Two questions which need to be addressed at this point:
- What the hell is all this crap about travelling around the world? You’re forty, for godsakes, not eighteen. Grow up.
- Birdwatching? It’s not bad enough that you get up in the middle of the night to go and stand in a swamp and stare at some stupid birds every weekend, now you have to make a career out of it? What the hell are you thinking?
Fair enough. There are usually at least as many reasons for not doing something as there are for doing it. In fact, there are those who maintain that most, if not all, of the problems in the world could be solved by people concentrating on doing as little as possible. The !Kung people of the Kalahari, if left to their own devices, manage to do quite well on a twenty hour work week and what I’d like to know, especially on Monday mornings, is what they know that I don’t. And if twenty hours isn’t pushing it a bit.
If we were going to go and live with the !Kung for a year, or study at the feet of a Taoist master, high on a mountain in some inaccessible region of China, then maybe I might feel a little more smug about the decision that Doreen and I have made to take a year off from this madcap whirl of city life. But since our plan basically amounts to chucking it all in and bumming around for a while, maybe we need to offer something more of an explanation. After all, people half our age are worried about their pension plans and we’re getting ready to blow nearly all the cash we have. On birdwatching. People might wonder whether we’re irresponsible, stupid, or just terminally self-indulgent.
Well, maybe a little of all three - why change the habits of a lifetime? We’re just being a little more organized about it than usual. We‘ve been researching, scheduling and itemizing this thing for a year now; we’re very hard workers when a project has no material gain involved. And yet people still accuse us of not having any long term plans! Why, this is the longest range plan we’ve ever had.
The short answer to question one is: we’re going to travel around the world because we want to and because we can. Like the dog in the joke. You can learn a lot from dogs.
Explaining so ridiculous a venture:
Where did it come from, this crazy desire to travel around the world, to deliberately encounter all kinds of aggravations and hardships just for the thrill of seeing new things? There's no simple answer, of course. Doreen originally planned to circumnavigate the globe over fifteen years ago, at the age when you're supposed to do this type of thing. As far as I can tell she ran out of money while waiting for her standby flight at JFK, lost her all clothes when her luggage got re-directed to Switzerland, and ended up working in London for six months before returning to America. While stranded in England she established a network of connections that eventually led to our meeting here in Manhattan, and we've been inseparable ever since.
Parenthetically, there's an obscure post-punk record by Wreckless Eric (on Stiff Records, pop pickers) called "The Whole Wide World" that ponders the question: if everyone in the world has only one true love, what do you if yours is on the other side of the planet? You get the hell out of your home town and find them, that's what you do. (Apparently this song is used on the soundtrack of a cheesy teen film set in the eighties called "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole". This is the type of essential information you're going to get on this site. You'll wonder how you ever lived without it). You might ask why this site is called The Whole Wide World given that we've already met, but let's not be picky.
My own reasons for embarking on this deranged trip are a bit more hazy than Doreen's. For the last fourteen years I've been living in a foreign environment anyway and every trip we've taken in this big old country has been, for me, a journey into the mysterious and alien. With ever diminishing intensity, of course - you can't live somewhere this long and not become gradually absorbed into it. Just look at David Bowie on that ancient BBC TV special, when he behaved so oddly that Nic Roeg cast him as an alien in "The Man Who Fell to Earth". When asked what he thinks of America, he replies that there’s a fly in his milk, and that fly’s getting a lot of milk. Hmmm. I see. But what I want to know is, what was he doing drinking milk?
I also have to add that for many people living here in NYC, the rest of America is something of another country. Many regular Americans seem to think that all the freaks end up here, and vice versa, and they're all right. But that’s really not enough anymore - especially when so much of what made our chosen home special has lost its lease, been renovated, and turned into a designer clothing store. (Ever seen "Invasion of the Body-Snatchers"? It can happen to cities, too). Gentrification issues aside, working to live is the same in any place, and we started getting enough flashes of hamsters on wheels to want to abandon the whole concept and just get the hell out - in a very methodical, middle-aged fashion, of course. I don't think too many acid casualties setting off on the hippie trail had spreadsheets of their proposed expenses and itineraries, but times change and we ain't no spring chickens anymore. In fact, now that I think of it, being a little kid living in Earl's Court during the late sixties and early seventies (a part of London known at the time for its transient Australian population) may have planted some travelling seeds in my mind. It seemed like wherever you looked there was an aging Volkswagen van with a handwritten sign it the window saying "one more guy and three chicks needed for trip to Afghanistan." I always used to wonder how many of these wrecks even made it past Calais. Cynical even then, you see.
Go on, explain birdwatching, then.
