Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In the Deep Midwinter

We all have our ways of celebrating the winter holidays. Some ways are more eccentric than others, I'll admit. This year I spent the day after Christmas looking for birds from dawn to dusk. The next day, the 27th of December, I spent the whole day in a silent retreat led by a Theravadan Buddhist nun. I've been thinking about these two days and how, mysteriously, they reflect one another. Each was a day of silence, of careful awareness, of gratitude, and of giving.

My bird-watching day was no random event: I was participating in the Christmas Bird Count, a census of birds in the western hemisphere that has been conducted annually over a few weeks in mid-winter by the Audubon Society for more than a hundred years.

According to the Audubon website, the count was begun in 1900 by an early bird conservationist, Frank Chapman, as an alternative to Christmas "side hunts" where hunters competed against each other in teams for the largest number of birds killed in a day. Now more than 50,000 volunteers in 17 countries participate in the count, and the results are used by ornithologists and conservation organizations to monitor the health of bird populations in their winter ranges.

I did the count with a friend, and we were assigned to an area of about one by seven miles in the hills above Bolinas Lagoon, out on the outer coast just north of San Francisco. Our day began at about 5:15 am - hours before either of us normally wakes up - followed by a groggy breakfast and a drive in the dark across the hills to the coast.

We're relative neophytes, so we were paired with two more experienced birders - an ecologist and an ornithologist - whom we met just before dawn in a muddy parking lot near the lagoon.

After minimal introductions, we headed up into the hills in silence, all four of us listening intently to the tweets and chirps and little sounds all around us in the dim woodland, though really only two of us (guess which two?) knew what they were hearing. Every few minutes someone would see something and we would all be peering into the tangle with our binoculars, trying to see a sparrow or a towhee or whatever might be lurking there, keeping a count of how many birds of each species we saw or - in the case of our companions - heard.

And so the day went, mostly in silence, hiking on or off trail through the canyons filled with coast live oak (and poison oak) or willow and bay, sometimes up in the chaparral or grassland of the open hills, sometimes all four of us together and sometimes split apart, each one of us completely intent on seeing and counting, eyes and ears and senses fully engaged, not stopping to eat or chat or even sit down. It was cold and gray, and in the afternoon it started to rain, first gently and then with determination, and we kept working as long as we could, until the rain came down so heavily in the early dusk that we were blinded and the birds were essentially invisible.

Part of what I loved about the day was the way that EACH BIRD MATTERED. In ordinary birdwatching, when I see one kinglet, I'm pleased, but the next one I see doesn't matter so much, and by the tenth I'm usually oblivious. But in the Christmas Bird Count, each raven, each crow, each jay matters, no matter how common, no matter how many have been seen before. Ah, if only we treated everything this way!

After a nine hour day in the cold and rain and muck, We drove back across the foggy slopes of Mt. Tamalpais to a warm cafe where we sat and drank hot chocolate, still in our wet jackets, still completely focused on the count. We added up what we had seen: sixty-three species, about average for a Christmas Bird Count in this area.

For each species our leader added up our individual counts, "Robins?" he would say, "how many robins?", and each of us would peer at our wet notebooks and scribbled, pencilled, nearly illegible numbers. "Sixteen, no, wait a minute, that's twenty, with those four I saw near the farmhouse," remembering the bright birds high up in the trees like so many orange Christmas ornaments. "Kestrels?" and we would get into a brief discussion about whether MY two kestrels were the same or different birds than the ones someone else had seen hovering like tiny kites above the hills.

Then we all shook hands and went our separate ways out into the dark. Our little count will be added to the count for all of southern Marin County, and that will be added to counts all across the hemisphere, and someday someone might comb through the data, noticing that this year, like the last few, no oak titmice were seen on the Marin coast, another population winked out, or our fleeting glimpse of a peregrine might tell a researcher that peregrines still hunt the flocks of ducks out in Bolinas Lagoon, a conservation victory after the birds came so close to extinction.

Strange to know that what felt so inconsequential - our day of effort counting robins and chickadees - would be added into a grand continental pattern created by thousands of people and hundreds of thousands of birds, a tapestry across time and space and the usual barriers between species. Even now as I write this there are people out with binoculars and spotting scopes, perhaps in your neighborhood, looking up into the trees, recording the often unnoticed life that fills the air with song and flight.


