Monday, May 19, 2008

Born again naturalists

Each morning I check the phoebe nest in the old root cellar along the Path. This is the fifth season she has returned to the same place to build her nest. Five eggs this year, five hatched chicks. I wait for them to fledge. The mother bird watches me carefully, but seems to accept my benevolent intent. I make my intrusions -- with penlight and mirror -- as brief as possible.

I mentioned before that almost everyone I meet along the Path is wearing ear buds or ear phones. This is not true at dawn. Dawn walkers seem to prefer nature's music, especially in the spring. Thoreau wrote: "We learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn." Evangelical Christians make much of being born again. The naturalist is born again with every dawn, with every spring. "If a man does not revive with nature in the spring, how shall he revive when a white-collared priest prays for him?" said Thoreau.

Exactly one-hundred-and-fifty years ago today, the so-called hermit of Walden was minding birds. In his journal for April 19 he records a marshhawk, geese, pine warblers, goldfinches, and thrashers. Wildflowers too. Violets, columbines, potentilla, water lilies, and bluets. A somewhat more eclectic bounty than I have seen along my Path, but then Thoreau was undoubtedly a more perspicacious observer than me. I note violets, bellflowers, starflowers, anemones, and Canada mayflowers -- rather commonplace fare on the woodland floor, hungrily getting their first bite of the season before the arboreal canopy obscures the sun. "Only that day dawns to which we are awake," Thoreau famously said. I sit on the streambank by the bridge and try to stir myself into a more embracing wakefulness.