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Bill May: The uncommon beauty of the common | OUTDOORS COMMENTARY

“With beauty all around me, may I walk.” From the Navajo prayer, “Walk in Beauty.”

Every fall the new yearly calendars arrive, featuring pictures of bucolic scenes, majestic mountain vistas, exotic birds and other animals, and the like.

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I’m suggesting with the Navajo that we need beauty, and that seeing it is a choice. I’m also suggesting we can find beauty in many common setting in the outdoors. It’s not exclusive to national parks or to such glamour species as eagles, loons and other calendar subjects.

Five years ago I moved to a community with open and forested grounds, a small lake, a club of skilled photographers and some ardent birders. I’m enjoying these benefits.

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Years before I read in a National Park Service photo brochure that one doesn’t take a picture of an object but of the light on the object. I remember thinking at the time I wasn’t sure if that observation was banal or profound. The photos of a starling, robin and mockingbird, three everyday sights year round in our area, help illustrate my points.

A robin at work.
A robin at work. (Bill May Photo)

When I saw my photo of the starling in the sunlight, like Hank Williams and NPS, “I saw the light.” The shades of green and purple on the head, the patterns of tan and white along the wing feathers and the graceful form combine for great beauty. (In colder months, flocks of starlings in the thousands, known as murmurations, put on spectacular displays of swirling, synchronized flight.)

As I consulted bird books to identify species, I became a bit indignant at times with their use if the word “common” as in species names like Common Sandpiper or Common Swift and a description of a Song Sparrow as a “common midsized sparrow.” Fortunately terms like “abundant” and “widespread” are more often used.

So I guess “common” is not meant to denigrate, and I concede that with an estimated 18,000 bird species worldwide names and descriptions cam be problematic.

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Sifting through my collection of Christmas cards last December, many sent by organizations I donated to, I was struck by how many featured cardinals. It makes sense. The males and females offer a glimpse of color and beauty in the dark days of winter and convey a note of cheer and hope.

Cardinals and robins both winter over and are abundant here. Their beauty of these creatures is a note of joy and can even be transformative. (Even the duller colorations of the females of species like cardinals, mallard ducks and orioles present a subtle beauty.)

A mockingbird surveys its territory.
A mockingbird surveys its territory. (Bill May Photo)

In his 1962 short story “Pigeon Feathers,” award-winning author John Updike, describes a youth’s experience of an epiphany and theophany in examining the feathers of pigeon. As Encyclopedia Britannica notes “In these early stories Updike attempted to capture overlooked or unexpected beauty inherent in the small details of life. ...” That’s the point, exactly.

Here’s another piece on this theme from another time and place. As I was assembling pictures for this story, the winter issue of Nature Conservancy magazine arrived with an article entitled “Common Interests” by naturalist Ashok Biswal describing how he and fellow residents of his city of Hoshangabad, India turned to “balcony birding” during the COVID-19 pandemic: “Before lockdown I overlooked these common bird species. Now they became an integral part of my life.”

A sunlit starling.
A sunlit starling. (Bill May Photo)

As I continue to take pictures of birds, deer, foxes, squirrels trees, plants and people I am beginning to realize more how everyday outdoor sights can be uplifting. Flora play their part too: crocus pushing through snow in late winter, dogwoods brightening the woods in spring, wildflowers like daisies, Black-eyed Susans, the blooms of black locust trees along the roadways in summer.

These are all inspiring gifts of beauty for those who choose to see.

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