Ode to the Chickadee and Other Reflections on People and Place

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It’s been a challenging time to be a professor at UWO, as well as to be a person living in this country and on this planet. One result is that the Black Capped Chickadee has become my favorite bird.

This was an academic year that saw the UW System overall and UWO in particular pummeled by yet another round of budget cuts, announced on top of drastic changes planned for our sister universities in Superior and Stevens Point, the sudden decision to merge the two-year colleges with four-year universities like ours, and our ongoing financial scandal here at UWO.

This caused an already beaten down professoriate to reach a new low, and smaller, liberal arts programs like mine to legitimately worry about their future existence. The only positive consequence in my view is that the chaos spurred us to finally start a local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers union to create solidarity and develop the collective voice and power of faculty and teaching staff. I fell into the role of de facto point person for AFT Local 6506, which I gladly took on, but this created more work and stress.

At the same time, the negative impacts of climate change became increasingly obvious, and the president and his cronies continued to reach new heights of absurdity, destruction, and embarrassment. Summer arrived in what seemed like a swirl of mayhem for these reasons and more.

And then we moved.

I am on sabbatical for the fall semester, but my family and I decided to move to Milwaukee for the entire year, to have a year of adventures in a new setting. This meant: finding renters and a place to rent; moving the ridiculous amount of stuff we’ve accumulated after eleven years in a big, old house to A) the basement; B) my in-laws’ house; C) Goodwill and St. Vinny’s; D) the county landfill; E) a newly-rented storage unit (succumbing to this quintessential American practice); and F) to the new pad (the lower half of a duplex on the Near West Side); cleaning our Oshkosh house and making all the arrangements in both places; and helping our young daughters make the transition. It was an exhausting ordeal, but we asked for this first-world problem, and it seems like it’ll be worth it.

As I sit in my new digs in the middle of summer, I’m finally able to take a breath and offer up some of the reflections that I’ve mentally stored over recent months, including an explanation of my love for a black, white, and gray little bird.

I am not a birder, but I really love what the natural world offers, including our feathered friends. I can’t imagine life without the sounds and activities of birds.

Until last winter and spring, if for some reason someone were to ask about my favorite bird, I probably would have said Red-Winged Blackbird or Red-Tailed Hawk, the former because its distinctive chatter always seems to signal that spring is on its way, giving me warm thoughts and hopeful feelings, and the latter because there’s just something cool about seeing relatively large raptors. I also enjoy busting out with, “Hawk!” and a corresponding point to a tree or fence where a hawk has alighted, while driving or on a hike.

Over the last few years, however, the chickadee has started to rise in the rankings, and this year it jumped into the number one spot.

The first reason is that they stick around, giving us company during the coldest of Wisconsin winters.

According to Aldo Leopold in “65290”, while chickadees are hardy birds, “To the chickadee, winter wind is the boundary of the habitable world.” But, about the specific bird (of the many he banded) that is the subject of the essay, Leopold noted, “Signs of genius were…lacking but of his extra-ordinary capacity for living, there was now historical proof.”

They are simply there, with their cute selves, while most other birds fly south.

The most important reason for their ascent is that chickadees buoy my spirits in times that are dark and gloomy, both literally and figuratively. Not only is their song indefatigably cheerful, but it is also incredibly loud for a creature so small.

As Leopold put it, “Everyone laughs at so small a bundle of large enthusiasms.”

Further, it seems as though they reserve their loudest and most cheerful songs for the coldest days, which can otherwise bring a person down.

***

I have not bought a parking pass since moving to Oshkosh, to try to force myself to bike or take the bus. It works a lot of the time. This year I found myself driving a lot more than usual, though. I was running later than is typical, which meant that I also didn’t take the time to pack a lunch. The result was way too many days of paying for parking in the ramp and lunch in Sage Cafe. When we decided to start our union in February, however, I told my wife that I would not pay for parking or lunch the rest of the semester, so we wouldn’t really notice the monthly dues payments.

I made good on the pledge, but continued to drive a couple times a week. Since I couldn’t pay for parking, I had to be a bit creative, but found a solution that included some positive externalities (along with the several negative ones that accompany the act of driving).

I started parking west of campus a bit in an area without parking restrictions. The bonus for me was that it meant I got to have about an 11-minute walk to my office along the Wiowash Trail, which includes the traversal of a small woods followed by a nice stroll along the Fox River for most of the rest of the way. The twenty-two minutes or so of built-in interaction with the natural world (even it consists of a scrappy little forest next to and owned by Axle Tech, and a quite urban section of river) on each of these driving days added a lot of quality to them and helped me through this stretch of turbulence.

On one occasion, I was really missing my dad, who died last year. I was lost in thought about him as I walked through the woods and when I emerged from them and followed the trail south towards the river I was startled by the sight of a large Bald Eagle sitting in a tree on the other side of the river. Immediately I felt at peace and thought, “That’s Pop sending me a message.” Something like, “Relax, Paulson. It’s all going to be fine.” I continued on, but looked back periodically to see if it was still there. I did so finally from the fourth floor of Sage Hall and was amazed by how clearly visible the massive bird was from about half a mile away.

