Sunday, April 4, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: The Big Birding Trip

What with one thing and another, my husband and I haven't been birding this year, till this morning, when we carried the binoculars and the bird book across town to Elmendorf Lake, where at this time of year if nothing else we're guaranteed to see the egret rookery island in full swing (snowy egrets, cattle egrets, great egrets, little blue herons, and cormorants. Last year there was also a tricolor heron). We also got first-of-the-year sightings for local regulars like coots and yellow-crowned night herons; were teased by warblers; could not be sure of identifying a flycatcher, and found a tree full of cedar waxwings. All of which makes me want to go research a YA book I never plan to write.

Birders have this concept of the Big Defined Period of Time, during which you travel around relentlessly seeing as many different bird species as possible. A Big Day birder or birding group might start by counting the species at your own feeder at the crack of dawn and end by owling fifty miles away at midnight, with a rigorously scheduled round of Best Birding Spots in between. Big Years are huge time and potential money commitments, with a competitive element between individuals, trips to remote areas like the Aleutians to get birds with restricted habitats, and a certain amount of "twitching" (tracking the Rare Bird Alerts and standing ready to drop everything and race to an opportunity). The concept can also be used for scientific work, as Cornell does. But anybody can declare a Big Time Period for themselves just for fun - a Big Hour during migration, a Big Week for your birthday, a Big Month for family vacation.

It's the sort of thing Nancy Drew would do, breaking a record and solving a mystery at the same time. It also provides a viable framework for a journey-of-self-discovery novel. Maybe the protagonist is a birding enthusiast taking the summer between high school and college to backpack around America on a Big Summer, and also to figure out - something. (If this idea appeals to you, be sure and read Kenn Kaufman's Kingbird Highway, telling how he hitchhiked around America birdwatching in the 70s.) Maybe she's got a dedicated birder or ornithologist parent who has pulled her out of school to accompany her on a Big Year, probably in the wake of some big life transition moment like a divorce or beating cancer or something. I even have the beginnings of an elaborate plan for a Big Spring Break trip involving an RV full of Little Old Ladies, and one 17-year-old who is for some reason stuck riding herd on them all because they need someone able-bodied and she's supposed to be looking after her grandmother. The Little Old Ladies (at least three!) are determined to fulfill their plan of birding the entire Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail during migration. You could do something funny and touching with that.

I suppose it's possible this notion will simmer under the surface for a long time until I finally see what I need to see in order to make it work, but I doubt it. That journey-of-self-discovery thing isn't my style. I intended to make one, in adolescence, but I never did; possibly because all those road trips I made as a child took the edge off the fantasy. Traveling isn't romantic to me. It's exhausting and uncomfortable and there's never enough time to look around you. If you're with someone, your enthusiasms never quite mesh, or you get tired at different times, or one of you gets food poisoning; if you're alone, you're - well, you're alone, aren't you?

I have no character for this. I have no firm idea of what the journey is a metaphor for, or how to make the events of it resolve any personal question the protagonist is likely to have. And when I think about it, I quickly start planning, not the book, but the research trip.

That's what I really want to do - the dream of birding every site along all three Coastal Birding trails, camping along the way, during migration, is mine. And I know I'm not up to it. Birding is a crappy hobby for someone with Meniere's disease - all that moving your eyes rapidly to track the Little Brown Jobs through the trees, all that leaning over backward with binoculars at your eyes to trace the flight of the redtail, or maybe red-shouldered, hawk that just went over, all that tramping through brush and swamp and then not being able to renew your snacks at the convenience store on the highway because anything you bought there would have more sodium than you're supposed to have in a day - I'd give it up if I could but I can't so I won't, and I'll never do a Big Anything because I would get so very sick.

Writing a story about something you can't do is a legitimate artistic choice. I write time travel stories because I can't do that; I write about magic because I don't believe in it. But you have to have something in hand besides wish-fulfillment if you want to write a story anybody else can read. Character + conflict = plot. Nobody wants to read my fictional travelogues, not unless I've got something else going on. So until and unless I find the person who belongs in this story, I'm not investing any labor in it.

Which in a way is too bad, because a Big Week Vacation would be a lot more affordable if I could deduct it as research expenses.

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