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This naturalist's binoculars moved from deer to hawks to Karl Malone
By Terry Tempest Williams
My father keeps his pair on the windowsill of his kitchen, where he can quickly pick them up to watch deer. A hunter in his youth, he has never lost his hunter's eyes. He passed them on to my three brothers and me. We grew up in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains in Salt Lake City. Deer were our neighbors. When we were children, my father taught us how to look for wildlife: a flick of a tail, a twitch of an ear, a bent leg that broke the symmetry of the woods. He shared his binoculars with us until we were old enough to have earned our own.
I received my first pair when I was 14, about the age at which boys in my family received their first rifles. My eyes did not search the hillsides for deer, as my brothers' did; they scanned the sky for birds. I pored over the colored plates in Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to Western Birds, memorizing plumages and profiles.
Utah's Great Basin, a sea of sage, is a birdwatcher's paradise. The wetlands surrounding the Great Salt Lake shimmer like emeralds and provide a migration stop for millions of weary shorebirds, ducks and geese along the eastern edge of the Pacific Flyway. It was on outings here and elsewhere that my grandmother taught me to pay attention to the nuances of flight patterns and behavior. Such discriminating details brought me into a participatory relationship with nature. Wherever I went, my binoculars went with me.
This included trips to Utah Jazz games. My skills as a naturalist translated nicely from the wild to the Delta Center. Karl Malone became my object of focus. The beauty of his body, the way he would push and power his way under the basket until he shot the ball over his shoulder with one hand and scored was as compelling to me as watching the focused intensity of a great blue heron fishing. Both man and bird filled their designated niches with grace and beauty.
I will admit to wandering eyes. Just as my binocs would scan a meadow for wildlife, they would stray from the court into the crowd. When John Stockton stole the ball and fed it to Malone on the break or when they ran their famous pick-and-roll, I would flash my field glasses to Mrs. Stockton for her reaction, knowing she always sat just up and to the left of the team with her brood of young children perfectly dressed.
From the Stockton row I would quickly move my binocs down and to the left to the Mmes. Malone: Karl's wife and mother sitting just above the exit sign that marks the tunnel to the Jazz locker room. It was here that I could gauge whether or not the team was in trouble.
Throughout the game I would browse the crowd for celebrities -- rare, exotic species such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Madonna who occasionally appeared in the first rows, closest to the court. In ecology this area is called the ecotone, the shadowed edge where the forest gives way to the field, the shoreline to the sea. This is where the greatest activity and diversity of species are usually found.
Once during a playoff game I put my binoculars down and cupped my hands behind my ears as 20,000 fans cheered. Their cries became those of sandhill cranes and snow geese during the spring migration as they heralded their return to the Platte River in Nebraska, a victory of another sort.
But among the big-game species that my binoculars have beheld, only a grizzly's gaze can compete with the hunger I saw in Michael Jordan's eyes when he stole the ball from Malone and launched the shot that robbed the Jazz of the 1998 NBA championship. With my second eyes I caught a glimpse of what survival of the fittest really means.
Field glasses offer spectators the intimacy of a framed moment, finely focused. We become participants. Whether I am in Utah's marshlands or in its arenas, I can look through my binoculars and be transported into a world of beauty and perfection. "And I feel," as the poet Louise Gluck writes, "sometimes, part of something/very great, wholly profound and sweeping."
Terry Tempest Williams is a renowned naturalist whose most recent book is Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert.
Issue date: October 20, 2003