my green vermont

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Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

A male cardinal came to the yard yesterday, and I gasped. That plumage! That crest! That bossy look! Yet I didn’t always find cardinals gasp-worthy. At our feeder in Maryland, as many as a dozen would show up together. Here in Vermont, aside from the occasional bluebird, our birds excel more by their song than by their plumage. Thrushes and warblers dress in drab brown and beige, so as not to distract from their music. 

But now that our winters are warmer, a cardinal will sometimes decide to stick around, and the locals take photos of the flatlander bird, and post them on Facebook. If things keep going as they are, we’ll soon wake up in the mornings to the cacophony of visiting macaws. And no doubt, the first glimpse of that outrageous blue-and-gold, or red-blue-and-yellow plumage will stop us in our tracks, and cause us to reach frantically for our phones. But if the macaws choose to stay, soon their level on the exoticism scale will plunge to that of the blue jay (which you must admit is a pretty sensational-looking bird, when you see it for the first time).

I was squirrel-deprived as a child, and couldn’t get over, when I first met a gray squirrel, its twitching treble-clef tail, the bold look in its eyes, and the almost human way it used its hands. Now of course I hardly give squirrels a glance–unless there is a black one, in which case my sense of wonder returns unabated. 

But back to birds. Woodpeckers—downy, hairy, and red-bellied—love my feeders, but other than buying them suet cakes by the case, I barely notice them. Yet despite my tendency to wilt in the heat, I would trudge through the wilds of Arkansas if I had a real hope of seeing that holy grail of birders, the ivory-billed woodpecker.

Instead, why can’t I marvel each morning when the downies and the hairies and especially the red-bellieds (whose belly is barely pink, but whose head is a spectacular orangey-red) come to demolish the suet, flinging off bits of it that adhere greasily to my window? Why can’t I rejoice in their dailiness, their reliability, their familiarity? Like the rest of my species I harbor an unfortunate  prejudice in favor of the rare and extraordinary—the black swan, the white stag, and Elizabeth Taylor’s violet eyes. 

This preference for the exceptional is so ingrained in us that it must have survival value. The sight of a ruby-red strawberry in a field of boring green, and the subsequent burst of sweetness in the mouth of some Australopithecus grandmother must have cemented in her this taste for the unusual, which she then passed on to her descendants. 

So maybe there is survival value in preferring what is rare—physical survival at least. But what about the survival of sanity? We have evolved to be like magpies, disdaining the pebble in favor of the diamond. We have lost the ability to honor the everyday, and require ever sharper stimuli in order to attend—more color, more sound, more apps. Wouldn’t we be more at peace if, in this season of enforced seclusion, we put aside our binoculars and collector’s nets, and learned to truly see the acorn, the sparrow, and the moth? 

9 Responses

  1. There must be more advantage in the competition for fit females than there is disadvantage to being easy to see as prey. That's how it works.I saw a white squirrel once in New Jersey; it stuck with me so much, it ended up in my novel Pride's Children Purgatory, as a symbol – of life and death.

  2. This post really speaks to me. Birds and seeing their beauty even though they may be common. (Starlings are beautiful if you look beyond their personalities).Have I mentioned Ross Gay's \”The Book of Delights\” here? When I heard about it I knew that I had to do something similar — Ross decided, on his 41st or 42nd birthday to look for delights every day and write about them. His book contains about 100 essays, some short, some longer, each describing one (or several) delights he encountered that day. I began a new blog for this year, my 65th, noting daily delights. (whenimsixtyfour.me).

  3. Love the name of your new blog, Cedar (3 pounds 9 ounces???!!!), and your writing. I really want to include it on my My Blog List, but for the last two years Blogger hasn't let me make any changes to the page. If you know of any Blogger specialists out there, let me know. Meanwhile, I look forward to reading you.

  4. I am too tired to say all the things that should be said about this wonderful post. I will say that I won't put away my binoculars—I need them for the everyday birds too! Tim and I often discuss how beautiful jays are and how we don't notice it but we get so excited about the other jays in other parts of the world: scrub, Steller's, gray…

  5. Your birds and squirrels are enchanting and magical and existed only in Disney films before I left these shores. Bluejays and woodpeckers etc. I can't imagine getting tired of them – but then, I am a little over our kaka and tui these days.

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