Tomorrow, early enough to drag me out of bed at an ungodly hour for a weekend, I will be standing quietly in temperatures well below zero, in a large urban park, counting birds for a couple of hours.
Don’t ask me for details. I haven’t a clue what it entails, other than–presumably–silence and watchfulness. And layers.
Either disastrously or brilliantly, I will be accompanied by my preschool daughter, who is very excited about bringing her binoculars to see if she can count birds in the big park and help people. Assuming that she hasn’t been bundled up so thoroughly that, like Ralph’s little brother in A Christmas Story, she is incapable of moving her arms and so can’t put her binoculars to her eyes. I thought about hiring a babysitter, and then I thought about my bank balance, educational opportunities, and ways of instilling a love of the non-human in her. I also thought about post-count lunches at favourite restaurants featuring unethically-raised poultry products, but we’ll leave that out for now.
Every January, we cover the Polar Bear Dip–a bunch of people jumping into frozen water for a few minutes, then running inside for hot chocolate and fleece blankets. Every January, a bunch of volunteers stands around outside counting birds to measure the success of local wildlife programs for six hours, and I’ve never heard of it.
How do you count birds? How do you find them, in the first place? How many is a good number? What species do you want to find? Why do people volunteer for this year after year, some of them coming from a hundred kilometres away to do so? Who are they?
I just finished Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken’s book about the global environment-and-social-justice-movement with no name. It is a profoundly hopeful, if at times equally profoundly distressing, book, positing that in the complexity and the relationships between all of these tens of thousands of small organizations, globally, can be seen something like a new life form, an immune response to unsustainable practices. He offers no guarantee that this immune response will be effective, but makes it clear which way he thinks things will go. In a passage sure to resonate with other parents, he quotes from Michael Chabon:
“Will there really be people then, Dad?” he said. “Yes,” I told him without hesitation, “there will.” I don’t know if that’s true, any more than do Danny Hillis and his colleagues, with the beating clocks of their hopefulness and the orreries of their imaginations. But in having children–in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world–parents are betting, whether they know it or not, on the Clock of the Long Now. They are betting on their children, and their children after them, and theirs beyond them, all the way down the line from now to 12,006. If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly, if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there to cry when the Clock finally runs down, ten thousand years from now, then I don’t see how you can have children. If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imaginations for perfecting it is limitless and free.
Chabon’s son was eight when he asked that question. Children of eight have already learned to doubt the future of the human species? That is heartbreaking.
Also, it makes standing in the snow with a five-year-old, still innocent enough to be afraid primarily of the red roses on her bedroom curtains (they might be the eyes of monsters staring at her while she sleeps), for a couple of hours counting birds seem not only possible, but necessary.
I’ve cast my bet on the Clock of the Long Now, too; and I will do everything I can to stack that deck.