When I first moved to the Appalachian mountains, I found a dead bird. It was an iridescent blue/black color, and I had never seen anything like it before in the eastern part of the Carolinas where I had grown up. After this encounter, I was inspired to buy a bird book to accompany my new wildflower book and learned that it was an indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) and that they spend their springs and summers here. However, I never saw another one and just assumed that they were very rare.
Quite a few years later and new to the job as the adult education coordinator at the Arboretum, I drove the van for a Birding 101 field trip with instructor George Ellison. George started the class by asking individuals what bird most intrigued them. (I was too embarrassed to mention the dead bird I had picked up and examined so long ago.) After getting our binoculars adjusted, we headed to our first stop, which was the production greenhouse area at the Arboretum.
As we walked out of the parking lot, a dark flash streaked overhead. George stopped in his tracks and to my surprise, identified the descending pairs of notes that accompanied the bird as the song of an indigo bunting. We were told that they were hard to see because they appeared black and advised to look for them on treetops where they liked to perch. Finally I saw it. It was the shape of a leaf but darker and heavier on the branch. I had finally seen another indigo bunting and was delighted to hear them intermittently all day at our various stops.
What was more surprising to me than this particular sighting, however, was paying attention to bird song for the first time. After learning the call of an indigo bunting and being reminded of a few more bird songs I already knew, it was as if the world went from three to four dimensions. The background spring chatter became connected to a physical presence that I may or may not actually see.
Several mythological traditions claim that the act of creation began with the idea that naming something calls it into existence. On an individual level, learning the names of things makes us notice them for the first time. They become distinct, precious and worthy of our attention from the smallest insect to the largest tree. They also become worthy of our protection. As our environment becomes more inhospitable, it becomes more difficult to ignore their struggles to hold on.
Natural history classes make you see what is already there; art classes make you look closer; and horticulture classes offer the knowledge to enable you to gently nurture a piece of land to provide homes, meals, or rest stops for your flying, crawling, blooming and growing companions. Through educational opportunities like these, you can learn how to see what has been there all along and understand what you’ve already noticed. I’m having a great time developing the adult education program at the Arboretum and have gone on a few more field trips. Who knows, I may become a birder yet.
Interested in growing your mind through education? Sign-up for one of the Arboretum’s Adult Education classes and see what happens.