36 PHI KAPPA PHI FORUM
As my wife and I
left our wedding
two years ago,
us with birdseed
in a gesture of
The good luck
didn’t seem to arrive right away.
Within hours of starting our
honeymoon, we both fell ill with a
stomach bug, forcing us to cut the
trip short. We staggered home and
spent the rest of the week sharing a
sickbed, which gave us plenty of time
to consider how quickly the for-better-or-worse clause of our marital contract
had kicked in.
At some point, I padded to the
kitchen for clear broth and found a
few bags of birdseed in the corner —
reception leftovers my mother-in-law
had brought over. Having no interest
in birds, I couldn’t think of anything
I wanted less. I was halfway to the
garbage can with the bags when guilt
got the better of me. Since it seemed a
shame to discard the delivery, I brought
the plastic sacks outside, slit them open,
and lined the top of the waist-high
garden wall with the contents.
As my meager meal steamed on the
stove, two cardinals arrived to sample
the seed. Seeing them moved me in a
way I didn’t expect. Throughout the
ages, people have looked to birds as
bearers of tidings, whether it be the
dove promising better times in the
DANNY HEITMAN (Southeastern Louisiana University) is a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana
and the author of A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House. He frequently writes about literature and
culture for national publications, including Humanities magazine and The Wall Street Journal.
Though we sometimes like to think of nature
as a pastoral portrait ... the birds I see each day
point to a deeper reality.
PLANTING A NEW HOBBY,
OUTLOOK ON LIFE
biblical story of Noah, or the raven that carries a darker message in the famous poem
by Edgar Allan Poe.
The cardinals suggested the turning of a chapter, a hint of happier days ahead.
Once fully recovered, I continued to watch the window for birds — persuaded,
on some level, that they might have more news to share. When the leftover seed
disappeared, I bought more. Field guides followed, then birdfeeders, birdbaths,
binoculars. Improbably, I had become a birdwatcher.
If I had to summarize the news of nature that birds have brought me since then, I’d
probably point to the abiding theme of movement, of migration.
Many birds, like cardinals and chickadees, mourning doves and blue jays, house
sparrows and brown thrashers, live in my Louisiana backyard all year round. But
others, such as the seasonal goldfinches I’ve come to love, arrive from far away,
staying only a few months before moving on. Though we sometimes like to think of
nature as a pastoral portrait — a pleasantly static landscape of trees and sky — the
birds I see each day point to a deeper reality, a world where little really stays put.
My birdwatching connected me with John James Audubon, the nineteenth-century
bird artist who spent much of his time in Louisiana, not far from where I now live.
To find his subjects, Audubon moved around a lot, the old American story of success
through mobility. But learning about birds often required him to stand motionless in
the woods, falling into a trance of deep observation.
That’s why I like watching birds so much. They’re a paradox, creatures of
quicksilver temperament whose fleeting presence forces me to stay still for a
moment in order to truly see them. They point to life’s central predicament, that old
balance between being and doing, between the present moment and the promise of
something better down the road.
It’s a mystery I might have overlooked if things had turned out differently some
two decades ago. Maybe that birdseed did, in fact, bring me the best luck of all.