Op/Ed

Ways of seeing: COVID yields to hugs, new friends

REBECCA KNEALE GOULD

This past week was a momentous one in a way that I could have never foreseen: I hugged four friends for the first time in over a year. Of course, all COVID precautions and necessary security clearances were clearly established before any hugging could proceed. And the hugs themselves? Well, they weren’t quite the full-on “big brown bear hugs” that I prefer to both give and receive. I’m just not quite there yet; nor, apparently, are most of my friends. But hugs they were — as welcome and long anticipated as the usual signs of late spring: the distinct scent of purple lilacs that wafts in, lingers and tantalizes for a moment and then departs or the riotous, high-pitched “pick me!” calls of the spring peepers that soon give way to the deeper, more resonant thrump thrump of the seemingly less desperate bullfrogs.

Vermonters are accustomed to this springtime pattern: the eternal wait and then the fleeting gifts of late May and early June. As far as hugs go, however, I hope they will be less like the lilacs and the peepers and more like the tiger lilies and the bullfrogs — playful, persistent through the summer and occasionally extravagant in the Thoreauvian sense (“extra-vagant” was his favored term for wandering outside of conventional bounds). I say, “I hope” because I find myself to be still in a vertiginous place when it comes to the return of post-pandemic “normal.” There is, of course, the deep question of what “normal” actually means and whether returning to it is even desirable given the structural inequities that have defined U.S. history long before the pandemic made them irrefutably apparent. The questions I ponder on a more personal level, however, have more to do with overcoming the gap between the head and the heart. The encouraging data taken in by my rational mind has not yet been granted full entrance by the gatekeepers of my fragile heart and soul. I know that I am not alone in this liminal place, looking outward toward the future in one moment and over my shoulder the next. We are all dwelling in uncertainty as well as possibility. Those not-quite-bear-hugs say it all.

As I navigate this wobbly territory of emergence, however, I am feeling particularly well companioned by some new (to me) winged friends: Great Crested Flycatcher, Pine Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo and Kingbird. They are all so much more accustomed than I am to riding the updrafts and downdrafts of uncertainty. They are wonderful teachers.

Now the fact that I can even utter four bird names other than Robin and Dove is something of a miracle. As most of my readers know, I tend to favor one particular species. After all, with five adorable, fuzzy, intelligent, antic-prone, attention-loving sheep in your backyard, why bother with anyone else? After this year, especially, my devotion knows no bounds. “Social distancing” is unacceptable in the sheep world, so our “pod” was an especially cuddly one. Nevertheless, with the help of new binoculars, some expert coaching, and my generally relentless curiosity, I have begun to work on my species-ist behavior. Each day brings a new discovery and often a question or lesson to ponder.

Like our sheep, songbirds are prey animals who must stay constantly on the alert. Unlike our sheep, they are not fed, doted on and protected by us. For that reason alone, I admire them. Of course, I can’t help but try to reassure them. “Don’t worry,” I call out to the robins nesting in the eaves of our sheep shed, “I’m just bringing the water bucket inside. And I’m excited about your new babies!” The robins flee in a flash and perch nearby, calling to each other and returning to their eggs only after I depart. This drama plays out every summer. In the past, I’ve been discouraged that I can’t seem to “speak Robin” as well as I speak Sheep. Only recently has it dawned on me that they don’t need my reassurance. They know the drill.

Flycatcher also captivates my attention. She darts out from a tree, nabs a mosquito from thin air, darts back. A moment later, the dart-nab-dart dance is repeated. A brief pause, then out-and-back. Every move is precise, fast and focused. If there’s hesitation or cogitation, I’m certainly not skilled enough to see it.

Watching the robins and the flycatchers, I’m reminded (by way of utter contrast) of the most hilarious animal encounter of last summer when we spotted a young rabbit lounging under a cedar, his front and hind legs fully stretched out on a north-south axis. “Wow,” I thought, “these fluffy bunnies are actually very long!” The sight amazed me, but then distressed me, for I was certain that this rabbit must be dead. But after a moment he lifted his nose, flicked his ears and slowly repositioned himself in the shade. I stifled my laughter so as not to disturb him. Also a prey animal, this fuzzy little guy demonstrated no awareness of this Darwinian fact. Sometimes we would see him grazing or napping alongside the sheep.

After a year of college teaching on Zoom, I find myself longing to flop under a cedar like last summer’s little rabbit. And yet, these days, it is the birds, in particular, who are capturing my imagination. I believe it is because of their complexity: alert, but graceful; ever watchful, and yet full of song. Their way of being seems to speak to the moment in which we find ourselves. For all I know (since I know very little) some of these songs may themselves be forms of alarm. But to novices like me, the songs are simply songs, healing melodies for body and soul.

I can’t begin to capture what this year has been like for me. I also dare not try because of how different it may have been for you. Our losses, griefs and sacrifices; our gratitudes and silver linings; our collective narratives of how we coped or didn’t — they come together and diverge in countless ways. It is too soon to tell where, or even if, we’ll find a pattern to it all. But I find comfort in paying attention to the birds, who scan the ground and sky, who scout ahead and peer behind. Alert to everything, they wait for the right moment and then lift themselves into the sky, singing their songs and flashing their wings.

Rebecca Kneale Gould is a writer and Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, focusing on comparative religion and the environmental humanities. She lives with her spouse in Monkton where they tend — and are tended by — a small flock of adorable sheep.

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