February 2017

Vol. 45, No. 1

Musings: Solitude

Martha Steele

Snow Geese, Dead Creek WMA from Gage Road, Addison Vermont. Photo by Bob Stymeist.

It was late afternoon on an early November day as we traveled south on the western slopes of the Green Mountains of Vermont, passing rich farmlands, rising and falling on the gently rolling road. Off to the west and beneath our moving perch were Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains of New York. The sky was heavily overcast with dark clouds, but the western horizon cleared and the setting sun shone through the cracks. Suddenly, the previously muted landscape dazzled with stunning swaths of low-angle sunlight cutting through the dusk of the coming evening. The sun illuminated the brilliant colors of maples, birches, and beeches, with a generous sprinkling of deep green coniferous highlights. This was a Vermont Life moment if ever there was one: the unexpected beauty left us awestruck and silent with wonderment.

What does this have to do with birding? There were no birds in this spectacular scene, but if it were not for our love of birds, we may have never experienced the beauty of the afternoon. We were headed for our destination of the night, and our trip was to bird the Champlain Valley of Vermont. This was a reminder that birding is not just for the birds: it is as much about communing with nature in general, finding peace, solitude, beauty, and joy in the environments that we visit to find birds.

Often, our birding experiences are as much about our connection with the natural world as a whole as it is about seeing or hearing the birds. A spring walk in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge features beautiful blooming trees and other plants, and offers soothing calm during an evening stroll in addition to the joys of welcoming our migrant birds back. A winter trip to Halibut Point on the North Shore can leave us mesmerized at the sound and fury of the crashing waves that carved rocks across the millennia while we also admire the regal colors of the Harlequin Ducks. A pelagic trip off the New England coast can delight us with a pod of dolphins playing at the bow of the boat in between sightings of rafts of resplendent seabirds. A hike up Mount Greylock in the Berkshires may produce many breeding birds but also yields vistas not easily matched elsewhere in Massachusetts, and sometimes an encounter with a black bear.

Many birders often bird by themselves for their daily outings. That means that we often experience the outdoors in solitude and can take solace in what our surroundings offer us. When walking in the woods, I revel in the crunching leaves beneath my feet, the low groans of creaking trees and branches from gusty winds, and sounds of life all around me as I walk. I hear an animal running away in the forest, startled by my approach and wonder what it was. I jump at the sudden explosion of sound of a flushed Ruffed Grouse merely yards away. I hear the squirrels and chipmunks, and the spring peepers in season. I hear the crickets in the fields, and other insects buzzing around my head, some annoying and some just passing by. I feel the warmth of the sun and the cool of the autumn rain.

Why is it that I find the outdoors calming? Why do I feel connected to the land, and why do I talk to the inhabitants of our forest and meadows? Maybe it is a refuge from the real world, a cocoon against the challenges and difficulties we face as a species. Or perhaps it reminds me of the earth from which we rose and to where we will return, ever aware that I belong to but one of millions of species on earth. Being outdoors, particularly deep in our northern forests, gives me a profound sense of grounding and connection, and presents me with a multitude of tapestries that the human mind could hardly imagine without seeing them unfold before us.

Over 20 years ago, I was privileged to spend a week of rafting on the San Juan River in Utah with noted natural history writer Ann Zwinger. She was an astute observer of the outdoor world and a fervent environmental conservationist. Among the many notable quotes from her writings was the following: “The life of the wood, meadow, and lake go on without us. Flowers bloom, set seeds and die back; squirrels hide nuts in the fall and scold all year long; bobcats track the snowy lake in winter; deer browse the willow shoots in spring. Humans are but intruders who have presumed the right to be observers and who, out of observation, find understanding.” (

“…who, out of observation, find understanding.” Perhaps this is one of the reasons that the natural world draws me in. It sustains my curiosity, is always ripe for observation to better understand, often yields transcendent beauty and surprising twists, and gives perspective on the miniscule fraction of time that I am part of it. Perhaps, too, this short phrase has meaning far beyond the natural world into all aspects of our lives, possibly more so now than ever before in our contentious world. I have long been immersed in the natural world, but becoming a birder in my adult years has only intensified my love and appreciation for the complex ecological web among all living species. In my imperfect ways, I try to be a good steward of the land and a friend to our earth and its inhabitants.

My birding forays therefore are not only to enjoy our birds but also to appreciate the sights, sounds, smells, and touches of whatever else awaits me at any given moment. I am humbled by how little I know but grateful to have experienced so much across the globe, both before and after I started birding: the endless plains of the Serengeti, the unique landscape of southern France, the rich rain forests of Central America, the wildness of the Brooks Range in Alaska, the solitude of the northeastern hardwood forest, the serenity of northern Minnesota lakes, the pastel canvas of the western canyonlands, and much, much more. Birds were a part of these scenes but most certainly not the only highlight. So, when you do not see the birds you are looking for, take a moment and let the natural world sink in to your core. Slow down, look around, and listen up. There is so much to observe to find understanding.

Martha Steele, a former editor of Bird Observer, has been progressively losing vision due to retinitis pigmentosa and is legally blind. Thanks to a cochlear implant, she is now learning to identify birds from their songs and calls. Martha lives with her husband, Bob Stymeist, in Arlington. Martha can be reached at

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