As for the second question, the birdwatching habit, well that's a little more thorny. People are often surprised that two seemingly normal individuals such as ourselves are interested in such a thing - but then again, anyone who considers us normal probably doesn't know us that well to begin with. One might posit the theory that any human activity you care to mention makes no sense at all unless you're interested in it in the first place. (Try explaining Super Bowl Sunday to a Martian. Or antiquing. There are even, god help us, fans of Turkish rock music out there, whiling away their sad and lonely days by searching the internet for any reference to their music of choice and sending long, tedious e-mails to anyone who may have made a slighting reference to their pet hobby. Believe me, I know). The only real reason any kind of behavior seems sane is that a substantial percentage of the general population engages in it. But don’t let appearances fool you - every decorative plate collector you meet is just a foot fetishist who got lucky. The tables could turn at any minute and then it would be those filthy plate collectors scuttling around in the shadows, discovering they’ve inspired Madonna’s next video. So watch it.
Even for social deviants, however, money talks loud and clear. The amount of cash that birdwatchers manage to spend is significant enough for shopkeepers to laugh at us only behind our backs, and softly at that. And yet we don’t have one single show running on The Nashville Network. The reason I mention this is that I’m still thinking about the inherent absurdity of contemporary leisure activities and there seems to be dozens of hunting shows per day on TNN. Not fishing – hunting. (Not to imply that hunting is absurd, or even wrong, of course. Them folks got guns). All I’m trying to say here is that birdwatching, as silly and inconsequential as it may be, is no less silly and inconsequential than a good many other pastimes. And safer. A lot less people get killed in birding incidents than you might think, and the birds seem to prefer it to hunting too.
So how did we get into birding in the first place? Again, many factors contributed. Giving up smoking was a start - that enabled us to walk more than thirty paces without having to sit down for a good rest. By the time our lungs had recovered sufficiently enough for us to walk north of Fourteenth Street, we began to notice that the urban jungle was becoming progressively less appealing to us. We started to find ourselves in canoes, searching for absent beavers while serving as mosquito fodder, desperately trying to connect with the natural world. We found that we enjoyed the serenity and the scenery, even if we did fail to find anything more impressive than a chipmunk. It slowly became apparent to us that life in the great outdoors is not as instantly gratifying as the Discovery Channel would lead you to believe. Any mammal with an ounce of survival instinct was staying well away from us clod-hopping representatives of the human race, and with good cause. Dusk after dusk, as we gently bobbed on the northern lakes, as our blood was slowly drained, it gradually began to dawn on us that there were birds pretty much all over the place. Maybe, we thought, we should have a look at them.
Nature’s glory is one thing, but birding as we know it could not exist without the fieldguide which, like so many things in modern life, has its roots in the Western obsession with counting and classifying. That mania reached a fever pitch in the nineteenth century, when eccentric Victorian botanists and mapmakers girdled the globe, notebooks and butterfly nets firmly in hand. And not all of them were merely acting out their anal-retentive compulsions - they knew that a known world is a world that can be manipulated. Unfortunately, it does take the magic out of things a little when there are no more sea monsters and no more areas on the map marked ‘unknown’, but there is a certain beauty in knowledge for its own sake, a strange thrill in realizing that something is quantifiable. The fact that there's a finite number of bird families and species in existence is somehow reassuring. Knowledge gives a sense of control in a big and scary universe - an utterly illusory sense of control, but it's a comfort nonetheless. When I found a copy of the Audubon Society fieldguide to the animals of North America in our friend Liz's apartment I had a small epiphany. (Thanks Liz - it's all your fault). There was something oddly exciting about that fieldguide. A vast unknown seemed to shift into focus. A sense of possibilities emerged. Do ceramic frog collectors get the same rush when they find their first price guide?
The Glossy Ibis incident
One thing that had been increasingly preying on my mind about living in New York was the absence of those long, glorious summer evenings that you get in England. OK, so you only get a good one about once a year, but they're damn good when the weather smiles on you. If the long, dark, dismal nights of winter are just one of the many disadvantages of living in the northern reaches of this planet, then the long summer evenings almost make up for it, and I was missing them. New York City is quite a bit closer to the equator than my home town of Bristol – it’s about on a par with Madrid - and consequently there’s less variation in the amount of daylight you get here. Every summer I would begin to get twitchy and want to head north for strong beer, bad food, and long evenings bobbing gently outside an empty beaver lodge. We began a long and enduring relationship with Canada and discovered what a strange country it is. Like the USA in so many ways, but sadly lacking in the gun death and health insurance premium departments.
