Thursday, July 03, 2014

How to Hold a Bird. A Tribute.

Kathlyn Heidel, 1938-2014
I came to Lowry Nature Center in Carver Park Reserve for the first time on a class field trip at age eleven. The outdoors had always been a very natural habitat for me. Do you know that first conscious breath from your cosy sleeping bag on a chilly, fresh morning while camping? Some of us would prefer to stay snuggled up and wait for the coffee to arrive. Myself, I happen to belong to that class of people whose eyes pop open to that situation and get right to zipping the door open to see what the morning sun looks like. I love that thrill of exiting the close quarters of a tent (or house) to let me out to the bright, green-glowing world. That is so often where the adventure always begins - in books and in real life - and that is probably why I love it so much. (Even wardrobes open to a snowy wood.) Plus, somebody has to get out to the fire to make the coffee for the snugglers.

Me, circa 1991, with the Saw-whet Owl
My mother, who is a snuggler, made the remarkable decision to rouse herself blue-morning-light-early a couple of mornings a week and drive me along the winding country roads out to Victoria. I knew that when we turned at the lone Dairy Queen standing in the fields, we were close. A few more miles down the road, I'd get out, binoculars in hand, and head into the center, looking for Kathy in her office. Of course, she was never there. She was almost always outside, hands on her hips, looking at her surroundings. Always looking. And seeing.

"Hi! What are we doin' today, Kathy?"

"Oh, you'll see."She meant it. I would see - really see, my eyes be made to open even wider. Once she taught me that the retina was thicker on the peripheral, so if I could exercise that part of my eye to spot birds and critters, I'd see them more readily and clearly. But before anything magical like this could happen, I knew I had to hold my nose and do the chores.

"Should I go feed-"

"Yes, do that first. Then we'll go for a walk."

The "Wetlands", Carver Park Reserve
Almost the first thing I was taught was to pull dead mice out of the freezer, put them in warm water to soften, give them a couple of snips, and bring them over to the two birds of prey kept on site for educating the visitors. One was a small owl; I think the other was a kestrel, and both were rescued but unable to enter the wild since they were permanently handicapped. I had watched the naturalists hold these dignified little birds on their hands with a leather glove which seemed very akin to the falconry that I had read about in tales of King Arthur. I wanted more than anything to learn how the handlers so deftly wove and tucked the leather strappings through their fingers; they did it perfectly every time so that the birds would be constrained to stay on your hand but still be comfortable. Before I could give that thrilling experience a try, however, I had to learn how to care for them in a daily way, which meant thawing dead mice. That was one way to hold a bird; to take on a regular, messy task for the sake of something greater. In a word, humility.

Certificate for "Developing Sensory Awareness" Course
When Kathy would take us on walks, it was not only the visual senses that were encouraged to open and sharpen. Sounds, smells, tastes, tactile experiences - these were all part of what she called "sensory awareness" which needed constant care for the sake of accurate observation. How many different ways could you hold a bird in your mind so that the next time one came along, you'd be able to identify it? The sound - whether drum or whistle - was essential. You could not quite smell a bird, but you could certainly touch them, especially if you hung out with Kathy long enough. Bird-banding was a favorite activity, and we'd come out early some Saturday mornings to help her. If you hold a bird upside-down, they calm and (sometimes) even fall asleep, giving the bander ample time to disentangle their delicate feet from the threads of the mist nets that caught them, encase their tiny legs with a small, light, metal band, and flip them over to let them fly free. Kathy was so well-choreographed in her movements that she could nonchalantly pick up a bird mid-conversation, apply the band, and release the creature before it even knew what had happened, tossing the number off to the person designated to keep the notebook. That was another way you held a bird - in your memory, faithfully recording sightings year after after, building an understanding of their web of movements over the region. In short, she taught me patient observation.

"Kathy's Prairie", Dedication 2014
About two weeks ago, I drove myself along those same rural highways that wend through the prairies and marveled at the beauty of this country still untouched by the developers. They do slink around the reserve, draining wetlands and putting up cookie-cutter houses where they can, but the protected land still keeps them mostly at bay. An email had arrived from my sister-in-law a few days previous: "did you know about the memorial for Kathy?" No, I hadn't heard. I knew she had been very sick - heard that through the grapevine somehow. Now, we were invited to come together at the nature center, celebrate her life, and dedicate her prairie.

Wild Lupine in the Prairie, 2014 
The prairie. Kathy's dream when I first worked at the park had been to restore this small section of the reserve to native prairielands. Here she had shown me yet another way to hold a bird. If you could bring back the homeland of the bobolinks, orioles, meadowlarks, falcons - they too would return. And it worked. When I was a junior naturalist, I remember squinting up one day at a bright goldfinch who had caught a tall stalk of big bluestem and was swaying back and forth over my head, a brilliant yellow dot moving in the blazing white-blue sky. Sitting back on my heels, I admired him for a moment, and then went to the task at hand, which had been to weed the prairie. Yes, weed the prairie. I spent many hours taking out the non-native sweet clover that tended to crowd out the native grasses and wildflowers.

It had been slow, hot, bee-stinging work, but here I stood -  almost 25 years later -  at the commemoration of "Kathy's Prairie." There were a few words spoken in her remembrance, but soon the crowd was squatting in the grass, comparing diverse leaves, exchanging excited finds. "Did you see this orchid? There's a new book about that!" "Did you guys know there's wild lupine over there?" I stepped back for a moment with a sigh - somewhat sad, fully joyful. At her memorial, here was Kathy's legacy. A whole community touched by her lessons, among them: humility in work, delight in the outdoors, meticulous observation and recording, and the importance of securing a future for the natural world. And in all of these things, how to hold a bird.

1 comment:

Henry said...

A beautiful memorial. The prairie becomes a song. There is a natural beauty in the woods and prairie, and Kathy called us to experience it with our whole being. May we learn to hold a bird.