Here Is What I Learned When I Drew All The Birds In North America
A few months ago, my friend Dane posted a huge taxonomical undertaking on my Facebook wall: Pop Chart Lab had put every species of North American bird — including some that have gone extinct in the last hundred years — onto one poster. I looked at the poster, fell in love with the poster, and then placed the poster in my digital shopping cart, because (obviously) I had to have it.
But before I hit “Purchase,” I identified that the emotion I felt around this poster was not so much covetous as it was envious. I didn’t want to have the poster; I wanted to draw the poster. In the notes on Pop Chart Lab’s website, someone had written that this poster took over 400 hours to draw. I thought, “Wow. Imagine spending 400 hours thinking about birds, and learning about birds, and drawing birds. Wouldn’t that be cool?"
So, a month ago, when my (wonderful) drawing instructor* told us to formulate a final project for class, I walked over to Blick and bought the largest sheet of watercolor paper they had — it was twenty whole dollars, which I’ve always considered an unthinkable cost for a piece of paper. But I was on a mission, and the mission deserved the highest quality Arches sheet available. I was going to draw every bird in North America.
I figured that this would take me far fewer than 400 hours, because I wouldn’t need to make sure my pictures were perfect, and because I already had Pop Chart Lab’s poster online as a reference. I was right, but not nearly as right as I’d expected to be. As of yesterday, “Birds of North America” has taken me over 200 hours, and I am not sure it’s completely done yet. It quickly became one of my favorite things I’ve ever worked on. In many ways, it became a metaphor for how I hope to live my life.
Anne Lamott put out a writing guide a while ago called “Bird by Bird.” It’s one of those guides that tends to be favored by aunts who don’t know what to give their nephews for high school graduation. I read it; it’s fine. It’s pretty schmaltzy — a lot like my blog in that way, actually. Here’s her justification for the title:
“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
This is the first and perhaps most obvious thing I learned sitting down to this undertaking. There was nothing useful about looking at all the empty space on the paper, or looking to see how many birds were left to go. It was only useful to give as much energy as possible to each of the birds as they presented themselves to me; it was useful to think about them as individual projects, deserving of my whole attention. Even the littlest birds are wonderfully complicated.
I was remarking to Luke yesterday how sad I felt for the self I was five years ago, before I had a bird feeder and the time to actively identify birds — sparrows in particular. For most of my life, I kind of thought all sparrows were the same. Now, it is migration time in Chicago, and we have chipping sparrows, white-crowned sparrows, fox sparrows, and Lincoln’s sparrows joining the house sparrows (and house finches) at our feeder. When you stare at birds all day, the differences in little brown birds become very obvious. Yesterday I saw an ovenbird hopping around outside with a handful of finches, and I felt lucky to understand how beautiful and rare the moment was. Most people would have walked on by.
The drawing became a meditative retreat; it was all I wanted to do. I didn’t want to go to bed and I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning. I looked forward to sitting at the table and lining the birds up, thinking about their feathers and their eyes and the different possibilities their shapes attempted. When I was drawing birds, I wasn’t thinking about anything else. (Occasionally, I thought about how I wished my cats would stop trying to bite my pencil; but that was the only other thing.) As I worked on it more and more, my friends started to ask why I wasn’t responding to emails or texts like I normally did. “Oh, I just have so many big projects; you know, it’s the end of school; I’m so, so sorry,” I’d tell them. I left out the part about how much I loved it. You are supposed to be frayed by your work; it is meant to wear you down and make you miserable. Drawing the birds, one by one, gave me a deep peace.
I had a wider philosophical purpose in making this poster, too. I have been thinking a lot lately about science. When I first learned about birds, it was by way of a list my 9th grade Biology teacher made us memorize. The list didn’t come with pictures or anything; it was a scientific taxonomy composed of English and Latin words that you had to know by heart in order to pass the class. While I knew that Setophaga townsendi — the Townsend’s warbler — existed, and that it was in the passeriformes order and the parulidae family, I did not know that my mother watched them out her kitchen window every morning. They were stacks of letters that belonged precisely where they belonged. There were no blurry lines around the birds. Nothing poetical or magical about them so far as science was concerned.
And in fact, birds are one of the first natural elements human beings attempted to suck the magic from. There are stone age drawings of birds, which suggest that we’ve been fascinated with them since prehistory. Early on, we started capturing and killing birds for the purpose of organizing them into categories and groups. The earliest collected ornithological system was written in 1676. A hundred years later, various academics and dignitaries in Europe grew determined that birds innately contained a hidden mathematical order. One popular idea stipulated that birds came in hierarchical groups of five — there had to be, for example, five crow genera. There just had to be. Birds were math; an equation that could be solved. Humans like maps like the one Pop Chart Lab just released; informational certainty is comforting.
My favorite page in my weathered and Scotch-taped “Sibley’s Guide to North American Birds” is the page about birds that look like sparrows, but aren’t. The female redwing blackbird, for example. Look at the male and look at the female — below. You’d never know that they had the same blood or raised the same young. It is only a very recent development that we understand that these birds are the same species.
So as much as birds have helped humans understand seeming scientific truths — Darwin's Galapagos finches are an example — they’ve ultimately given us more mysteries than we can solve. We don’t know how (or why) arctic terns are able to circumnavigate half the globe in a single migratory journey. We don’t know why sexual selection has inhibited manakin birds from evolving good survival features. We don’t know how, exactly, pigeons find their way home given no real external information.
I got a C on my birds test in Biology. I thought I hated science, because it was taught to me as something you could be right or wrong about. A thousand years ago, though, a science test about birds (if such a thing were to exist) would include a question about the origins of Barnacle Geese — believed, for hundreds of years, to not hatch from eggs, but to transform into birds out of sea barnacles. Really, we don’t know anything.
The impulse to sort and categorize is as vain as it is futile. This is especially true insofar as it can hinder wonder, awe, and appreciation.
And so I wanted my bird chart to have “mistakes.” I wanted the birds to look the way I saw them — silly or beautiful or tiny or huge. I didn’t make the birds to scale, and I didn’t keep them in their genealogical groups. I wanted this drawing to look like a science drawing, but to ultimately unnerve the scientifically minded. “A loon can’t stretch its neck like that!” I want my old biology teacher to say. And then I can say, “My loon does. I have seen it. This was my experience with a loon, and so this is what I am translating.” This is a work of appreciation, not of explanation. Maybe this is what cave drawings were all about, too. As if to say, “Wow. We share the earth with incredible, strange, impossible creatures. I recognize them and revere them. We are as different as we are the same. I shrink in the light of this great mystery; and my smallness sets me free."
*By the way, I colored these entirely with watercolors I made myself from ground pigments, and with a quill from bamboo that I watched my drawing teacher — Richard Deutsch — make for me. The class for which I made this drawing was unbelievably important. We learned where our supplies come from, and how to make them ourselves. We also learned how to use them. I had hourlong conversations about this drawing with Richard, and he helped me understand what I was doing and why. Art school was worth it, entirely, for my studio classes alone. This was in the top three most important courses I have taken in my life.