Wednesday, May 22, 2013

When You Go Outdoors, What Room Do You Enter?

Tennessee warbler
Recently a colleague and I led a workday in Adena Woods. In attendance was a group of students,
mostly present in the interest of extra credit. They seemed to be having a pretty good time--floundering around, crossing the creek on some logs, picking up trash--chilly and muddy though it was. As we explained a few things about the plants and hydrology of the area, I considered what they might be experiencing. What would it be like to go in the woods and not really understand what you were looking at or hearing? How would you tell things apart? How would you access meaning? And where would you start? When I walk into woods and savannas around here, I know many of the forbs, grasses and trees and some of the birds and insects--though my knowledge pales beside that of the naturalists, ecologists and expert birders I've encountered, some of whom I name mentors and friends.

But what about these students? Say, for example, you enter a room, and it is full of abstract expressionist paintings and fine mid-20th century modern furniture cleverly accented with art glass and ceramic objects crafted by the best 21st century artisans. Or you enter a large, noisy room full of what look like plain gray metal cabinets with racks full of narrow boxes connected by cables in chilly, climate controlled air. In the first case, unless you have a certain education and cultural background, you are not likely to know that the painting of large rectangles with blurry edges is considered a masterpiece of 20th century art, that the plain, unadorned furniture of light-colored wood is valuable,
"Untitled (Painting)"
or that the small sculptural pieces are not just weird-looking but are wrought to an extremely high standard of craftsmanship. No one has told you about these things, or named them for you. Similarly, unless you knew what you were looking at, that dim, dustless, chilly room full of humming metal boxes and loud cooling apparatus might seem impressively large yet alien in function until someone informed you that it is a server farm through which the world's information passes and which enables you to use your smartphone to look up information about Mark Rothko, the man who painted those big rectangles.

So it is for what we call the natural world, by which name we imply that it is a world somewhere else than the one we reside in, our world of understandable houses, cars, streets, shopping malls, politics, scandals--our human world, furnished in part with trees, grass, bushes and birds. But of course the natural world is a room that interpenetrates the human world, a room that is part of a palimpsest of experience--and a room that requires guidance to enter fully.

A few days after the workday I went to Ryerson Woods (in Riverwoods, Illinois) for a meeting that was followed by a short nature walk. Ryerson Woods is open, well managed, and borders the Des Plaines River. We had binoculars, and the naturalist began telling about and pointing out where to find various warblers. It was peak migration season and, as he said, a strong south wind overnight had blown thousands of birds into the area. He started pointing out bird songs as he heard them. This is something that only in the past few years has really clicked for me, so that when I walk down the street I mostly know who's singing. These songs were new to me, in particular, something high-pitched that started slowly and ended up sounding like a sewing machine. What was that? A Tennessee warbler. After an aggravating search with the binoculars, I caught a glimpse, high in the trees: a small bird colored like the shadows among spring foliage that kept hopping, annoyingly, behind the new leaves where it promptly became invisible. But that song! Loud, distinctive--how had I never heard it before? Of course I had heard it--probably most springs of my life, and had never differentiated it from the general noise of "birdsong." But there it was, sort of analogous to how, to continue the mid-20th century motif, John Coltrane's or Charlie Parker's distinctive style of playing might suddenly emerge from general saxophone noise for a student taking a history of modern jazz course.

The next morning, I sat on the back porch steps drinking coffee and dang if there weren't Tennessee warblers in my backyard. And in the neighbor's apple tree and high in the silver maple across the alley. Carrying on with great vigor, a descant accompanying the usual robin/cardinal/mourning dove/ house sparrow/American goldfinch notes. And again later that day as a friend and I walked at lunch past the woods where I'd led the workday: noisy, noisy little things--how could you miss them?

Easily enough. A few days later they were gone, passing in the night to their summer regions. But my nature room, my garden room, is a little fuller, more interesting, and more present because that naturalist shared with me what he had learned over twenty-five years, the way someone, sometime, had shared it with him.

Note: The Tennessee warbler song can be heard at All About Birds.

Related Post:
Midewin Means "Heal the Land"

4 comments:

Diana Studer said...

are you back to blogging regularly? I've missed you, but StatCounter prompted me that 'a visitor came from ...'

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Diana,

Thanks for asking. I am back to blogging regularly, though probably not on a regular schedule. I had a grant-funded job for awhile that kept me pretty busy, but now the grant is done, so it's back to part-time work; which means more time for gardening and blogging until something else comes along.

jeansgarden said...

Adrian, I enjoyed this post about learning to hear the various bird songs. I know a few, but not as many as I would like. I recently saw a report on the news about a birding expedition for blind birders that was all about listening for the songs. (I always wonder if people who spend their whole time outdoors with earbuds plugged in know what they are missing.)

I knew exactly what room I was in when I saw that Rothko painting. I have a reproduction of a closely related Rothko in those same oranges and yellows hanging in my dining room. :-) -Jean

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Jean,

Thanks for stopping by.

In regards to birds, as a friend of mine said the other day, if you know bird songs, you can keep doing your garden work and still know who's around.

And Rothko: A happy coincidence--I started looking for an image of one of his red-based paintings, but the orange spoke to me this time. "Red," the play about him, is pretty good.