Sunday, November 6, 2011

Accepting the Birds that Come

It is currently 39 degrees and sunny in Seattle, but I'm sitting here at my desk in a heavy coat because my dogs want to have access to the front deck.  Sigh.

Long ago, when I was an art student, studying drawing and photography, I learned a valuable lesson:  don't wait for the perfect subject, draw what's in front of you.  It seems like an easy principle to master, but it turns out it's one of those things you have to learn over and over again.

Starling and Sparrow, familiar visitors, in an uncommon mutual pose.
Take birds, for example.  As a birdwatcher, and as a photographer, I am always hoping for the next big, unexpected find.  For some rare (or at least previously unseen) bird to fly onto my yard list, or alight on the bushes at the dog park.  Of course, the definition of "rare" means that it's something which very seldom happens.  So the artist who waits for "rare" subjects -- unless he takes off for Tahiti like Gauguin -- may have a long wait.  (I couldn't come up with Paul Gauguin's name to save my life just now, so I Googled "Tahiti Artist" and it was the first hit -- I love the Internet.)  There are days when I take my camera outside and I think, "Nothing here but more chickadees, Juncos and pigeons.  I have thousands of pictures of them, why do I need more?"

Beautiful rich colors make this Junco stand out.
The answer is, "I don't."   But I need to take more pictures of them.  It's not the end product, it's the process.  That may sound like a cliche, but it's true.  Most basically, because it keeps your skills and your eye sharp -- the way practicing scales keeps a musicians hands limber and ears tuned.  But it's also true for a couple of other reasons (that I know how to articulate).

First, is receptivity.  As an artist -- photographer, writer or birdwatcher -- receptivity is one of the most important traits you can possess.  (Reactivity is another, but I'll write about that some other day.)  You could compare it to the chemical nature of film (remember film?  If you're too young, Google it).  The chemicals on the film are sensitive to light and they react in its presence, creating an image.  Similarly, the artist has to be available to the "light" of the world around him, has to let it in and let it change him.  The inner film develops these images, stores them, and they become the raw material out of with art is created.  Standing on my deck, with my camera, I am at my best when I can cultivate a state of open receptivity.  If I was religious I could phrase it as, "Not my will, but yours be done."  In other words, I will accept what comes. I'll photograph what's in front of me instead of complaining that I don't get anything "new".  Out of that openness comes possibility, the chance for something unexpected and creative to occur.  Without that openness, nothing is possible.
A distinctive mostly white Pigeon surveys the deck.

I love pigeons!
Henry James -- not usually one of my favorite writing mentors, but you really can't escape his influence -- advised us to strive to be someone on whom nothing is lost.  The emphasis on striving (James said, "try" but it's the same point) is important.  It's a goal we can't reach.  Still, it's crucial.  As soon as I begin thinking, "Oh, they're just chickadees, just pigeons, I've seen them a thousand times before," then the doors of my perception are closed.  The world is being lost on me.  The chickadees that I see today may or may not be the actual birds I've seen before -- it's very difficult to tell.  (Actually, sonograms of the songs of individual birds can help you identify whether the particular birds in your yard are the ones you've seen before -- another topic to get into later.)  With pigeons it's a little easier.  I saw four pigeons on my deck yesterday and, because I forced myself for a moment to put down all the things I was worrying about and everything I "should" be doing, I got some really great photos of them.  Two of them I knew and two were really striking, mostly white birds that I'm not sure I've seen before.  I love pigeons, but familiarity can blunt even our greatest passions.  Only openness and receptivity -- being the present moment without any certainties -- can reignite that love.  My pigeons reminded me of that.
Like the Four Stooges having lunch.

And ultimately, the birds that I see today are not the birds that I've seen before -- and I am not the person who saw them.  A photographer knows that from moment to moment the light moves and the image changes.  The photographer changes too.  No amount of clinging to my opinions or preferences will prevent that.  Tomorrow, the birds will be different and I will be different.  The tree will have a few less leaves, the monster dog on the deck beside me will be a little bigger, and the light will keep moving.

And the pigeons will have something new to say.


 I've been a little busy this month doing NaNoWriMo and other writing related activities.  So far, it's been a pretty good year for writing.  If you're interested, you can check out some of my other work.  Starting with our sister Blog, Books and Beasts.  Also, the Seattle Mariners Blog, Sodo Mojo has been hosting my posts every Sunday morning for a couple of months.  You can check out some of my pieces (and the great baseball analysis of the rest of the site's writers) here

Many of the original photographs featured on Birdland West are available for sale as art quality prints.  You can check out all of our offerings at  If you see an image here that does not show up on our Imagekind site please contact me directly and I'll let you know about availability.)


  1. Lovely post and pictures Alex. I especially like the one of the pigeon on the roof, craning his neck out. :)

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  3. (Sorry for the redundancy, accidentally hit the delete button on my comment. :-)

    Beautiful writing on familiar sentiments, Alex. I try not to make any distinctions between the common and uncommon because, as you write, just a subtle change in light can bring out the rainbow in a Starling's plumage, or the ethereal wisps and blurs you've created above in your pigeon-scapes. I hate to label any bird as "mundane" and will do so only for the purposes of this Bill Moyers comment -- which is: creativity is "piercing the mundane" to find the marvelous. You've certainly found the marvelous.

  4. Thanks Alex,
    I very much enjoyed this article for lots of reasons, including, your description of behavior of an artist, someone who consciously opens to the world and opens to creativity.
    I enjoy how much overlap there is between artists' practice and spiritual practice.
    Sometimes I think one is a sub-category of the other, or like twins - certainly tapping into similar human needs and similar practices, and similar internal experiences and rewards.
    in life, Wendy

  5. This is a great post! I try to go out birding with low expectations, and even if I see the same old birds, often they are doing something different.. My scrub-jays got in a fight a couple weeks ago and it was fascinating to watch. Definitely not a new yard bird, but a new behavior. I take what I can get.