Can’t feel my legs anymore/But I’m still walking
“All Dried Up” by Phantogram
When I was eight or nine years old the beginning of a lifelong (and continuing) fear began on a beautiful spring day. At some point during this particular day, my mother walked out on our back deck to find a blue jay resting perfectly on its back on the flat surface of the wooden railing. Upon inspection however, my mother realized the blue jay was not resting, but was in fact deceased. My mother, my brothers, and I were all perplexed how the blue jay ended up dead on our back deck in perfect form. No sign of struggle or foul play whatsoever.
This led to my mother commenting on how beautiful the dead blue jay was and insisted on finding a local taxidermist to prepare it for a prominent place on the fireplace mantle in the living room. We all thought this was a terrible idea. Who wants to be the family with the stuffed blue jay staring at your guests as they try to enjoy your chicken parmesan and risotto?
She gently picked up the bird, slid it into a Ziploc bag, and placed it in our freezer to preserve it in all its glory. Being a busy mother of five boys, the dream of stuffing the bird was put aside for more pressing and honorable matters, such as raising a family alongside my father.
Shortly before the blue jay became an honorary member of the Brandt family, I had watched Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 horror film The Birds. This film’s only premise is birds of all species start to ramp up their aggression with violent attacks upon the residents of a California town and eventually start killing some of them near the film’s end. The film ends with no explanation for the attacks and is simply two hours of birds (sometimes succeeding in) pecking people’s eyeballs out.
My fear of birds probably began in its subconscious state after seeing this torturous film and came into full fruition when my brothers would retrieve the dead blue jay from the freezer to chase me around the house until I ran into a bathroom and locked the door. This continued a few times a year for the almost decade-long period the bird stayed in our freezer. Every time I would grab a loaf of bread from the freezer I would notice the frozen specimen looking less and less like a bird and more like a Russian soldier who met his match with Old Man Winter in the Battle of Stalingrad. The most troubling thought I had in these 30 seconds of sheer terror while running away from whoever was in possession of the blue jay, was the thought that the bird handler was one-trip-on-the-vacuum-cord away from sending the frozen and prized possession into a million crystallized pieces of bird bits all over the kitchen’s wooden floors. Fortunately this thought never became reality and my father made the wise decision, one I should have made years ago, to throw the frozen blue jay in the trash. Never to rest alongside a loaf of seven grain bread again.
I find it amusing that I have a fear of birds, because I have spent the majority of life being a bird. You probably have too. We don’t have feathers or wings per se, but we do participate in bird-like behaviors every day.
The bird seeks nourishment, protection and purpose from its host, the rhino. As they seek out ticks and fleas to provide energy, and rely on the rhino to lead them to resources such as trees and water to build nests in sustainable locations, they’re also playing a vital role in their ecosystem. I am no ornithologist, but birds can teach us a thing or two.
Could you imagine? Dedicating your entire life to the study of birds? You would wake up every morning just before the sunrise, brush your teeth for exactly two minutes, put on your numbered socks so you know if you are ever missing a left or right, put on one of your 7 folded short sleeve double-breasted pocket tan button-up shirts, grab your binoculars and notebook, and walk out into a forest searching for the chance to see a couple of elusive ivory-billed woodpeckers mating in the backwoods of Arkansas. You find them and record your discovery, one that would breathe air into John James Audubon’s 166 year old lifeless body, causing him to begin pounding his casket for the chance to share in your joy. He probably wouldn’t remember his life as an ornithologist because he had dementia at the time of his death, but it’s the thought that counts. Because this scenario is impossible, you simply inform your wife Matilda about your discovery over a breakfast of poached eggs and milk, as she asks you how your job search is coming along and if the mortgage is going to get paid this month.
If this is a hobby you are casually interested in exploring, I would warn you of the several risks involved in such an endeavour. Birdwatchers are a serious subsect of our population. You are either all in or you are not in at all.
Please review the tragic endings of the following birdwatchers.
