“Where is everybody?” I wondered. I was sitting on my favorite log in a small clearing, ripe salmonberries in front of me among the sprouting fireweeds, incense cedars behind me, various shrubs and trees banking the place’s edges—lots of great habitat. My camera hung unused, heavy around my neck; not a bird to be seen, and usually I’m pretty good at spotting those small movements in the bushes.
I was so focused on seeing birds that it took me a while to shift my attention to the cacophony of voices celebrating this rare clear afternoon on the first day of summer. Although many species are ear-based, we humans prioritize our eyes, and in doing so I almost missed the greetings of my little forest community. Who was there? I decided to “see” how many bird calls I could pick out of the choir.
Recently back from a trip, I’d left my little field notebook in my travel bag, so I dug around in my pockets for whatever random piece of paper might be in there. Found one…let’s see. Ctg chz. Spinach and/or lettuce. Blueberries. Peppers. Calcium, fiber, antioxidants, vitamins.
I flipped the paper over and began writing. Nuthatches. Pac. wren. Robins. Wlsn’s wblrs. Toot-toots, melodies, chirps, trills. In a nice coincidence, I ended up with fifteen bird calls—eleven identified, four mysterious—exactly the number of food items on the other side.
Which list is more important to our health? We can live on junk food for a while (and in the name of full disclosure I should admit that there were a few such items on my list), and we can live without summer solstice songs for a while, but in the long run we’d end up withered and wanting for lack of either.
Cities now include “food deserts” within which families literally cannot acquire healthy food, and these are, thankfully, getting more much-needed attention as communities work to find ways to make fresh vegetables and fruits more easily available to inner-city families. Less attention has been paid to bird deserts, or, more broadly speaking, nature deserts: places where children and adults aren’t easily able to hear birds greeting the summer, or see fresh green leaves unfolding to the longer light.
Grocery stores usually follow careful guidelines about strategic food placement, putting sugary cereals and greasy chips right at kid-eye level, ripe for begging from bored kids as parents wheel by. It takes self-discipline to make your food choices from the top shelves where the granola and low-fat ingredients are parked.
It also takes some mindfulness to be attentive to animal life in the city, the life and death and love stories hidden in plain view around us. Even in “nature deserts,” mating, nesting, predation, and the other small tales are unfolding: at night, in corners and crevices, far above or below eye level, at the edges of our hearing.
But attending to the lives around us makes us healthier. We are saner, kinder, more alive when we know our natural neighbors and the seasons of our ecological community. We need robins as well as rice, trills and chirps as well as tomatoes and cherries, sparrows as well as spinach.