On another walk through those humble woods, later in the spring when snow melt and rain had turned the ground on the sides of the path back into wetlands, several adult mallards were feeding on the bottom with new ducklings. When they saw me, the adults bolted out of the woods, abandoning their brood. I was glad to see that when I came out of the woods towards the river, they were beelining it back to the kids.

Another time, I caught a couple fleeting glimpses of what appeared to be a sizable woodpecker, which I later confirmed to be a Pileated Woodpecker after searching on, “Woodpecker with song that sounds like a monkey.” Interacting with another large and elusive bird injected that hard to describe sensation that comes with experiencing wildness, a seemingly rare thing that can be relatively common if we travel certain paths and simply pay attention.

Finally, walking again on the path on a crisp, early spring day, I was a bit stressed because I was leading our union’s first action, which would take place at an open meeting to discuss the latest budget crisis later that morning. As I walked along the river behind Axle Tech, my mind was consumed with what I’d say and what we’d do. I was soon interrupted, though, by the insistent chirping of chickadees, several of them singing to each other at incremental stations in trees next to the water, giving me cheerful accompaniment for that entire stretch. By the time I reached Sage, I was calm and ready to go.

***

We need more spaces to encounter wildness and interact with the natural world.

Leopold lamented that even in his day, most of the wilderness had been destroyed, its previous abundance something that had made this nation special. He argued, “If we lose our wilderness, we have nothing left, in my opinion, worth fighting for; or to be more exact, a completely industrialized United States is of no consequence to me.”

Certainly he wouldn’t put the scrawny patch of woods into the category of wilderness, would he? Well, in “Draba”, one of the essays in A Sand County Almanac, Leopold lauds a generally unnoticed and mowed-over plant that “subsists on the leavings of unwanted time and space.” While Leopold’s ideas have a great affinity with Native American philosophies and traditions, he didn’t directly credit them, and as indigenous environmental philosopher Kyle Whyte points out, their “histories are not shared and they do conflict; similarities are only on the surface.” Both generally agree, though, that everything in nature has its place, is connected, and matters, that all aspects of the physical spaces in which we live can exist together in community, including animals, plants, and landforms–even a scrappy little afterthought of a forest and the chickadees and other life it helps maintain. 

Decades after Leopold, UW-Madison environmental historian William Cronon shook the foundations of environmental thought with his essay, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature“. In it he argues that the success of preservation efforts is part of the problem, because too many people assume that since we succeeded in preserving important slices of wilderness through national parks, wilderness areas, state and local parks, and other types of nature reserves, our job is done, and we can then continue to degrade our everyday surroundings, not seeing the wildness therein, helping lead to a global environmental crisis. In it Cronon concludes, “If wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world—not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.” 

How can we bring more wildness to our home in Oshkosh? Where in Oshkosh can new woods be planted or expanded? What natural areas can be restored? Like anything innovative and impactful, good answers will require imagination.

We also need to simply take more time to have such encounters, for our own health and that of the planet.

According to biologist E.O. Wilson’s biophilia thesis, we are hardwired to spend time in nature. Author Richard Louv and his “leave no child inside” movement build upon Wilson and argue that nature-deficit disorder is the root of many of our modern problems, such as with anxiety and hyperactivity. It also may help to explain our collective ambivalence to the ongoing despoliation of the natural world. Environmental sociologist Michael Bell extends the ideas of Henry David Thoreau to help explain why we feel good when we spend time in nature, that the peace I gained from these little walks may stem at least in part from communing with the “natural other”, who does not judge or pressure a person, but is simply there, creating an “interest-free realm” that helps to refresh us in this fast-paced, competitive world of our making. My friend and fellow sociologist Sarah Bowen notes that simply walking creates time and brain space for what may seem like aimless spacing out, but which may actually be really important to fostering creativity and generating new ideas. A growing body of research and practice suggests that walks in the woods in particular may indeed help us rejuvenate and even heal, and a recent article in The New York Times suggests that these ideas have moved from the marginal, even kooky realms of thought in the U.S. to the mainstream.

In other words, the trees, river, and chickadees might not only be taking me back to my evolutionary roots, but also be serving as my therapist and co-authors. Thanks, pals.

 

Photos:

– Chickadee: Wikimedia Commons (Alan D. Wilson, www.naturespicsonline.com)

– Woodpecker: Wikimedia Commons (Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren)

– View from above, with woods above Lot 35: Google Maps

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About Author

Paul Van Auken

Paul Van Auken has been a member of the sociology and environmental studies faculty at University of Wisconsin Oshkosh since 2007, after completing a Ph.D. in sociology from UW-Madison. A native of Iowa but resident of Wisconsin since 1999, Paul conducts research on issues related to neighborhood, community, land use planning and access to public space, sustainability, and teaching and learning. He also practices public sociology, regularly writing a column called “Shortening the Distance” for Oshkosh Independent. He is currently living in the central city of Milwaukee while on sabbatical and among other things is writing about Oshkosh through the lens of his experiences there.

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