The call of the birds

"The only essential equipment for seeing birds is a pair of eyes. Good ears are a help, too."

The first edition of Birds: A Guide to the Most Familiar American Birds smells like an old missal and reads like a manual for living well - birding as a hobby, a lifestyle and a meditation.

Its intro is written in the voice of a sensible grandma, and the best lines in the 1949 Simon and Schuster book are the ones that got cut from the 1987 edition released by Golden Press: "Don't be in a hurry to buy (field) glasses;" "Practice is essential. Go looking for birds as often as you can;" and "Dashing through the woods will get you nothing but shortness of breath."

There is none of the panicky, pandering language used today by aging clubs in search of the next generation. No, this little cloth book lets you come to it. And what tremendous rewards await if you do.

For the retail price of $1, it delivers 118 paintings, maps, measurements and the most lovingly gathered details. The book celebrates every centimeter: yellow-crowned, gray-cheeked, black-chinned, ruby-throated, rose-breasted, white-rumped. It conjures all their songs: " low-pitched croak," "hoarse 'quock,'" "harsh, rattling call," " deep, penetrating hoot," "unforgettable drumming sound."

Birds is not much bigger than an iPhone 6 Plus and feels like its antidote: a faded ticket to a bygone era, an invitation to simpler living through the tools we were born with - "a pair of eyes" and "good ears."

Rachael Butek, a 23-year-old from Colfax, Wis., sees it that way. She doesn't look like your stereotypical birder of the silver-headed variety, but she can identify a hundred birds by their song.

Birding has changed the way she sees the world and deepened her Catholic faith, attuning her to the intricacy of God's creation. "People underestimate the importance of beauty in our lives," she told me. "It's not practical, per se, but it is vital."

In her mind, most of us have blinders on, oblivious to the flights of fancy in our very own backyards. "More young people should be birders," she says. "They're all buried in their phones."

Rachael has filled 10 journals with penciled-in notes and has witnessed an array of memorable moments: courting kinglets, dueling orioles, sipping hummingbirds, a stretching crow. Her favorite bird, she likes to say, is whichever one she's currently watching.

This summer, Rachael is working as a wildlife technician for the Department of Natural Resources and surveying the Chippewa County Forest through dozens of "point counts": parking herself in a specific point for eight minutes, tallying the birds there and then moving on.

She filled out her application for the internship during Eucharistic adoration at St. John the Baptist Church in nearby Cooks Valley. She has the 7-to-8 Tuesday morning slot. "Having that hour of peace and solitude with Christ is very helpful to review my week, give thanks to God and get perspective," Rachael said.

God's call in her life may not ring out as clearly as a song sparrow, but she's allowing for the silence to hear its faintest hums.

Like Rachael, the most vibrant young Catholics I know embrace elements of the old as they rely on the new. Their Instagram feeds show comic books and vinyl records, knitting needles and calligraphy, gardens, libraries - things that take time. They are compelled to insert the vintage amid the modern, stimulated by the contrasts, drawn to the tactile in a touch-screen world.

We can claim the oldest Christian faith, the one with the most patina, the first edition. We inscribe our name in its book, the ultimate field guide.

Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and the editor of sisterstory.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015

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