Phoebe Snetsinger: Spent her entire family inheritance traveling the world, suffered from a malignant melanoma, got attacked by 5 men with machetes in New Guinea, survived (which sounds even worse), narrowly escaped death in a boating accident, got taken hostage in Ethiopia, and ultimately was killed in a car accident in Madagascar. She saw over 8,400 different species of birds. The last bird she saw was the red-shouldered vanga, which is currently listed as “vulnerable” on the conservation status.
David Hunt: Mauled by a tiger in India in 1985 while leading a bird tour. As a result of this incident, visitors are now forbidden to walk on the territory of the Jim Corbett National Park any time of the day if they are unattended by a certified guide.
Ted Parker: Saw 626 species in 1971, a record at the time. He died in a fatal plane crash in Ecuador at the age of 40.
That being said. Tread lightly.
Back to ornithology.
(From the comfort of your home.)
The oxpecker doesn’t get a boost of serotonin or even have the brain capacity to come to the realization that he is building a fulfilling life for itself or its community, but its habits and decision making is very similar to what every human seeks at a very basic level. We all seek food, shelter, and purpose. If one of these is lacking, our lives will suffer, physically or mentally.
If you are fortunate to have been afforded the ability to have food and shelter at your disposal for most of your life, you may not resonate with the everyday struggle almost 50 million Americans have to provide food for themselves and their families. However, I would argue almost all of us have experienced the hunger for purpose. This hunger for purpose, if not fed eventually, can often seem worse than not having the availability of food on occasion.
When I was senior in high school, I went on a camping trip with two of my brothers and four other friends to hike up Mt. Rogers, the tallest mountain in Virginia. We packed pretty light. Just our sleeping bags, a few cans of beans, and a couple packs of American Spirits and pipe tobacco.
Don’t get any crazy ideas, the tallest mountain in Virginia is the equivalent of claiming you’re the tallest Oompa Loompa at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
It didn’t take long before most of our group lit up their method of choice while looking over a trail map. I was 3 weeks from turning 18 and my older brothers did not want to explain to our mother why they were introducing me to a nasty habit so I did not partake. There is a healthy fear any son should have of their loving mother. Several hypothetical conversations in my head have kept me out of a world of trouble. And for that, I only have her to thank. This is still applicable as a twenty-four year old.
Smoking really is a nasty habit. I got really into pipes and cigars in college. There is something visually appealing to me about smoke rising in the air. For a few moments you are outside the constructs of time and you become mesmerized by the shapes it forms during its ascension. I think that’s why people start smoking. But eventually it is simply the nicotine that keeps them coming back for more. One night with my brother and cousin, we were playing chess while smoking cigars at a smoke shop in Southwest Ohio and I became gravely sick and turned a pale, yellow color. I could feel a cold sweat coming along as I stared at my lonely king hiding cowardly in the corner of the board, awaiting to be killed by a gang of knights and rooks. I got up and within seconds of walking outside, I had lost my dinner. I went cold turkey on cigars for almost two years after the incident.
It is not the height of Mt. Rogers that makes this peak one of the most unique hikes along the Appalachian Trail, but the hundreds of wild horses that roam Massie’s Gap, a grassy plateau hikers pass on the trek back down the summit.
I could not wait to get a glimpse of them.
After a handful of wrong turns, we finally found a suitable camping spot to pitch our two-man tent that somehow had to shelter all seven of us. It began to drizzle on the already snow-covered trail as we cooked a very small portion of baked beans over a fire we managed to curate from the little dry bush and sticks we could gather. The drizzle turned into a full on sleet storm as we quickly ate our baked beans and slid into the tent.
I don’t remember the thought process but we took the concept of central heat too literally and placed the largest individuals in the middle of the tent. I on the other hand found myself, the smallest member of this group, lying on the very edge of the inside of the tent where our soaked hiking boots were gathered, creating a small pond of snow, ice, water, and mud. We all had our coats on top of our bags as we tried to stay warm. This small pond became a confluence of rivers which began to slowly break the dam of boots I had created and seeped into my sleeping bag like a sinking ship, just buying enough time for the officers to grab the remaining lifeboats and pray to God they make it out alive. The cooks and engine room workers were already dead. The USS Coleman was going down, and I had to make a decision before it took my life too. All I wanted was to be at home, in bed, in my 70 degree room, with dry sheets and a pillow. Instead, I was afraid I was going to get hypothermia and not have the strength to hike back in the morning. Eventually I got out of my sleeping bag and managed to sleep on top of the only dry item, my coat.
