On a snowy morning two weeks ago, I went down to the Matheson Nature Preserve to take part in the annual Christmas Bird Count.  Marcy and Mary were waiting for me, coated, as I was, in shiny materials; the snow glanced off our shoulders in flakes that thinned and thickened and then thinned again.  A clumsy stagehand seemed to be in the clouds, that morning.  He couldn't get the amount right.  "I don't know if it's going to get heavier or not," Marcy said.  "But let's go on in."  We ducked into the brush, binoculars bouncing off our chests.

How we do love to count things and balance them out, at the end of a year. I have a friend who counts all her blessings.  Literally.  Writes them all down, with numerals to the left and periods to the right:

1) Health.
2) House.
3) Car still runs.

How we love to make lists--the best films, the best books, who's the hottest, who's the richest, how many mallards are on the water (three), how many harriers in the tree (two, the Northern), how many goldfinches in the bush (one, the Lesser; none in the hand).

I know writers who count how many words they've written.  Other friends tally up how many pounds they've lost, or gained.  My husband does this.  I don't like scales.  I use the mirror as a thermometer, stand naked, see where the blood pools.

Businesses count their sales.  AIDS, heart disease, cancer counts its losses.  Today, Miguel, hiking above the Preserve as I was, said there had been hardly any geese around this year, but he could remember when they were as dense in the air as the flying monkeys in The Wizard of Oz.

"I guess I have sort of a weird way of tallying things," he said apologetically.  "It's the way my imagination works."

Not at all.  I knew exactly how many he meant.

I used to count my dolls, when I was a girl, adding in the ones Christmas had added.  My satisfaction was like a farmer's looking over stored seed.  My husband counted his marbles.  My grandmother, who starved during the Second World War, reduced to eating boiled grass, counted the cans of peas and carrots in her garage.  I can't count how many times we had peas and carrots.  I have friends who won't buy any gifts until after Christmas; they need the discounts.

I asked Marcy how many times she'd done the Christmas Bird Count.  Ten years and ten times, she told me, and five times as the leader, responsible for all the counting teams in Grand County.

This was only my second time on her team.  Last year, we'd seen a bald eagle together.  But that day it had been sunny and clear.  This year, things were eerily quiet.  The snow stopped, not on a dime but down a long ramp, then turned to freezing rain.  A dozen Eurasian collared doves squatted in a cottonwood, puffed and silent.  I recorded their number in our waterproof journal.  After a while, we noted an overabundance of magpies and robins.  Nothing against them, you know, but you always hope to see something extravagant.  Over the sloughs a tide of starlings rose.

"200?" I asked

"300?" Mary asked.

"500," Marcy said.

The more familiar you are with a thing, the better you are at counting it.  Astronomers are a wonder with stars; a baby can't count its toes.  It's all so overwhelming, at first.

"Are those," Mary pointed high along the ridge line, "the same three mallards we saw on the water?"

"Let's say yes."

"Have we counted those magpies already?"

"Let's say no."

I asked Marcy if there was something she'd always been dying to see in the Preserve, but never had; she told me every year she hoped for a pygmy owl.  It was just dark enough, in this bad weather, she said, that owls might be out.  Nearly crepuscular.  (Google has a new website that counts how many times a word has been used in print between the years 1800 and 2000.  "Crepuscular" is on the decline.)

No sooner had Marcy said this than I started imagining I was hearing hoots.  It's a problem writers have.  We imagine pygmies where there aren't any.

At noon we started getting hungry and needed a break.  We turned around.  You don't count the birds on the way back unless you see a new species; they're probably the same ones you've counted already.  We saw the same robins, or anyway decided they were; instead of owls, we came across a family of big-eyed, big-eared mule deer.  A female, two young 'uns, and across the trail from them, rutting, a six-pointed buck.  All four froze and stared at us.  We froze and stared back.  One of the youngsters, not knowing any better, drew closer.  In the buck's eyes I imagined I read:

How many?

What species?

Greater or Lesser?

Barbara Walters annually tallies up The Ten Most Fascinating People of the Year.  I always hope for something extravagant, but am generally disappointed.

Lesser, I answer.  Though doing the best we can.

A buck can't even count the points over its own head.

But he can feel the weight, I hope, and knows, as time passes, he is more than he was.


Photo credit: Bruce Barone


Mylène said…
A quick note about this post, friends. I wrote it very quickly, not stopping to measure what I was doing, just letting the associations flow and the memories accrue--a great, stalwart writing exercise (choose a word and build around it). Enjoy your own work, this new year!
This sounds like a fine way to spend one's Christmas. Lovely post!
Barbara Sissel said…
Nearly crepuscular ... I love that word. And this post about birds, one of my favorite things to feed, to watch, to collect. This morning, I have a plethora of gold finches (American) and purple house finches. Counting ... maybe it's satisfying because it can be such a meditative pastime....
Mylène said…
I am actually on a mission to increase use of the word "crepuscular." This morning, Barbara, it's very quiet in my yard. But I can see a huge, empty magpie nest in the denuded Mulberry tree.
Sounds so beautiful, and I love the picture. I think snow must be extremely meditative. I grew up with it, but I'm fast forgetting what it was like to walk out into newly fallen snow.

And if this is what you do when you write associatively, I'm so impressed!

Oh, and Barbara, I love birds too! We have a collection of night herons that come to roost in the live oaks over our neighbor's house (to the neighbor's consternation), and I love watching them come each year and birth their young.

Gorgeous post!

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