The Nature We Know

Over the past two years, we have learned to find magic in the world right outside our windows.

My grandfather was a birder. His house in Syracuse, New York, at 311 Farmer St. was built above a deep swale. The driveway wound down to the garage where he parked his old station wagon, and he could see the roof outside his den window. He placed nearly a dozen feeders there and would talk to the birds as they fluttered in through the day.

“Hello, Mr. Flicker. Well there’s the cardinal. How are you, Miss Chickadee?” he would say to the rotating cast of woodpeckers, sparrows, juncos and jays, slapping the glass with his newspaper whenever he spied a rogue squirrel in search of a free meal.

My cousins and I all thought he was crazy, the way he chewed cigars but never lit them and dressed in a blazer and bow tie every day except Sunday (which was golf day). But we all have bird feeders now, and we share photos of our regional flocks from Mt. Stowe, Vermont; Wilton, New Hampshire; and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

I don’t really know the names of each species that frequents the feeders in my apricot and cherry trees, from towhee to kestrel and warbler to plover. Not the way I still remember the phone numbers of best friends growing up in Park Hill, the license plate numbers of family cars, or how important it was to name each peak I could see from the Cranmer Park sundial.

But it makes me happy to share the food, to see the feathers fluttering on the branches on a snowy spring day, each patiently waiting their turn. And there are more birds in the back and front yard now, rabbits rummaging the grass, and a young coyote who comes by in the morning, sniffing around the tree before he disappears into the open space below the hill.

It’s as if we created a little ecosystem built around a cylinder of seed being filled. A miniature Eden among the sea of homes. For a few full-mooned nights in March, we heard a sound like a hand slapping hard against the roof that we believe was a hunting owl.

“You’ve brought music to the neighborhood,” my wife said, after a small flock fluttered behind her through the chamisa bushes, serenading her as she went to get the mail.

It got me wondering how much music any of us bring to the world, how much happiness we share, how often we write a poem or a letter, plant a tree, or tend a garden that, in due time, will make someone else—someone we may never even meet—stop and smile.

How often do we stop and listen to the world, to nature—especially after the past two years.

I have to confess, it got dark there for a while. My mother-in-law, one of the smartest, finest, funniest people I have ever met, who remains forever my wife’s best friend, joked when the pandemic started, “Peter’s not having much trouble with this is he?” in a nod to my reputation as an introvert.

And together with our dogs, we did disappear into our own sheltered isolation, running in place from the unseen virus and masking up every time we walked out the front door, even for the mail. But we still got sick anyway. In December, despite both being vaccinated, we were listless and lightheaded for more than a week, with a brain fog and crushing boredom that surprised me and worried me the most, unable to taste the difference between peanut butter and a taco.

When the New Year started, it seemed like every aspect of life had gone virtual. All the idiotic talk about NFTs and crypto, a new stupid Jurassic Park movie glorifying dinosaurs that went extinct millions of years ago when we can’t even save the beautiful creatures we share the planet with right now. Wandering from room to room to stare at the different screens of my laptop, TV, and phone.

It was the birdfeeder that saved me. Nature. Being outdoors. Walking the dogs in the cold in the morning, then driving up to the ski hill. The ravens flying over the chairlift, surfing thermals, and all the different ways the snow likes to fall. The way the sunlight tracks the day in different colors and shadows. And the sound of nothing but the wind in the air.

It’s the living that makes life magic. The stories we make and then tell. The friends and family we remember—and the possibility that somewhere, someday, somehow, I might be friends with each and every one of you.

Here’s to our beautiful world and everything we do to cherish and support all the life and lives it holds. Here’s to living right now, and to peace and happiness for all. Here’s to believing we can all do better. Thank you. 

—Elevation Outdoors editor-at-large Peter Kray is the author of the God of Skiing. The book has been called “the greatest ski novel of all time.” Don’t believe the hype? Buy and read it here:

Illustration by Kevin Howdeshell

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