The next morning I woke up early again and drove to Spirit Rock Meditation Center, part way back toward the coast. Another gray, foggy day. The grassy hills of Spirit Rock were lost in the cold fog, but inside the meditation hall a hundred people or more sat quietly on chairs or cushions. At the front of the room were two striking women, both with shaved heads, one in brown robes, one in white: Ajahn (which means teacher) Anandabodhi and a novice nun, Anagarika Santussika.

Ajahn Anandabodhi and two other siladharas (nuns that take ten precepts, including celibacy, not handling money, depending entirely on alms, and eating only once per day) just arrived in San Francisco to start the first Buddhist nun's community in North America (Saranaloka).

Photo from Saranaloka website

The nuns, who are British, come from a monastery in Great Britain, the only one I know of in the west that trains nuns as well as monks. Although a women's order of nuns has been part of the Buddhist world since the time of the Buddha, the history of women renunciants is a history of marginalization. In many parts of Asia the women's order has died out altogether; in other areas women practice as nuns but in desperate poverty, not supported by lay people in the same ways that monks are, and often not empowered to teach.

As a consequence of this sad history, in all my years of meditation practice with many teachers, I had never been taught by a Buddhist nun before this midwinter day. I sat down near the front and listened as the Ajahn gave basic meditation instructions, struck by her clarity and steadiness. Then the hall settled into silence, silent sitting alternating with silent walking out under the dripping trees.

Usually at one day retreats each person brings their own bag lunch, but for this event, which was also offered without charge (monks and nuns cannot charge for the teachings), we were invited to bring something to share and to offer to the nuns, since they can only eat what is explicitly offered. At about 11 AM, when the nuns eat their one meal for the day, Ajahn Anandabodhi came and received the individual dishes from those of us who had brought an offering, gently taking the dish from our hands and placing it on the tables. Then she and her novice nun offered a meal blessing. Afterward we all went through the line, sharing the bounty of a hundred gifts to one another.

I've written before of how moved I am when I see the power of generosity, and this day I felt it very deeply, almost to tears, seeing both the radical trust of these women's lives, and the tremendous kindness of my fellow retreatants. It was particularly poignant to know that after two thousand years of being pushed aside, ordained women could now step forward with their gifts and be appreciated, even celebrated.

This is the best of us as human beings, I think, this generosity, just as the generosity and caring of the Christmas Bird Count represents the best of us - crazy people willing to go out in all weather in the depth of winter while their friends and relatives are at the mall or in front of the television, all for the sake of the birds of our world.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in silence and attention, just as I had the day before, though my attention was on breath and silence itself, rather than birdsong and movement, and I was grateful to be drier (!). When I walked outside, once again I saw each crow, each jay, each black phoebe, and almost without thinking found myself counting them, amused and glad at the way that my vision had been clarified by the day before.

These two worlds are both my worlds - the world of inner attention and the world of birds and trees and fog....I am so grateful for both of them, and for the people who share my love for them.

In the depths of winter, nourishment and renewal.


  1. You are so beautiful Florence...I feel grateful to receive your sharings and interweavings of practice and life as it presents itself...
    Thank you...Joan F.

  2. My first Christmas Bird Count this year,also,Florence. It was a grey,rainy day and I enjoyed every moment of it! How wonderful that there are people that care enough to stop and look and listen to this miracle of life.
    Thank you for connecting the inner and outer so beautifully.......Martha C.

  3. Lovely post, Florence. I always love reading about birding or botanizing "elsewhere" (and that's a very big place!). I particularly liked your point about seeing the individual animals. (A kind of mindfulness, no?) When some people take a tally, the numbers are more important than the actual beings. But you note the opposite. How sad that we may find this easier to do now that there diminishing numbers of all native flora and fauna. (The invasives seem to be doing just fine!) Have a peaceful year ... and continue telling us about it!

  4. Thanks for the comments. I just wanted to share a wonderful link to an essay about bird conservation by Margaret Atwood:

    Thanks, Louise, for passing on the link!

  5. 人生最大的榮耀,不是永遠不敗,而是屢仆屢戰........................................

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