Birding in the New Year

The new year means it’s time to start a new bird list. I’ve been keeping annual bird lists for several years now, and I find it injects a new level of fun into the birding experience. January is particularly fun, because the slate is blank and every bird has a decent chance of being a new one for the list, even birds in the back yard.

even the starling
gets appreciative notice
when it’s first of year

So far I’ve seen 9 different kinds of birds in my backyard and 21 total. Even better, I’ve already added a life bird this year! Last Saturday my friend Eliot and I headed up north to see if we could find the ivory gull that has been seen in the Duluth harbor for more than two weeks now. We lucked out and saw it almost right away.

There were about 20 other birders there when we arrived (fewer than I expected since it was warmish—almost 30 degrees—and I’ve heard people have been coming from as far away as Australia to see this rare bird); the gull was not there at the moment but had been earlier in the day. We checked out the other birds (ring-bill, herring, and great black-backed gulls; and common goldeneyes), and when we turned around, nearly all the other birders had their binoculars and scopes focused in the same direction. And there it was, the ivory gull. Sitting on the pier in its beautiful rare glory.

Usually when a rare bird is spotted, there is an undercurrent of excitement. A murmering, a whispering, a quiet but urgent “hey hey here it is!”; but not this day. This was a silent group. It felt very like being in church or a library. A woman passed in front of me and whispered “excuse me.” Otherwise, it was silent. I’m not sure if it was a religious experience, but there was definitely that sense of awe, and reverence.

And the birders showed their appreciation. There were many gifts of salmon thrown out on the ice.

Outside the harbor, we also saw lots of common ravens, tons of black-capped chickadees, a bald eagle, and a red-tailed hawk—all new birds for the 2016 list. Overall a very happy-making day.

On a completely different note, having so much trouble over several months with the computer and internet has moved me to rely more on the U.S. mail. My friends have responded in kind, and these days it is just as likely as not that I will get something personal (e.g., a postcard, a clipping, a letter) in the mail. Some days I get more than one! I am finding it so fun to get real mail that I don’t know how much I will go back to email when we finally get our internet problems resolved. I do miss the internet. But I also like where the lack of access is taking me.

Happy reading, happy birding, happy winter!

Reading Down the Books: 2015

I read 196 books last year. That’s a lot, but not as many as the previous year (211). That’s what happens when you quit your job and read as much as you want for a year (or two). I’ve had a lot of catching up to do. And you know what? I’ve made progress. Not just getting around to reading some of the books that have been lingering for 10 and 20 years, but also moving books out (and not to the garage).

I get rid of most of the books I read, either giving them away as gifts or selling them at local used bookstores. I have to love a book to keep it, and not only that, I have to believe there’s a good likelihood that I’ll read it again. (The exception to this is poetry, some of which I keep just because I like to have a well-rounded collection.) I keep maybe 1 for every 10 books I read (and more like 2 or 3 per 10 in poetry). The point is, they’re moving out. Of course, we brought 178 additional books into the house this year (I accounted for 107 of those), so it would appear to be a bit of a wash.

Except for poetry. Two years ago I had two bookcases bulging with unread poetry. I still have two bookcases of unread poetry, but they are no longer bulging and there’s room for plenty more (though I don’t buy poetry as excessively as I used to). Noticeable progress, noticeable space!

Back to 2015: As I was tallying the books for the year, I wasn’t sure if I had read more fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. Most years I read more fiction, but last year I read more nonfiction (77 of 196; 39%). I go through reading phases. In 2014 I was on a major poetry jag (86 of 211; 41%). Interestingly, when I go through heavy nonfiction or poetry phases, I never become concerned, but when I go on a fiction jag, if it lasts very long (i.e., more than a few weeks) I start to get concerned. Concerned that I’m being frivilous, that I’m not learning enough, that I could be better using my time. I forget sometimes how transformative fiction can be.

That said, when I look back over my favorite books from 2015, only one is fiction. All are nonfiction with the exception of Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, which I highly recommend you read no matter who you are.

Here are my favorite books read in 2015 as of now (there could be additions or deletions):

  • One Hundred Names for Love, Diane Ackerman
  • At Seventy, May Sarton
  • Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Terry Tempest Williams
  • The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Lewis Buzbee
  • Relish: My Life in the Kitchen, Lucy Knisley
  • Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Carol Rifka Brunt
  • The Compassionate Carnivore, Catherine Friend
  • Another Turn of the Crank, Wendell Berry
  • The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, Dan Barber
  • Farm Anatomy, Julia Rothman
  • Heal Local, Dawn Combs
  • My Favorite Things, Maira Kalman
  • An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler
  • Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
  • Kosher Chinese, Michael Levy
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, Sandor Ellix Katz
  • Ethics of Household Economy, Gloria McPherson-Parsons
  • In Winter’s Kitchen, Beth Dooley

A few comments:

  • I love all May Sarton’s Journals, and At Seventy was no exception.
  • I wrote a fan letter to Lewis Buzbee, author of The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop (a most excellent book for book-lovers) and he responded.
  • Relish: My Life in the Kitchen is a graphic novel-memoir (I don’t want to call it a graphic memoir, lest some think it is sexually or violently graphic) and now I want to read all Lucy Knisley’s work.
  • The Compassionate Carnivore (Catherine Friend) caused me to change my eating behaviors in quite a major way.
  • Farm Anatomy taught me a lot and is beautiful and fun to read to boot. I was going to give this to my nephews for Christmas this year, but I couldn’t let it go. Julia Rothman has also written Nature Anatomy (which I also couldn’t let go).
  • Men Explain Things To Me, in which a man educates Rebecca Solnit about a topic based on a review of a book review he had read, not realizing that she was the author of the book he was educating her about. I think this has to be my favorite book of the year.

I don’t want to read more books this year than I did last year. I think my numbers have peaked and I’m happy with that. I’ll still read plenty, for sure. But I want to read a few more classics and a few more really long books, and plenty of poetry of course. But I also want to walk more, bike more, and spend more time on the clarinet. And walking the river.

What about you? Any reading resolutions or other intentions for 2016?