Birding Pt. 1: Magnificent Obsession
If you ever hear that I’ve been arrested, please know that there was probably a bird involved.
Birdwatching can mean many things. It might mean that you keep a casual eye towards the birdfeeder while sipping morning coffee from inside. Or perhaps you’ve developed your back yard into a veritable habitat with carefully curated suet, seed, and nectar feeders. But then there are the zealots—not just birdwatchers but birders—the hyper-devoted treasure hunters who sometimes have to explain themselves to neighbors and policemen and security guards. In this blog post and the next, let me invite you into that world—because I believe that the pursuit of avian beauty offers a template for our communal pursuit of the Beautiful One.
I polled one of my Facebook birdwatcher groups with the question, “What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to see a bird?” The thread blew up with unbelievable stories of marathon road trips, last-minute airline flights, and plenty of hiking and trudging to distant locales. One woman in New York drove 1600 miles round-trip in 36 hours just to track down a reported Mistle Thrush in New Brunswick. Another drove from Hilton Head to Key West not once but three times in three weeks to finally spot an unobliging Red-Legged Thrush; that’s over 70 hours of monotonous interstate to nab a few moments of avian glory.
One woman postponed her wedding for a bird trip.
In stories too long to recount here, members shared their scars too: a broken tailbone from a quest for a La Sagra’s Flycatcher, a painful cactus encounter while hunting down a Colima Warbler, and even a case of Lyme Disease from a photo session with a Virginia Rail. If birding doesn’t seem risky, perhaps you haven’t traveled with the right birders.
This pursuit-slash-obsession is sometimes hard to explain, especially when the person you’re explaining it to is a TSA agent suspiciously holding your zip-lock bag of birdseed, or a nuclear power plant security guard calling in your driver’s license number on his walkie talkie because your spotting scope was pointed in the wrong direction (a hypothetical example, of course, and certainly not one I would have ever experienced personally on, say, February 19, 2018). But the heart of the pursuit is summed up well by Mark Obmascik, author of The Big Year:
“Take a field guide into the woods and you’re more than a hiker. You’re a detective on a backcountry beat, tracking the latest suspect from Mexico, Antarctica, or even the Bronx. Spend enough time sloshing through swamps or scaling summits or shuffling through beach sand and you inevitably face a tough question: Am I a grown-up birder or just another kid on a treasure hunt?”
A treasure hunt. It does feel like that sometimes. And that is perhaps an apt metaphor for our pursuit of the capital-B Beautiful. The Bible doesn’t tell us not to seek treasure. In fact, it dangles that carrot regularly in front of our nose, even bluntly calling us to “store up for yourselves treasures…” (Matthew 6:20), but with the important caveat of eternity added in: “treasures in Heaven.”
To what lengths will a person go in their pursuit of the rare, the beautiful, the unique? Jesus described the all-in mindset of one such treasure hunter: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.” (Matthew 13:44)
At its most basic, the worthiness of the pursuit is defined by the worthiness of the object being pursued. And here Jesus speaks of a treasure so eminently worthy that a person would abandon all else to have it. This, Jesus says, is what it means to pursue "the Kingdom"—the present realities and the future fulfillments of the reign of Christ. What will we risk, to what lengths will we go, to see the reign of Christ established—in our own hearts first and foremost, and then extending from there to the world around us as God sees fit to reclaim and transform a broken world?
More than that, to what lengths will we go to deepen our relationship with Christ himself? Paul said, “I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” (Philippians 3:10) Paul considered all else a loss, compared to that pursuit; for him it was worth every road trip, cactus encounter, and suspicious stare.
If you consider yourself a Jesus-follower, but your Christward pursuit has lost that Philippians-inspired zeal, could it be that majesty has become mundane? This can happen even to the best of us, and even in the best aspects of life. Maybe we realize one day that our favorite mountain drive—the view that once captivated our senses—has become hazy background scenery. Or the miracle of our child's birth has been forgotten in the daily routines of diapers and dishes. Awe becomes "Meh."
To reappropriate the awe of majesty, we need to hold the worthy treasure up to the lesser pursuits of our lives, and let the contrast recapture our hearts. In Greek mythology we read of the tactic that Jason and the Argonauts employed to navigate past the island of the sirens, whose song would lure sailors to their deaths. Jason hired the master musician Orpheus to sit in the bow of the boat and play his music. The crew navigated the treacheries of siren songs, not because they steeled their resolve to resist the temptation (a la Odysseus, raving and tied to the mast in a similar situation), but simply because they were in the presence of a nobler tune. What a vivid picture of what the Scottish preacher Thomas Chalmers referred to as "the expulsive power of a new affection." I make real progress in my faith not when I love my sin less, but when I love Jesus more—when I behold him as my most beautiful song. His tune quickens my pulse to pursue him.
These Facebook stories of fellow birders remind me what a fervent enthusiastic pursuit looks like, and their examples of scouring the forest for the rarest avian gem are an apt metaphor for making Jesus my magnificent obsession.