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Gurdonark Homework

Sorry it's been so dead here recently. I've been spending a lot of the spare time with the new boyfriend. That's going extremely great and I'm really happy about it, except when I look down and then I get panicky.

I feel like I had a lot of stories to tell you all from the last month. but they lose their energy when they sit around, sadly. but here's two:

I went to the optometrist last week to get more contact lenses. She says to me "Do you know you have a lazy eye?" I'm pretty excited by that idea, so I say "No, show me!" to which she replies "Unfortunately, you'll never be able to see it. But your friends have never told you?"

You always wonder, right, all your life, whether there is something wrong with you that no one will say: you have bad breath, or you smell bad, or everyone thinks of you as Interrupting Girl and despises you for it. And now here's a trained medical professional insisting that it's true.

I didn't know what to think, but gave a lot of my friends a hard time about being cowardly liars, just in case.

I should add that this same optometrist office, although a totally different optometrist, insisted to me a few years ago that I had a hyperactive thyroid (because of my wide, starey eyes) and should go to my doctor immediately, right now, today. I pointed out that I didn't have weight fluctuations or bouts of weird sweatiness, but he seemed very sure of himself. Then I went and my doctor said "I think you just have big eyes."

Next story: I am blacklisted at grade nationals.

This story is almost too ridiculous to tell. I'm at grade nationals, maybe Friday night, I'm minding my business, having a drink (I'm so cheap I brought it from my room in a plastic cup) with some nice people in some terrible Mexican restaurant, when a colleague of mine joins us and says to me:

"Elizabeth, I like you. I am your friend. But I want to tell you what other people are saying about you. You are being blacklisted by other scholastic coaches for your overly aggressive recruitment practices." He goes on to accuse me of a) trying to get a kid who lives 2 hours away from my school to transfer there and b) that some of the kids in my school live outside the district.

I don't even know where to start. First of all, there is nothing unethical about recruiting kids, as far as I can see. But it's totally false--I have never spoken to this child or his parents about attending my school, because he lives two hours away in an area with excellent public schools. I mean, if I were a mother living in a nice area, I wouldn't make my kid commute two hours each way every day to attend a title 1 public school in a (frankly) dangerous area, even if Kasparov taught there.

So I laughed and asked my accusatory colleague to please ask the child's father whether I had ever spoken to him. At the end of the weekend, my colleague said he had not had time to ask.

But he did later request that the Scholastic Council investigate where my students live. Now I have no idea where my students live, since I don't follow them home. ButI'm pretty sure you have to present a gas bill or a lease or something that is not so easy to fake when you do register a child for school. maybe some parents out there would know?

I was rooming with Greg, who of course found it hilarious that I was being "blacklisted" (there is absolutely nothing in the scholastic community that anyone could blacklist anyone from, as far as I can tell) and promptly began blacklisting me from all kinds of things: choosing the movie, using the shower, getting to eat the ice cream.

But really, what is wrong with these people? I would understand if I gave private lessons or ran for-profit school programs and was somehow a threat to their income. but I don't and I'm not. I'm a public school teacher who has nothing to do with their world, other than my students occasionally play theirs. of course maybe it's my creepy lazy eye....

In a field guide, a pattern on a bird has a name and an easily understood concept – a stripe, for instance.

In a photo, a pattern on a bird appears as a shape, or a group of shapes, with varying levels of focus but also occurring in a frozen, monocular space.

On a bird specimen, or skin, a pattern reveals itself to be comprised of feathers of differing size, structure, and coloration.

In life, a pattern on a bird has fluidity, moving and morphing according to situation and need. It is a thing in time, defined by physical characteristics but open to visual interpretation.

In art, of course, a bird can be anything.

I visited the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY, a couple of weeks ago, as part of the homework I have been undertaking since mid-July. I have been looking rather closely at a number of bird skins: analyzing, learning, unlearning, and whatnot. “Looking rather closely” might be a bit of an understatement, because I was transfixed by this process, and had a tendency to sit down to a drawing and a heap of dead birds, and emerge eight hours later, fuzzy in the head from mothballs and the sheer volume of Things I Did Not Know But Wanted To Learn. A can of worms, I tell you. I believe I may have used that phrase before. Like about a thousand times.

Collections of bird specimens will whisper very interesting things to you, but they are coy and mislead and befuddle. A skin is not a bird, any more than a photo is. Firstly, there is no reliable shape or structure to a skin – all bones are removed during processing, save for the legs, the bones in the wing, and varying bits of skull. It is then stuffed with an amount of cotton and pushed into an astonishing variety of shapes, even within one species. Even the length of a prepared bird is unreliable.

Next, there is the issue of a collection. There are so many variables here that I could probably write a whole book just on that! One of the issues that comes up: how many specimens of one species are there, and from where, and when? Are you under the impression that molt progression is a simple matter? Then, take an overstuffed tray (or 5 or 6 trays) of Short-billed Dowitcher subspecies, and compare that to the succinct information presented to you by an artist and a field guide writer. You begin to realize that science, that “fact”, involves a hefty amount of decision making, the kind of decision making that is neither sexy nor public, but that very heavily influences how one birder speaks to another in the field.

Lincoln’s Sparrows??

There are things you can learn from a skin, if you stretch your mind around some variables and ask questions (and boy, did I ask questions) and read as much as you can get your hands on. Feather pattern and coloration, for instance, change very little over time, even between a hundred year-old specimen and a five year one. Of course, you might want to know a few things: feathers, and therefore patterns, are often quite mussed, out of place, and at times confounding. Many birds have dark under feathers on the breast, even a pure white breast. This makes things a bit muddy. Oh, and some colors do fade, actually.

Stripes: on a sparrow’s back, those so neatly illustrated by people who are rapidly becoming the people-I-have-the-most-gratitude-towards (sorry, Mom and Dad), are, um, a little hard to discern. Are there four stripes or five? Are they symmetrical, or is one planted in the middle? Are all striped-back sparrows consistent in the number of stripes? Are they even really stripes? The specimens look at you with their vacant cottony eyes and laugh. You check the field guides and find that sparrows are mostly illustrated from the side. You search every photo you have taken and every decent one on the internet that actually shows a clear sparrow back, and you discover, within Swamp Sparrow, for instance, that those stripes move around a lot, changing with irritating frequency. You realize you have to refer to your own field experience – but have you ever actually counted the stripes/not stripes? Or did you look and say, hopefully rather quickly and with birder élan, “Oh, it’s a Swamp Sparrow,” and truly have no idea how many stripes there were. Now, try and draw a recognizable SwSp without knowing such things. If you are half a human being, your respect for bird illustrators has grown by leaps and bounds, even if you already held them in high esteem.

This is lengthy, and that is just one example, so I shall leave this here, for now. My trip to Cornell involved a lot more than sitting with skins, so more to come. May I thank some people? I have never met individuals in a field more willing to share hard-earned knowledge, and with such humility and patience. I have been working on drawings relating to this for four months (which means I have been asking a lot of questions). If you are one of those people, are reading this, and find yourself embarrassed, please let me know if you would like your name removed, or if you have a doctorate I have missed. In the meantime, my deepest gratitude to all:

Dr. Morgan Tingley, Paul Sweet, Scott Haber, Charles Eldermire, Hugh Powell, Dale Dyer, Andrew Vallely, Jim Coe, Guy Tudor, Michael Digiorgio, Barry Van Dusen, Dr. Kim Bostwick, Dr. Tom Schulenberg – their work, artistic and scientific, is worth looking up.

Images: Melospiza studies, ink and watercolor.

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