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My Life’s Birds: #476-478

February 9, 2011

August 5, 2008Grand Tetons & Yellowstone National Parks, Wy – When someone in your family who is not a birder asks to go birding with you one morning, you would generally take them up on it.  When that someone is suffering with the ramifications of a recent diagnosis of malignant brain cancer, you generally consider it in less than the time it takes to find a Mountain Chickadee in the Tetons*.  I’m not one who thinks that people on the brink of their mortality have any sort of special and profound insight into the banality in which we can fall into too often in our lives.  People deal with that sort of thing in different ways, some with passive resignation, others with a redoubled purpose to suck the marrow out of life Dead Poets Society style.  I don’t know enough to know if either of those has any impact on the ultimate prognosis.  Pros and cons, I guess; it seems like a coin flip to me.  But my Uncle John wanted to go out with my dad and I on an pre-breakfast run up to Two Oceans Lake, and who are we to say no?

*not very long

When the sun rises in the Grand Tetons it hits the mountains first, those big dramatic ones that are on every postcard in every shop in Jackson.  It starts at the top, as if there’s a perfectly fitted cap of gold on the highest peaks, and slowly slides down until the entire range is enveloped in that perfect low morning light.  This is made all the more dramatic by the fact dawn has not yet reached the valley.  It sits cold and shadowed while the Tetons, those perfect gray citadels, are lit as if from within.  It’s hard to see how anyone who has spent even a morning here wouldn’t instantly fall in love with it.  Why my Uncle fell in love with it on a trip with the church youth group he mentored many years past.  Why he needed his family to come.

The sun was not yet up when we pulled into the Two Ocean Lake.  It was chilly, long pants weather, and the fog hung low on the water’s surface.  We had my dad’s scope and a quick scan turned up a small raft of Ring-necked Ducks and a few Western Grebes sitting on the edge of the mist, floating in and out of view adding to the ethereal scene.  Their heads were still tucked into their backs, it appeared we had beaten the birds to dawn yet again.  It was a concession to the rest of the family’s schedule; we were to be back by the time everyone else, including several small children, were ready to head out for the day.   The birds seemed as groggy as we were.

So the three of us stood there, looking out on the lake in near silence as the Tetons woke.  A young Red-naped Sapsucker knocked the cobwebs out of our heads with a well-timed squeak, but the rest of the bird life was slow to awaken, likely a function of the cold morning and the early August molt.  But it was nice a moment as they come, surrounded as it was by the whirlwind of concerned family and the madness and mayhem that comes with getting any number of people together, let alone family, especially if that family is dealing with something as big as brain cancer in one of our own.  It was a time to breathe, and just enjoy being with John in a place he loved, a place that in that morning at Two Oceans Lake, we were able to see as he saw it.  Quiet, calm, and in the shadow of glowing mountains.

On our way to Yellowstone that afternoon we came across some road construction.  Our car was stopped for about half an hour in the middle of a vast burned forest, the remains of the great Yellowstone fire of 1988.  A Williamson’s Sapsucker flew across the road just long enough for us to get on it and ID it before disappearing.  That was a bird that was high on my most wanted list so it was frustrating not to see it better.   I suppose I’ll have to return, and since John is still with us three years after his original diagnosis and celebrating a year free of the three tumors that were originally found in his head.  Maybe we can take in a Tetons morning again.

photo from wikipedia

  1. February 9, 2011 9:40 am

    What a beautifully described morning in the tetons! I have experienced it just as you describe and have seen those mystical long necked Western grebes. I also bird with a friend who has terminal cancer; she has made 25 trips to South and Central America and is an astounding birder. We may make her last to Ecuador in a few weeks if the pressure on her brain will not be too much. These are very special experiences that you have had with John and I have with my friend. How lucky we are!

  2. February 9, 2011 9:48 am

    Really nice piece Nate. Three species I still need to see. 🙂

  3. Greg permalink
    February 9, 2011 4:13 pm

    The words of Tom Brown, Jr., as he would say, thunder in my brain. “This kind of morning always tears away all cares and duties, all fleshly wants, and bares the soul to the elements, to be washed and purified. The thrashings of the mind evaporate like the mists of dawn, and true thoughts come into ever-sharpening focus. ”
    It was that kind of morning. Thanks for the vivid memory and beautiful words. It is like it happened yesterday.


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