I’ve always liked the idea of memoirs, going into someone else’s life, going through someone else’s day and getting out of your own head.
By Aïda Barsoum
“I see somebody out there,” I said.
“Anyone we know?” my husband asked.
“Maybe … take a look.”
Ralph took a look.
“What do you think it is?” I asked.
For a moment Ralph didn’t speak, he was flipping through a book.
Behind us, my sister, who had accompanied us on a picnic to the Rapids, piped up: “Are you talking about birds again?”
“Ruddy Turnstones!” announced my husband triumphantly, answering both of our questions at once.
And so they were: plump birds with mostly ruddy wings and bold black and white patterns on the face and breast. Usually spotted on beaches, they turn over small stones to feed upon the insects they uncover.
We are often asked how we became interested in birdwatching and part of the answer is that it began with a book. We found the book in a house we had rented for the summer holidays. The book had pictures and maps. The pictures were of birds, and the maps showed where the birds could be found.
Ralph believed the book. This is important to note because, in many cases, one does not see unless one believes first. So, believing the book, Ralph studied it, and he learned things called field marks. These are physical characteristics which help to properly identify the species of bird that one has seen. The field marks can relate to the color, size or shape of a bird, or of parts of a bird. In the field, correct observation of the marks can quickly narrow down the search for the identification of a bird, but marks can be subtle and difficult to observe. For instance, an entirely black bird seen in North America is almost certainly not a finch but distinguishing between a crow and a grackle, both completely black, requires a little more effort, and telling two different species of grackle apart can be a challenge.
After some studying, Ralph did see a heron or two, a couple of species of gulls and terns, and as many woodpeckers. This was moderately interesting but hardly spectacular in my opinion. Ralph studied, but then this was a thing Ralph did. Mathematics, which he taught, captivated him the most, but Latin, music, linguistics and a random sprinkling of other subjects competed for his attention. We had a toddler at that time and my own teaching job kept me busy. I doubted that the fancy birds pictured in the book could be seen with any reasonable amount of effort, by me at any rate.
This changed suddenly a few months later. Our son was then eighteen months old, and we lived in an apartment on the second floor of a house. One day, alone with our son at home, I was tidying up the kitchen while he played with his blocks in the living room. Every once in a while I peeked from the kitchen to see how my child was doing, and, on one occasion, I had an unpleasant surprise: a very large wasp had penetrated the room and was calmly exploring the window pane.
I didn’t know this at the time but there is an easy solution to the problem of an unwanted wasp in the house. All one has to do is to find a thin piece of cardboard and a jar with a large mouth. The jar is placed over the wasp, then the cardboard is carefully made to slide between the jar and the glass pane (or any other flat surface on which the wasp finds itself). Thus the wasp is trapped in the jar and can easily be released outside.
In those days, however, I was ignorant of wasp-trapping methods, and I was concerned that the insect might frighten my child or perhaps sting him; so I picked him up, and I stood immobile for some minutes, observing the movements of the wasp and uncertain as to what I should do next. While I did this, I noticed something else: behind the pane of glass, and not far from the house, one could see the top of a pine tree, and in this lay a heavy cluster of pine cones, but the really startling thing was the vivacious flock of colourful birds which were flitting there, busily pecking at the cones and branches of the tree.
When Ralph came home that evening, I opened the door before he had arrived at the top of the stairs and said: “Ralph, what are those small birds with slate-blue backs and pink chests?”
“Great Horny Toads!” he exclaimed, “you’ve seen Red-breasted Nuthatches!”
Since then, I have also been watching birds.
A final note: On that day when I noticed the nuthatches outside the window, Ralph had never yet seen that particular species, he identified them because of my description and thanks to his studying of the field guide; it was to be some time before he had the opportunity to see them too.
Originally from Egypt, I came to Canada with my family as an adolescent. I had
then a strong interest in writing, but circumstances required that I consider a
more straightforward avenue to employment and I chose to study mathematics,
which I also enjoyed.
After a few years as a statistician and as a teacher, I embarked on a multifaceted
career as educator, cook, healer and resource manager (read: mother). During
those years I occasionally had bouts of intensive writing, as when I started a
newsletter at my children’s school.
Besides writing, my interests include birdwatching, gardening and playing the
TWO DROPS OF INK: THE LITERARY HOME FOR COLLABORATIVE WRITING
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