Field guide to right here

December 16th, 2010

One of the many bits of advice Marge gave in her workshop was to buy field guides. Star maps. Tidal charts. Anything that helps you name the world in all of its specificity. The act of naming – that is not a songbird feeding outside my kitchen window right now, it is a great tit – in turn teaches you to notice the details, to play closer attention to differences. That other bird, that is not a great tit although it looks very similar – it is a blue tit. And really, there is a world of difference between telling you there is a bird standing on the bench outside and telling you there is a jay standing on the bench outside.

We live on a farm, next to the woods, and my mother-in-law and I put out feeders for the birds in the winter and they stay here, all winter, flitting from her trees to mine to the high limbs of the willow when one of the two half-wild cats on the property comes prowling by. (Half-wild because they live outside and hunt things but my mother-in-law also puts out food for them and manages, somehow, to get them to a vet every year; as cat lives go, I’m thinking these two have got it made.) I want to name these birds and the water fowl in the pond in the woods. That is going to be my winter project, to come to know the farm and the pond in the woods next to us as well as Thoreau knew his Walden Pond. To name things.

A few years ago I read the novel Letters From Yellowstone. It tells the story of a field study in Yellowstone National Park at the turn of the century; the main character is an amateur botanist who manages to get herself attached to the team (no small feat, in 1898, given her gender; she goes by her initials and the leader of the team of course assumed that such an accomplished botanist would be male). She collects, identifies and sketches the local flora; she is precise about using scientific names because she believes that using common names leads to confusion and misunderstanding when two people have different names for the same plant. Thoreau, too, knew the Latin names for the things around him and I think I am going to try to learn these too, or at least take note of them.

Outside my kitchen window I can see a jay (Garrulus glandarius) and he is my favorite – I have a weakness for the Corvidae, after all – half a dozen or ten great tits (Parus major), one blue tit (Parus caeruleus), blackbirds (Turdus merula), one robin (Erithacus rubecula), and a mob of house sparrows (Passer domesticus). I caught sight of a green woodpecker (Picus viridis) digging a hole in our yard at lunchtime; I’ve never seen him before. Or have I simply not noticed? But now I have noticed him and looked him up in a field guide and named him. We honor the things around us by allowing them to have their names, to take up space on the page. To be seen.

There is a green woodpecker (Picus viridis) digging in my front yard, and I would like to thank him for visiting. For giving me the gift of him.

UPDATED December 17 to add: I’ve spotted the second jay. I knew there had to be at least one more…