Urban Hiking: for the birds

One reason I go hiking is to hear the sound of birds. On almost every trail I have traversed, I can hear them. All different kinds with different calls. If I were not so quick to associate bird watching with middle age (which I am in denial of), I would know their names. As it stands now, I only know them by their calls, and because those calls are nameless, they exist outside of the culturally dominant scientific rationalism. Which is another reason I go hiking: to remember that there is something else, and to surround myself in it.


There is a train that runs through the middle and edge of a Yellow Brick Road at around 6:30 in the evenings. Down a sub-trail from the lake, there is an old cast-iron train bridge that cuts over the main river coming off the lake. I will strain through traffic in order to be under that bridge when the train comes. The whole bridge shakes, and the noise is deafening. The adrenalin it releases can knock the wind out of me sometimes.

Once the train goes by, I bolt. Running back over puddles and a makeshift trail to get back to the lake. It's a distance of maybe half a mile, and when I get to the lake, I'm panting pretty hard. And then I hear it.

Slowly, the sound of birds, apparently startled by the train, comes towards the lake like a big wave of applause. It seems that once the birds nearer to the tracks get startled and begin a sort of frantic boisterousness, the surrounding birds get startled as well. It keeps getting transfered to a wider number of birds, and as it spreads. The initial group of startled birds settles down after about 3 minutes, but by then the wave has been loosed.

You can hear it coming from the lake. It moves surprisingly slowly, and gets louder as it comes towards and all around me. Once the swell of sound has peaked, it continues outward, sometimes louder in certain directions, sometimes ricocheting back towards me. Eventually, it turns into a soft lull, and becomes indistinguishable from the background hum of traffic in the distance.

And then there is a reverent silence. The lake is serene. The animals become sparsely if at all audible. All of this happens whether I am present for it or not. Everyday, at least once a day, the birds become excited and the excitement spreads into the surrounding woods.

The metaphors in what I witness there are undeniable. That we effect one another in waves that pulse outward. That life re-creates itself in unimaginable ways whether or not I'm there to see it.

And the band plays on.

There is a notion in sports that you practice a move over and over again in your head, and that this is almost as effective as physical practice. Science, in it's late but 'look what we discovered' kind of way, confirms this. The neurons that fire when you are imagining ollie-ing up a curve on your skateboard, or playing a piece of music, mimic the actual experience of them in a way that is almost as effective as the physical act.

And so returning from my journey back into the center of a largish metropolitan area, I am less jostled by the traffic. I can look at my watch today around 6:30 and imagine that I'm there. Under that bridge, and then running to the lake and hearing that wave coming for me.

So contrary to Gertrude Stein's assertion that 'there is no there there', I would say that there is no 'there'. That, in fact, if you can bring 'there' here by imagining it, it always is with you: ricocheting off your experience and your thinking like waves of birds calling out from your own private wilderness.