Keeping Faith: Nature’s Antidote to Disillusionment- H. Emerson Blake
In the old days, like fifteen years ago, learning the whereabouts of rare birds was a different business than it is today. You’d hear about a rare bird through word of mouth, or you’d call a phone number that — through a recorded message — would give an update on the rare birds that had been found in your area, usually accompanied by some Byzantine directions.
The internet changed all that. Now you just go online to read about all the birds — rare and common alike — that have been seen by other people. You can even download a map that will steer you right to the pond or tree or bush in which a certain bird was seen.
And so it came to pass that, on a late fall day, a few of us marched out into a field to look for a rare bird — in this case, a clay-colored sparrow that someone had found near a pumpkin farm in Sheffield, Massachusetts. We’d had a lot of rain, and the ground was very wet. As I trudged through the mud I reflected on a passage I had read a few days before. In it, the author states that birdwatching is “an antidote for the disillusionment of today’s world, a world beset by pressures it has never before known.” When would such a thing have been written. 1968? 2001? 2016? Last week?
As happens it was written in 1949, by Roger Tory Peterson, the prodigious writer of natural history field guides and the dean of modern birdwatching.
Peterson’s passage makes clear that disillusionment with the world is nothing new. We might tell ourselves that our current circumstances are particularly bad, but history is crammed with accounts of unspeakable things people have done — mostly to each other. More important, the passage reminds us that humans have always sought renewal, and that renewal is critical to the health of the human spirit. We need ways of keeping our hopes up, keeping our love for the world up, keeping our faith in humanity up. We need this in good times, and —perhaps especially — in bad times. Most of the readers of this magazine probably find most of their renewal in nature, but it’s found in many other places as well — the arts, hobbies, spiritual practice, even exercise. With that renewal, we find resilience, connection, rediscovery, and are reminded of the things that really matter to us. Without it, we are bound to become even more lost than we were before.
But I wonder if we need to think about antidotes as necessarily separate from our troubles. Thinking of antidote and illness together as part of a whole can help us “stay with the trouble” (in Donna Haraway’s words) and creates a possibility beyond merely escaping our worries for a little while. Instead, we can take a broader view where new and helpful strategies might emerge. Native Americans turn to their relationship with land to find the strength and vision to negotiate difficult circumstances. To create their future, they work from the very contested territory that makes for their marginalization as a people, ensuring their survival by defying commodification and alienation.
We found the sparrow. A tiny, delicately marked bird, it flew about with a bunch of other birds, all equally oblivious to the daily news of the human world. Whether looking for the bird was an effective antidote or not, or whether any of us experienced anything we’d call renewal, I can’t say. I do know that it was quiet, and the wispy clouds high overhead said that winter was coming, and that the land was welcoming and seemed glad to have us there. As much as anything any of us were going to do that day, our attention to this place and beings found on it felt like a good idea.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2018 issue of Orion magazine.
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H. EMERSON BLAKE
H. Emerson Blake is the former editor-in-chief of Orion and Milkweed Editions. Articles and books he has edited have been nominated for or won the Pushcart Prize, the PEN Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, and the National Magazine Award and have been selected for inclusion in Best American Essays and The New York Times Notable Books of the Year. He is also an experienced birdwatcher who has led birding tours in North, Central, and South America.