I grew up with parents who are both educators, and we had magical summers. We were campers. We camped every summer. We started off with those Coleman pop-up tent trailers, and before I went to college we ended up with a 30-foot-long Winnebago. We ended up going to every state in the country. We went up through Canada three times. I was out there. I became connected to nature.
I remember distinct times of being down South camping and encountering racism and having a conscious sense that we were integrating the campgrounds.
I remember being at a beach and my mother gathering us up like a mother hen and hugging us and saying: “When folks are staring at you because they’re jealous at how beautiful your suntans are, don’t worry about that. Just play here near us, and you’ll be fine. Have fun.” To this day I thank Mom for positioning it that way, because I don’t remember fear, but I do remember noticing: “They are looking at us.” But once we were out playing with the kids, it didn’t matter. It’s the power of claiming something that we knew that we enjoyed. So that’s my foundation.
I love this job, because it gives me an opportunity to help people across the country experience some of the kind of things that I experienced growing up. To have the kind of relationship with nature that informs your own sense of awe about the world, but also extends that so that you can do daily practices to sustain the world as it is, and we do that through the beauty of birds. Birds are just awesome, because they are not the kind of animals that are distant to us. Wherever you are, there are birds. We have a life list of birds that you ultimately want to see one day. There are folks in this community of birders who can, from a distance, tell you the difference between one bird because of the way that it flies or the shape of its wing or the hook of its nose. Zeroing in on details and birds gives you a sense of what biodiversity is really about. And birds give you a sense of this awesome creation that we live in.
There’s some drastic things that birds tell us when they’re not around, ’cause it means that the habitat is not healthy. Through birds, [we can] connect people to practices that are healthy — healthy for birds and healthy for people.
I’ve done a lot of study on church architecture. We’ve worked hard as human beings to build cathedrals so that when you walk in them, what is the first thing you want to do? Look up. It’s making you redirect your energy, your faith, your belief system, up to relating to God. Nature does that intuitively. Doing birding, you are always doing that — you’re looking up.