Wednesday, May 21, 2014

West Virginia: Almost Heaven


I'm fresh off my third stab at the New River Birding And Nature Festival in West by-God Virginia, and have once again demonstrated a nearly virtuosic inability to recognize any birds. Seriously, no one holds a candle to me on this. I have the Black And White Warbler down solid. He sounds like a squeaky hamster wheel and nobody else does, and he looks like a little fuzzy zebra and nobody else does. He's mine, dammit. I'm pretty good at the loud, low, whackety one ("ovenbird"), too, and by the end of the week could even name several of the men attending the festival ("Dave").

If you were to look at my brain--it's very thin up there, you can see straight through in a strong light--you would notice that my cerebral cortex is very smooth. Everything slips right off of it, and new information can't get a purchase. At this festival, fortunately, with regard to the bird situation, I am surrounded by freakishly competent, helpful, and in some cases really cute birding guides. They're nice as pie. They're still nice by late afternoon when I tug at their arms at a particularly lovely snippet of birdsong and say what was THAT? and they say, kindly, through clenched teeth, "it's still a Carolina wren."

The warblers are talented. They're like little orchestra conductors. One note and they've got everyone pointing in the same direction. Another trill and binoculars everywhere snap into place. A twist of a little feathered head in the sunshine, and camera shutters are going off in unison.

There are more birds here, even now, than you can shake a stick at, and we know that because we've been shaking one stick or another at them for a while. Their once-unbroken forest home has been well and duly shattered. Their insect dinners are beginning to show up all out of synch with their migrations.  You know you're in West Virginia when everyone is polite and calls you ma'am, and when delight has an echo of doom. And you hear things like:

Look! It's the Least-Spotted Seldom Bird! The last of  his kind! See the tree with the baby car seat and all those tires at its base? He's in the little tree right behind it, just next to that mattress,  up at two o'clock about a foot above the plastic bag.


Click to embiggen, if you dare.
We're at the base of a shimmering green mountain, on the sandy banks of the Gauley River. A Swainson's warbler is hiding in the rhododendrons and being a total tease. Pipevine swallowtail butterflies cling to the wet sand and fan their wings. A foot away is a regiment of plastic bottles, at ease, staged for the next campaign: the Gauley to the New River, lined with coal trains; the New to the Kanawha, the Kanawha to the Ohio to the Mississippi and, yes ma'am, the Gulf of Mexico! Lawsy! Sadly, they will not be able to join their plastic brethren in the Pacific Gyre, where they could have hoped to be picked up, stashed in a crop, and fed to a baby albatross. But they still have the compensation of eternal life.

It's hard for me to imagine tossing aside a plastic bottle, let alone several a day or a pickup-load, but in a world of poverty and Walmart and plastic crap and TV noise, the connection to nature gets snapped off, and is replaced by boredom, anxiety, and the suspicion something has been stolen from us: all of it feels like the dull ache from a phantom limb. You can come to West Virginia and still see everything we are losing, and how we are losing it.

Speaking of conservation, it's not too late to sponsor me in the Birdathon! Your tax-deductible donations support the work of the Portland Audubon Society, and make me dang proud to know you, too. Click here, and thank you!

35 comments:

  1. Shouldn't that be the other way round?

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    1. Yeah, but I don't want that earworm. Dumb song. Blue Ridge Mountain, Shenandoah River? Not in West Virginia.

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  2. LIke you I listen and listen and still forget which one sounds like which one! Hubby is pretty good at it,though, and also very patient.

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    1. I truly think there is something wrong with me. I'm that bad.

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  3. There are river clean up days here. I applaud the result, but cause remains clueless.

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    1. We have a huge beach cleanup here. I've never done it. But some of that trash comes from Japan. Just goes to show there is no such thing as "away" in "throw away."

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  4. Some birds are smarter than we realize. They're probably up in the highest trees celebrating their Humaning and Nature Festival: "Here comes a flock of Greater Littering Screechers, they get bigger every year -- but, oh, there's an Oregon Blogging Murrmurrer, we don't get many of those out here." Some of the crows are probably even writing blog posts.

    But an "ovenbird" should be a turkey, surely?

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    1. Yes. And it should be hatched with a little button so you can tell when it's done.

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  5. I would love to go birding with some patient experts. WV is a beautiful state. I have fly-fished the upper Potomac several times and am happy to report it has always been pretty pristine. It is a shame people litter such beauty. I saw my only Scarlett Tanager in WV. Excitement you can not believe...actually you probably would.

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    1. Oh yes I can. And ONCE AGAIN we don't have them here. Most of the really cool birds are back east. I guess they need something to cheer them up with that awful humidity and those mosquitoes.

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  6. People are pigs (no offense to the pig). I moved away from my boyhood home on the river because it breaks my heart to see what's happening to it.

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  7. Chad Pregracke started cleaning up the Mississippi. I wish everyone realized they can just go out and start picking stuff up. If anybody tries to stop you, tell them you'll put the garbage back where it was. http://livinglandsandwaters.org/

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    1. Just that sentence: "Chad Pregracke started cleaning up the Mississippi." Isn't that a great start to a novel? Holy cow.

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  8. That is some really gorgeous scenery, underneath the litter.

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    1. Yes. And, sadly, sadly, above the coal.

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  9. I can see birds really well, but hearing the high pitched ones is lost forever. Had a blue grosbeak last week. We are way out of its range, so people came by to see it.

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    1. There's more of that happening all the time. Not that that's necessarily a good thing.

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  10. Are you still being prejudiced and refusing to let foreigners sponsor you? I want birds everywhere protected. Even ones I will never see or hear. Which gives me the perfect excuse for not identifying them.
    Plastic bags and bottles I can identify. Far too much practice.

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    1. I am totally in favor of foreigners sponsoring me! I just don't know how it's done. Anyone?

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  11. I am not sure what my most interesting and nor best Nearly Virtuosic Inability (NVI) might be, most likely my inability to smell things, and my ability to stay in character.

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    1. That inability to smell things can really come back to bite you in the butt.

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    2. EspeciaLLy when there are fires and near fires. Someone burned up one of my silk screen press platens the other day and I never smeLLed it for a couple hours. It reminds me to stay married to a person who can reaLLy smeLL,,,,,"Yes Honey, I love you, you are my olfactory system - now why did you let our factory almost burn down?!?!?"

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    3. She might have thought you were cooking something special?

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  12. Don't feel bad, Murr. The only birdsong I recognize is the catbird, and half the time those are real cats. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/gray_catbird/sounds

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    1. I love those guys! And, honey, I know where you live, and if you're hearing one out here it's definitely a real cat.

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    2. Ah, but that was when I lived in Northeast Tennessee and had wild rafting experiences on the New River!

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    3. I think all your experiences are wild.

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  13. Murr, I've been a birder for nigh on 30 years, and I'm still terrible at identifying birdsong. I'm kind of lousy at remembering human-created melodies, too, unless there are words that I can hang the notes onto. I guess some people have it and some don't. I'm surprised that you have trouble, with your musical talents.

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    1. My musical talent is only that I can play whatever I'm working on musically. I won't remember it a month later, though.

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  14. I like those butterfly images and "still a Carolina wren" had me laughing.

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    1. I didn't make that up. Still head-slapping.

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  15. Just back from WVA myself. I wasn't officially birding, but I did see my first Scarlet Tanager---two actually---and watched over a nest of baby Phoebes. They waited till I left to fledge. Spoilsports!

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    1. Aren't the scarlet tanagers great? I have yet to see anything fledge. I'm still staring at my chickadee house waiting but nobody ever comes out. Then they're gone. I must quit going to the bathroom.

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