If You Look Hard Enough at a Thing You Love, You End Up Seeing Hope
Near the end of Freedom, one of Jonathan Franzen’s novels about a family that is awful to each other, Walter Berglund, the paterfamilias and an obvious stand-in for Franzen, gets angry at his neighbors for letting their cat roam the neighborhood and kill songbirds. Walter captures the cat and takes it to a distant no-kill shelter, and Franzen presents the scene with the quiet righteousness of someone who has long harbored a specific revenge fantasy. It is that part of the novel — not the adultery, or war profiteering, or even the character who fishes his own turd out of the toilet to find the wedding ring he swallowed — that has stayed with me the most over the decade since I read it. I’ve held on to it as a way to empathize with an author whose work no longer resonates with me: At least he hates cats.
Franzen is my touchstone for birding, and his militancy on the subject — he once beefed with the Audubon Society over avian conservation — makes me hesitant to call my minor-league bird identification skills “birding.” I don’t own binoculars. I don’t have a notebook to keep track of which birds I saw and when. I am not particularly interested in the time and effort and silence required to glimpse rare birds, because I have young children who require most of my time and effort, and they are never silent. Really, I just want to see a bird and know what it’s called; I don’t need a whole hobby.
I have a slim illustrated field guide — a Golden Guide, the same one I had as a child, updated to reflect the populations that have dwindled over three-plus decades of climate change — and I am surrounded by the trees and wetlands of central Connecticut. Our exurban neighborhood is rife with the usual suspects: robins, starlings, sparrows. But the joy in birding, as a parent to young kids and also as a simpleton, is in seeing larger birds — the red-tailed hawks that patrol for the lazy rabbits that crap in our yards, gangs of wild turkeys looking for a scrap — or more colorful ones. It’s unenlightened, I know, but I would rather see a cardinal or a blue jay than a grackle or a wood thrush.