Later that afternoon, my roommate, Susan, and I walked over to the bird blinds near a lake on the Audubon property. The blinds look something like wooden houses on stilts and have rectangular windows from which the lake and a small island in the middle of it are visible. Through those windows we entered a world of ducks, muskrats and birds of myriad colors, sizes and shapes. Birds flitted from branch to branch, soared over trees, cruised close to the water's edge, sang. For more than an hour we sat, elbows propped upon a wooden ledge, and enjoyed the show. Most of the time we didn't know what types of birds we were seeing, so whenever we did get one right (verified in Susan's field guide) it was cause for celebration. At one point, recalling a distress call that Ted sometimes made, I ventured a feeble "Swisst, swisst, swisst." Susan joined in with a call of her own, and before long we were laughing hard. So this was what a few days at an Audubon camp could do to you.
There was more to the camp than just birds, though. Through lectures, we also learned a little about geology, astronomy, meteorology and biology. We discovered that all bugs are insects but not all insects are bugs, and that deer have no upper front teeth. We made friends with a blue bird named Dr. Jay, Chuckie the woodchuck and two young raccoons named Snort and Grunt. We also watched white-tailed deer, their tails straight as soldiers, flee into the forest sanctuary. With Ted's help, we were even able to spot a spider's web in the dark.
But for me, the birds were the highlight. Toward the end of the week, I bought my own field guide, and early in the morning I would go to a bench near Indian Pond. There, with my guide in one hand, Thoreau's Walden in the other and my binoculars around my neck, I would contemplate the world and how little I knew of it. Perhaps thousands of life forms were within 100 feet of me, yet I could see and identify only a few.
Dusk was approaching; I would be leaving for New York City the next day. I thought of some of the birds we'd seen at camp—the kingbird and the male yellow warbler, the swans and the barn swallow, the American egrets on Long Island Sound, the black-billed cuckoo and the cardinals—and I was filled with a sense of futility. The workshop had been fun, it had been a learning experience, but now, however, it was over, and everything I had learned would be forgotten all too quickly. Although Phil, the camp's director, said that many people went bird watching in Central Park, I knew I would never join them—partly because there were so many other day-to-day distractions to contend with, but mostly because nature and New York City seemed, to me, pretty incompatible.
So I went back home and resumed the routine of my life. A few weeks later I was sitting on the steps of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, when a small brown bird landed nearby. It looked a lot like a mockingbird. "Can't be," I said to myself. "Mockingbirds are grayer and have a white breast." Even if I didn't know what type of bird it was, at least I knew one type it wasn't. I hadn't forgotten it all. My thoughts returned to camp and something Connie had said about a woman she knew who went birding in Switzerland every year. Before camp, Connie could never understand the woman's compulsion, but now it was beginning to make sense. "When you see a bird and identify it, suddenly you feel as though you belong," she said. "You're part of the outdoors."
For a brief moment, even without identifying the bird, I felt I was again part of the outdoors. It was as if nature had come to Fifth Avenue—cars, concrete, congestion and all. For a city slicker, it was a really nice feeling.