I have always sort of had a crush on Bert. Of all the characters on Sesame Street, he just seems the most rational and down-to-earth. He likes to sit inside, he collects bottle caps, and his catch-phrase is, "Yes I do mind." Doesn't he seem like the kind of guy who would be fiscally responsible enough for the both of you, and would always fold the bath towels? Also, he is yellow. But hands down the hottest thing about Bert is his fondness for pigeons, and subsequently, bird-watching.
Honestly, I grew up thinking Bert was more of a birder than he actually ever was. Really, he is just super-into pigeons, and VERY occasionally dabbles in other fowl (such as chickens). But when I was a child, someone bought me a book called Bird Watching with Bert, which was the coolest book I had ever owned, and which shaped my fictionalized impression of Bert forever.
Here's what happens in the book: Bert is out bird-watching with Ernie and Grover. (Grover?! WHO INVITED GROVER?! Grover and Bert aren't even FRIENDS! Is it possible that Ernie was kind of into Grover and invited Grover along as some kind of deranged version of a first date? Whatever. Grover was invited. Readers are forced to deal with that.) As Grover and Ernie shamelessly flirt with each other and point out mundane wildlife like grasshoppers and robins, Bert has binoculars and seeks the elusive yellow-bellied sapsucker. While the reader admires Bert's brooding focus, she simultaneously feels like Bert is not such a good birder, because there is a yellow-bellied sapsucker hiding on every page. It's possible Bert is just distracted by Ernie's enormous Grover-boner. The world will never know.
The best part of this book is that it comes with a battery-powered strip of buttons that correspond with different bird calls. You can push on "crow" and hear a tinny, Casio-inspired crow song. You can push on "squirrel" and hear what sounds like a distant apocalypse in a city of robots. This translated to hours of fun for any child in the early '90s (which I was).
I was also already pretty into bird-watching because my mom sat moodily at the kitchen window every morning and made lists of all the birds that came to her feeder. I thought this was deep and poetic and fascinating, even as a child, and I wanted to know the species of birds so I could talk to her about them. She has this effect on everyone when she talks about birds. She knows the ones that live in her garden so well you'd think they were her children, and she names the babies that come every year. She has some kind of crazy method for differentiating between one scrub jay and another ("That one has a freckle on its chin! See?"). She gives them all names that are just an adjective with the letter Y at the end: Blue-y, Plump-y, Gray-y.
The truth is, I understood the appeal even when I was very young. It was nice to see something and explain it with a word. This is "sparrow"; this is "house finch." The observation was enough; you didn't have to ask what it meant, or why it was there. You just listed and left it at that. It was like filling in a bubble on a multiple choice test: there was sense of finality and accomplishment that came with naming the birds.
I've been in Connecticut for the past week or so, visiting my close friend Ned and helping him move some of his things back to New Orleans. Connecticut is foreign to me -- I have not spent any time on the east coast (with the notable exception of New York, which everyone knows is its own planet). Whenever I visit a new place, the first thing I do is take note of the avian population, the same way I brush my teeth before bed or stretch out my arms in the morning. Connecticut is spinning with purple martins, red-winged blackbirds, and little shorebirds called willets. That's usually enough for me: just making a quick mental list of the species I know, looking up the ones I don't, and then getting ice cream.
But Ned is close friends with a local bird-watching character who is as close to an IRL Bert as I will probably ever meet in my life. He's this quiet and furrowed character with mile-long yellow hair and a trembling sort of chuckle. When he found out that I also liked birds, he asked if Ned and I wanted to go on a half-day hike with him so he could try to find a scarlet tanager.
I'd never seen a tanager before. They're heartbeat red -- a shade so dazzling you momentarily think you must be hallucinating. It's incredible to me what good hiders loudly-hued birds so often are. I mean, you should be able to just see them all the time. Forests and groves are all shades of green and brown and gray. Anything the color of a stop sign should be like a yellow dress at a funeral. But tanagers and their ilk are notoriously good at flying high and flitting in shadows. To see one, you have to stop.
The main reason birding is not for me is that you have to stop so much. My life is all about going. I like to have 30 projects going at once, all open at the same time, all balancing perfectly on each other. I hate moments of silence in conversation. I hate when people linger after dinner when their plates are empty just to chat without anyone jumping up to get started on the dishes. In other words, I hate all the things that are lovely and enjoyable about life.
I try to learn better, but it's hard. Even looking for birds with IRL Bert was hard. There were long stretches of time where we just stared at layers upon layers of redundant oaky brush, teasing us with whisper-thin twitches that seemed to lie about feathers and wings.
IRL Bert was not much of a talker, either, so we just wandered silently along the same shady belts of dirt, finding nothing. There were irritatingly distant bird songs that we couldn't identify -- except for the meow-y catbird and the ubiquitous redwing blackbird (who are apparently mating like crazy right now and all just want to get their bird dicks wet so much they can't shut up about it). There were repeat ferns and glass-pink flowers that dotted the roads banally. There was relative silence.
Sometimes it take a lot of this sort of thing before you can appreciate it. Moments of quiet are actually few and far between. When I find them by myself, I can appreciate them. When I am with other people, I feel like I am wasting an opportunity to be charming and get validated. But actually, it's kind of amazing to be able to be alone and with someone else. To just be somewhere and quit worrying abut how you are being judged or rated. I went off to pee by myself. The glass-pink flowers were actually lovely. What if we didn't need to talk or deliberate or even see anything? Maybe it was ok to just be out in the world, quiet, walking, enjoying.
And then IRL Bert said, "LOOK! THERE IT IS! THE TANAGER!" And there it was. He had not been thinking about how nice it was to be in silence in the woods. He had been looking for the scarlet tanager. That is what you are supposed to do as a bird-watcher. You're supposed to be walking silently with laser-like focus, trying to see tiny, rare creatures, just like you're hunting Pokeman. All the time.
I am not a bird-watcher.
I like birds; I appreciate them. But at the end of the day, I'm not a Bert. Berts know what they want and they are willing to drop everything until they find it. Berts are interested in bottle caps, and yes, they do mind if you disrupt the flow of their lives. I'm not practical or deliberate. I am a Grover. I hate to admit it, but I am. On a bird-watching trip, I'm the one pointing out bugs and flowers. I'm the reason the Berts of the world miss out on the yellow-bellied sapsuckers. I'm over-thinking things. I'm reckless.
But then again, when we saw the scarlet tanager -- when we all saw it -- it was so cool. Even non-bird-watching Ned, hungry and listless, looked giddy when IRL Bert pointed out the tanager. And IRL Bert liked sharing it with people, because success loves company, and we were happy to celebrate with him.