By: Josh Parker
A couple of weeks into the UEE program, Mitch inspired me to start a new morning routine. This is going back to August of 2017, which might as well be a lifetime ago (if we measured lifetimes in insights, books read, or papers written). Mitch Thomashow was our professor and shared with us a book he wrote entitled Bringing the Biosphere Home. In it, he argues that to understand global environmental change we must first know and connect to our local environment. Enter my morning routine. I decided to have my morning cup of coffee outside, on a small side porch with just enough room for a folding camp chair. There, wrapped up in my robe, I quietly watched and listened and became totally immersed in the world of the ones that are always there, and have always been there. I sat in appreciation of the ones who sing the morning to me, to you. I created space for birds.
Birds are funny. They are everywhere in our lives, ubiquitous across the landscape, and yet sometimes so absent from our attention, from our hearts. We share so much with birds, space, of course, but also the need for clean air and water. Author Dr. J. Drew Lanham, whose work we read during our winter quarter, reminded me of the way we also look to birds to be our “canary in the coal mine”—scouts for environmental change that will have consequences for us both. Rachel Carson’s warning about the “silent spring” devoid of birdsong left deep impressions on the national psyche, igniting the modern environmental movement.
Birds are nature’s ambassadors, the front liners. What other species do we interact with so often? Who else is so tolerant of the way we move, build, and change the landscape? Who else so openly welcomes coexistence in these urban spaces that most people call home?
A small subset of us wear a title that suggests a deep knowledge and connection to our winged companions, but I’ve never considered myself a birder. Even as a naturalist guiding hikes through the most striking landscape in the US, Glacier National Park (and yes I have deep bias here), I would shudder with a bit of anxiety when a birder joined my group. Wasn’t I supposed to be the expert? Shouldn’t I be able to identify each distant song or flash of feathers darting through the trees? I laugh at how relieved I felt when I could identify a song, such as the long drawn-out tones of the varied thrush. I would silently thank the bird for helping me hide my ignorance. I think back on that time, one when I was nourished by nature and enamored with the landscape, and realize that I missed an important point. There’s the ability to name a creature, yes, but there’s also the ability to describe what that creature brings about inside of you, how it stirs your soul.
I was honored to see Dr. Lanham speak during a live taping of the podcast BirdNote a few weeks back. During the show, Dr. Lanham shared that his new rule for birders, a bit tongue in cheek, was that “birds don’t really care if you identify them correctly or not. They know who they are.” He urged birders, and I think us naturalists and educators, too, to “loosen up” and remember that in order for someone to misidentify something in the natural world, they had to be watching it in the first place. In that watching lies the rich tinder for connection to nature, for mutual recognition and wonder that birds offer us every day. In that watching is our chance as educators to help facilitate that new connection, to nurture and encourage it.
Dr. Lanham, as a black man in a mostly white birding world, knows firsthand how important it is to intentionally invite people in. He went on to share, “A birder, for me, is someone who appreciates birds…who on some regular basis recognizes the importance of birds in our lives.” I realized in that moment how narrow my own definition had been, how narrow my definitions are of so many things. Those years ago, in Glacier I could identify a varied thrush, yes, but what made me a birder was that I could revel at an osprey plucking a fish from St. Mary Lake or admire a ptarmigan’s camouflage coat blending seamlessly into the subalpine ground cover. I could wake slowly, then as I do now, and ponder something like Henry David Thoreau did when he wrote, “The birds I heard today, which, fortunately, did not come within the scope of my science, sang as freshly as if it had been the first morning of creation.”
As an urban educator, naturalist, and person who sits on the side porch to drink his coffee each morning, I’ve come a long way, with birds and otherwise. The UEE program has only solidified what I’ve always suspected to be true about teaching. Anatole France said it well, “Do not try to satisfy your vanity by teaching a great many things. Awaken people’s curiosity. It is enough to open minds; do not overload them. Put there just a spark. If there is some good flammable stuff, it will catch fire.” The birds I watch each morning sometimes have names, but other times they are song, silly antics, awe-inspiring flight, or simple beauty.
Dr. Lanham has helped me understand that I am a birder, and you probably are too. Let’s do our job as educators to make sure that the joyful connection we can have with birds, with the natural world, is inviting to all of our students and our communities. Let’s expand our definitions; let’s spread our wings.
Josh Parker is an alumni of the Urban Environmental Education program.