“Where is she from?”
Pointing in my direction, the student cocks her head. The sun has taken its hold on my skin; I am officially tan again. Coupled with my above-average ability to roll my R’s when teaching the kids words like “Chorlo,” Oystercatcher in Spanish, it is now impossible to conceal my heritage.
“Lucila is from Argentina, just like the Red Knots! Her and the Red Knots have a lot in common!” Stephanie, (yes, the former Oregon intern!), affirmatively replies, putting the girl’s mind at ease.
I chuckled, it’s typical of the answers educators give to put the curiosities of their students at bay. A quick and carefully designed response to placate the kids with just a touch of humor, perplexity, and simplicity. The conflicting emotions of this uncertain explanation makes the mind pause until the holes of the story widen and give way to more questions. The trick is to inspire slightly enough confusion for the processing stage to take about an hour to digest; right before the discomfort comes flooding in again, you make your escape until the next class.
This time, however, the trick cast its spell on the educator, too. As I was walking along my survey site the other day, my mind wandered to two weeks ago when I first saw a Red Knot in Oregon. It took me a few minutes to do a triple-take and flip through the pages of my field guides. Fatigued from a long day’s work, the salty breeze of the Oregon coast felt really nice. I was oddly calm, a feeling that doesn’t come easily for an Easterner like me. After a few check and comparisons between my guide and scope, I confirmed it’s presence: it was a flock of four Red Knots!
When interviews turn to that uncomfortable question of “Why do you want to work here?” I always bring up this moment when I showed off a Gray Catbird to an audience of Guatemalan and Salvadoran families in Virginia. As the ornithologist held up the bird in a gentle bander’s grip, I translated for her, explaining that this little cute thing winters in Central America, and could likely be singing for their relatives in their home countries. As I explained the details of the bird’s habitat requirements, I saw a light flicker in their eyes. During this moment, we were all caught up together in some strange magical connection between nature, culture, and spirit. Like the natural world, it is hard to explain; that day I saw something intangible and beautiful, a spiritual beast unleashed into that community. It seemed as though their fascination for nature, dormant since they moved into the populous and urban center of Northern Virginia, was again awakened and ready to explore. In the world of environmental education, they call this a “transformational experience.” In my mind, I like to think of triggers like the Catbird in this demonstration as a reminder: a natural element that brings us closer to our spiritual place in the world by demonstrating how intrinsic nature is to our existence and conceptual understanding of belonging.
The Red Knots are my reminder of home. Like the families admiring the Gray Catbird that summer afternoon in Virginia, I felt my spirit bounce with joy upon the view. The gate of memory lane was burst open, from which images of Red Knots being banded in Patagonia, of children in Rio Negro dressing up as Red Knots in their annual Shorebird Festival, and of my mother and grandfather gazing at Red Knots from their Ushuaia home flooded my mind. I’ve never personally experienced any of these moments, but the vision of each scene grounds me to a distant land that I call home, a place that I love dearly with people that I miss constantly. The Red Knots, without knowing it, meant so much more to me than just a pretty view of four cute birds. They were a token of a culture that defines me, landscapes that shape me, and a history that makes me. Stephanie was right to say that the Red Knots and I have a lot in common.
Birds are a powerful icon in this way. Charismatic and colorful, dynamic and adaptable, they call attention to the many ways that we depend on and impact nature. Ask any person, and they will be able to tell you the name of at least one bird. Speak a little more to them about where that bird comes from, and where that person is from, and sure enough you can draw parallels between your human and feathered friend. Perhaps a memory from seeing them outside a windowsill, or from living in a city with a bird that depends on forest edges, there is always a platform on some kind from which to connect us to the larger natural world.