The Thing With Feathers

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In these dark environmental times, Beth Touchette takes solace in the enjoyment of everyday birds found all around us.

Each morning, during my half hour commute, the radio bombards me with stories about the effects of climate change, global instability and government incompetence. After I park, I sometimes realize that I am in a poor state to begin my day teaching elementary school science. If I have a couple extra minutes, I do some bird-watching.

I almost always see, or hear a pair of mockingbirds. Their complex songs cleanse the day’s news from my ears. They flash white wing spots as they dash into the sky. The long blue tails, and loud squawks of scrub jays are hard to miss, but I like looking at them with binoculars, to get a better view of their handsome white eyebrows.

After a particularly rough news morning, I plunged into the bushes next to the parking lot and saw a tiny, greenish bird with a stripe running across its eye and beak. I had no idea what it was, but it was delightful to watch it scoot along the branches, like a feathered monkey.

Birds keep moving, whether it flying, hopping, creeping, or at the very least, preening. They have no time for melancholy. I love Emily Dickinson’s poem that begins, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.”


But, a couple of weeks ago, I heard bad news about the creatures that symbolize hope for me. A recent study in Science showed that over the last 50 years, my lifetime, North America has lost more than a quarter of its bird population, which amounts to three billion animals. The causes are thought to be habitat degradation, urbanization, and pesticides. Cats that are allowed outdoors also kill millions of birds, especially baby ones.

I am now reminded that I cannot ignore the plight of birds, but I will continue to appreciate their joyful obliviousness.

But the recent words of 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg haunt me:
“Adults keep saying, 'We owe it to young people to give them hope.' But I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic.”

At this point in the environmental catastrophe, I agree that we need more panic, especially at the federal level, but I need the joyful obliviousness of hope, to remain sane.

With a Perspective, I am Beth Touchette

Beth Touchette teaches science in the North Bay.