By some miracle, I managed to fall asleep late into the night, and awoke to find that just about everyone else had a similar experience of water logged sleeping quarters. We packed up our site and managed to summit in the morning, which turned out to be quite a disappointment as it was completely covered in trees. We made our way down the trail and just as I had had enough of this trip, we came upon Massie’s Gap to find not just a few, but a whole herd of over fifty wild horses lazily prancing around on the melting snow like a scene out of The Lord of the Rings.
Soon we were standing in the middle of a circle of horses who were acting more domicile than a house cat. We reached out our cold hands and felt their soft, leather-like necks as their warm breath filled the air. Maybe we were gifted with the unbeknownst ability to whisper sweet nothings to these beasts. I’m not sure. What I was sure about was this moment made the whole trip worth it. I forgot how cold, tired, and hungry I was and relished in the fact we had experienced the crown jewel of makes Mt. Rogers such a breathtaking experience.
Four years later, I found myself as a recent college graduate working as a teller at a bank cashing checks for women who would remind me of her arthritis everytime it rained and men who couldn’t hear what interest rate they were getting on their prefered checking account because they flew helicopters over the rice paddies of Vietnam during the Tet Offensive. I would spend everyday trying to convince people who had been managing their finances a certain way for over four decades to change their behavior for their benefit. But, I quickly learned, it’s close to impossible to change someone’s behavior after the age of thirty.
I was making just enough money to pay rent and feed myself. I even had to pick up hours at a retailer folding $3.99 camis while listening to how difficult it was being a college sophomore who didn’t get into a sorority of their choice.
I got stuck in a mental labyrinth of starting to believe I was adding no value and my education was sitting on the sidelines waiting to be used. The best part of my day became 5 o’clock where I would drive home and sleep away the feelings of worthlessness. Some days after work I would drive past my street and head to a local park where the parking lot near a large pond was relatively empty and I would punch my steering wheel hoping one day the airbag would go off and it would provide the jolt I needed to get out of the funk I was in. I would get out of my car and walk over to the gazebo and watch the sun go down behind an old GM plant as the sun’s orange reflection would fall upon the Canadian geese swimming on the surface of the water, hoping the next day would be better the last.
As I leaned on the wooden railing I thought about the times I truly felt alive and almost all of the memories that came to mind didn’t involve spending or earning money, or 70 degree living rooms with television and a warm meal. They didn’t involve sitting behind a computer analyzing spending and savings habits of retirees. They involved cramped muscles from running twenty miles with my brother through the woods of Northern Virginia. They involved frantically driving a 15 passenger van around Southern California with no GPS, picking up oil refinery contractors to bring to the airport before their flights took off.
They involved waterlogged tents on a mountain top.
Because there was a finish line at the end. There was a strict deadline to meet with limited resources at my disposal.
There were wild horses to see on the other side.
Because there was blood pumping through my veins.
At that moment, I wish I was in that tent. Instead I was experiencing a numbing comfortability with no purpose which bred an overwhelming burden of despondency.
I was spending too much time in the nest and not enough time seeking out the ticks and fleas that would propel me forward.
The fleas and ticks are the lifeblood for the bird. They are the day-to-day tasks that get him out of the nest every day. They are quite truly the means of providing a purpose.
The fleas and ticks for us come in the form of problems that need solutions. Deadlines that need to be met. Mountaintops that need to be climbed. Words that need to be written.
At times, it can seem impossible to find these fleas and ticks to propel us along. By the time I had sent out my 90th resume (I counted) since Christmas break of my senior year of college and almost a year in Dayton, I had officially burned out.
Fortunately, I met a few Rhinos along the way.