and captivating. Closed in the house all day the cracks begin to glare, clutter rises up to shout obscenities, and the layer of dust on the edge of the baseboard whisper in nasty tones. On the other hand, delicate flowers or the first green shoots of leaves nearly trumpet their arrival, and the songs of swallows and robins are like a phone call from a long absent friend.
This has come home to me in a visceral and somewhat haunting way. I am the child of bird watchers. Not just a mom and dad who enjoyed feeding birds and watching them peck at food out the kitchen window. In fact, I don’t ever remember a bird feeder growing up. I suspect my mom would have seen it as a rodent attracter and prohibited it. Later my dad succumbed to the challenge of making a bird feeder squirrels could not invade, but I don’t think he succeeded. My physicist father-in-law, however, invented a low-voltage trap that would zap the squirrels when they hopped onto the shepherd’s crook holding the feeder. That worked for a time, but squirrels are crafty. I digress.
My parents were birders who kept a life-time list of all the birds they identified. They traveled with the goal of seeing new species. They stopped along the side of the hi-way just to gape at birds through binoculars. They participated in bird counts each year. My dad volunteered for birder organizations, served on their boards. There were periods in my youngest years when they seemed obsessed with birds. Audubon prints on the walls of our house, bird books scattered around, binoculars within reach in several rooms. Worst of all, they dragged me into it.
For example, each year they went to Point Pelee, the southern most tip of Canada sticking out into Lake Erie. I don’t remember now whether it was in the fall or spring, but it was always damp and cold. I hated it. I thought bird watching was the stupidest thing in the whole, wide world. I frumped and complained and was surely a most unpleasant child, and then young teen. I would sit on the stony beach cross-legged until my legs fell asleep, pouting. If I looked at anything through my binoculars it was the birdwatchers who I laughed at for looking stupid and stupider. You get the picture.
Zoom forward to the pandemic. Every day I take my binoculars with me as I walk the dog near the lake. “Ooh, look,” I say to her, “a bald eagle.” Or, “Huh, Rabia, I think that was a cormorant.” Stupid, I know. But that is the kind of thing that happens when the background elbows its way into the foreground. I am worried about where this goes from here.