Seeing Beyond the Bluebird’s Mirror
By Edward D. Zehr
For an hour each morning, this is my time to reflect, learn, and wonder at the vastness of the world.
Illustration: Veronica Bardauskis
Pulling up my hood against the chill of the morning, I grasp the leash and smile as my German shepherd pushes his head into the fresh snow before flopping over to create canine snow angels. We’ve begun a morning ritual of which I am very protective—our daily walk through Old School Forest Preserve in Lake County, Illinois. I find no need to offset my work routine with dreams of far away places because here I find moments of drama, awe, and relaxation every day.
Other people who have known this joy had the vision to save this bit of nature from the bulldozer’s path. These people must have known the beauty of the morning sun lighting the autumn grasses orange, painting the clouds with soft pinks and oranges, and setting afire the ice-coated twigs of stately trees. They must have experienced the morning breezes with their scents of leaves and fresh earth. They no doubt felt a kinship to the winter birds and returned the wide-eyed bemusement of fawns venturing from the trees.
Both a chapel and a laboratory, this is a space for contemplation and learning. For an hour each morning, this is my time to reflect and wonder. From winter’s quiet, broken only by the nasal call of the nuthatch or the descending notes of the downy woodpecker, to the sudden burst of April energy when the birds enter the stage like a great assembly of musicians tuning their instruments, the forest greets and challenges the senses. What is that call? What do those tracks in the snow tell about the three coyotes who seemed to circle the trail? How can a chorus frog sing on such a cold day?
There is beauty in the details. The brilliant epaulets of the golden-winged warbler and the striking orange of the Blackburnian warbler emerge from the fresh spring leaves with a touch of the focus knob on my binoculars. The indigo buntings, perched conspicuously and singing persistently, reveal feathers that can be bluish green or brilliant indigo as the sun and shadows play on the feathers. The scarlet tanager pops from the foliage, sometimes red-orange, sometimes richly scarlet, apparently revealing differences in genetics as well as tricks of sunlight. The wood duck shimmers with intense, intricate patterns that would challenge any artist’s attempts to render it; so, too, the brave red-orange lily alone among the grasses, and the haughty cluster of cardinal flowers glowing in the shade.
I find mystery here as well. Rounding the bend on a spring day, I become aware of a cuckoo. The long tail and sharp, curved beak have a unique shape. For several days, certain trees might yield a look at this shy bird. But one day it is a yellow-billed cuckoo with its yellow beak and tail marked with white, while the next, it is a black-billed cuckoo with a black beak and distinctive red eye-ring—as if they had conspired to deceive me. The resonating call from the trees on another day seems to be that of a red-shouldered hawk. A closer look reveals a young bird, sending me home to puzzle over an assortment of guidebooks.
At times, I find humor. One summer, I witnessed two bluebirds, which were fiercely guarding their territory, react to the intrusion of my car as if they’d been waiting for it. In the narrowness of their vision and the specificity of their world, it was not the car but the side mirror that was the focus of their wrath. As I left the car, I noticed these birds of soft blues and orange breasts land by the driver’s side and then flutter at the bird that fluttered back from the mirror. How many of our battles reflect that same narrowness of vision and failure to see beyond?
That question resonated with me later as I watched a crayfish in the spring morning dew. Stopped in its tracks as it crossed a road it could only know as ground under its feet, it reared back to defend itself. Later that day, stricken with the image of that hapless creature challenging giants in a great Quixotic gesture, I wrote a poem and wondered at the vastness of a world I too cannot comprehend.
Of course, my dog and I are not alone in this morning world. There are those for whom the path seems to be a means to some end—a jogger moving to the rhythms of footsteps and headsets, a biker who begrudgingly yields inches as he passes—and there are those who become acquaintances. We exchange pleasantries and share an appreciation for this place we inhabit.
We revel in nature’s contrasts. The venerable oaks stand splendidly architectural against the sky, while butterflies, splashed with orange, yellow, and black, hover diligently over the low plants that draw them like magnets. The furtive coyote leaves only subtle evidence of its habits, while audacious blue jays broadcast their presence. Rounding the curve to a cacophony of these blue-crested birds, I watch as they alight near their potential enemy, the Cooper’s hawk. They harass and tempt it until they are chased in frustration, and then return to their pranks once the hawk gives up chase. Down below, a blue-spotted salamander, mysterious in its hobbit-like world, humbly crosses the path. I wonder at the millions of other small creatures that escape my awareness.
The chill winter provides its own welcome. But the excitement of another spring, with the rush of fresh foliage and the exuberant sounds and colors of the birds, reassuringly reminds me of the quiet continuation of things. The birds, already enjoyed by some tropical observer, are mine to enjoy before they fly farther north. Later in the summer, I’ll venture into the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, where I again can observe the white-throated sparrow and chestnut-sided warbler, common spring visitors in Illinois.
This intangible beauty could easily have met the fate of many suburban lands—it could have been flattened to make way for ever-larger houses, luring buyers with references to a pastoral beauty now barely hinted at. But Old School has survived. And yet our experience of such places must now contend with the allure of the digital age. In a time when couples sit in restaurants talking independently on cell phones and teens multitask with instant messaging, homework, and television, we must take time to actively nurture our capacity for interior dialogue and reflection. Our preserved open lands can provide windows to a natural world and much more: they can become clear mirrors in which to see ourselves in the greater context.
Edward Zehr is a clinical social worker in Libertyville, Illinois. He volunteers as a bird monitor, doing bird surveys and nesting bird counts for the Lake County Forest Preserves.