Like many compulsions, this twitchiness began to manifest itself in a craving for stronger doses, a powerful desire to get as far north as we conceivably could. So one year we made the quite logical decision to take our allotted two weeker in Alaska. A visit to the land of the midnight sun was a pretty exciting prospect, and the fact that it harbored abundant wildlife and massive amounts of unspoiled wilderness didn't hurt, either. The previous year we'd been particularly taken with the whales of the St. Laurence Estuary, and we needed more and bigger thrills. The Alaskan trip was going to be expensive, certainly, but we justified it to ourselves by saying it would be a one-off, the trip of a lifetime.
Planning our itinerary, we began to notice that Alaska is one of the world's birding Meccas. We thought, well, maybe we should learn a little bit about this birdwatching thing - you know, just stick our toes in the water, try it out once or twice so we'd get a bit more out of the trip. Good plan. Like the one about smoking just one bowl of crack to see what it's like.
Before we'd succumbed to the magnetic pull of the north, we'd taken a couple of days to drive south to Assateague Island - or, as we called it, That Place We Can't Pronounce. Back then, our idea of a vacation was to rent a car, drive as far away as possible in the time available, watch cable TV and drink beer in motel rooms along the way, then drive back. It might not sound like much to you, but it worked for us at the time. On this occasion, in addition to an accidental driving tour of Delmarva’s chicken farms, we’d spent the afternoon at Assateague Island, a state park where feral horses roam free. (Free until they're rounded up and sold, but we won't dwell on that. It spoils the overall effect). Visiting the visitor center, I was particularly impressed with the interactive horseshoe crab display - any surviving relative of the trilobite is alright with me. And the horses were a good bet for us at the time, being large, diurnal, and generally hard to miss. So we strolled around the nature trails, read the information plaques, and enjoyed the scenic views just like anyone else. Presumably there were birds around as well, but as usual we failed to notice them.
The next day, after spending the night drinking beer and watching bad cable TV in one of Delaware’s fine motels, we boarded the Lewes – Cape May ferry. As it set off we stood on the deck and scanned the horizon for whales or sea serpents and ignored the various species of gulls that flew by. For all we know we may have missed a Yellow-nosed Albatross that morning. After disembarking in Cape May, we parked the car, failed to find anywhere still serving lunch, and headed back to New York. Nice town for a visit.
Some time later, when we were planning the Alaskan trip, Doreen said she’d heard Cape May was a good place to bird. From whom I have no idea. We'd liked it well enough when we passed through, so decided it would make a good weekend getaway for our birding warm-up. We set off on a Saturday morning, stopped at every single service station for exciting road supplies, enjoyed a good lunch in Cape May (somewhere was open), and strolled around the town a bit. The only moment of tension occurred when, checking into a motel, the proprietor suddenly asked if we were birders. We didn’t know what to say, and thought we might be asked to leave town as undesirables (always something of a worry for us). He was only trying to offer us a special birder’s discount, but for a moment we felt like imposters caught in the act. What act, we weren’t sure. By the time we got around to actually trying out this birding thing, it was getting late and rain was in the air.
Cape May is nothing if not geared to birders, and even rank sub-amateurs such as ourselves were able to find the bird observatory headquarters and get directions to some sites of interest. We set off to the South Cape May Meadows and, armed with my dad’s ordinance survey binoculars and a camera, ventured bravely in. Immediately, we saw a small flock of strange and exotic looking birds. They were about two feet tall, glowed with coppery undertones, and looked vaguely Egyptian. Even at that stage, we could tell we weren’t looking at sparrows. We began rifling through our fieldguide (the Audubon one – in retrospect, not the best choice) and were utterly unable to figure out what we were looking at. Surprising, really, considering what distinctive creatures they were. When we saw a group of people approaching us, we were about to ask them what kind of birds were there, but they beat us to it. They had no idea either.
I’m not sure if by this point we’d begun to suspect that we’d discovered an entirely new species, but we hit upon a plan of photographing them and then figuring out their identity later. It would have been a good plan if there was film in the camera, so we drove to the 7–11, bought some film, and rushed back. But being inconsiderate and working entirely on their own agenda, the birds had left without us. However, that night in our motel room we carefully scrutinized the pages of our fieldguide and were eventually able to crack the code – we realized we’d been looking at a bunch of Glossy Ibis. We knew what they were - suddenly the entire universe was within our reach. A blinding flash hit us between the eyes, heavenly choirs began to sing, the room was suffused with an unearthly light, and we felt the presence of something beyond the merely temporal. We had ID’d our first species. We had become birders.
And the Ibis were nice enough to be there the next morning when we went back to see if we could manage a better look. Better still, when we learned more about their habits we discovered that we had seen this particular flock at the very earliest time they were known to return to Cape May. They were quite possibly the first of the year.