Home Commentary The Way I See It: Growing Roots Through Wings

The Way I See It: Growing Roots Through Wings

My friends tell me often that they don’t know what country I am in on any given week. They send texts starting with “Are you around?” My sisters, too. People learn to email, not call, in case my SIM card is switched off. Birthday invites always have a “If you can make it!” attached.

I travel often for work. My coworkers are scattered all over the globe. My team has more people in New Zealand than in America. My calendar settings include several time zones. I work in tech (the details don’t matter). The internet is everywhere and nowhere. Recently, I met a colleague for coffee, and we realized we’d never actually met physically in the decade of work we’ve done together.

The question I ask myself is: How does one feel rooted when one moves so much? Work doesn’t do that for me. Family doesn’t, either — having collectively fled Connecticut, my nearest family members are, on average, 1,500 miles away. My dad lives in his car. A new surfer at 60, he follows the waves. Nomadism is in my blood.

I moved to Vermont on a whim four years ago, partly to answer this question. I liked Montpelier at face-value enough to get an apartment for three months. I landed a role in a Plainfield Little Theater Shakespeare play. Then another Shakespeare role. Then a Chekhov. Soon, I had been here a year. Then two. Desperate for roots, I dug in.

Part of what kept me here was acting, but another major player was birding. I started driving to Berlin Pond, Dead Creek, and the Northeast Kingdom, looking to rack up state and county counts. I built a website around it and started giving some tours, mostly at North Branch Nature Center. Birding makes sense to me. It’s fun, and I can do it anywhere.

Recently, I’ve been wondering if there is more to birding than just a hobby. Shakespeare is, of course, an obsession, but it’s not native here — it’s an English import. But the birds here are special because they are the birds, here. 

For instance, we have black-capped chickadees, while the United Kingdom has Eurasian blue tits. They’re similar, but after years of attention to them, you start to notice how different they are. Blue tits move in mixed flocks with great tits and coal tits. They’re flighty. They don’t screech the same way chickadees do. It makes a difference.

Last month, I appreciated these differences in a new way I didn’t expect. I came back to Vermont after three months away. Coming back here was like diving into the North Branch during spring floods. It shocked my system. The rootlessness, the feeling that I’m not native here, was palpable. So, when I landed, I didn’t bird anywhere. I missed migration at Berlin Pond, opting for a book. I struggled to remember the names of friends. I felt isolated.

I was waiting for a sense of change, a switch — someone to say, “Here you are, you belong.” I’ve been waiting for that all of my life.

Ten days passed. I didn’t know what to do about it. Then, one night, I stumbled on this passage from the book “Lord Jim” by Joseph Conrad. He says: “We return to face our superiors, our kindred, our friends — those whom we obey, and those whom we love; but even they who have neither, the most free, lonely, irresponsible and bereft of ties — even those for whom home holds no dear face, no familiar voice, — even they have to meet the spirit that dwells within the land, under its sky, in its air, in its valleys, and on its rises, in its fields, in its waters and its trees — a mute friend, judge, and inspirer.”

The quote couldn’t have been more custom built for me. It resonated, especially the phrase “mute friend.” I wrote it down, went to bed.

The next morning I woke up early and drove to Worcester to lead a bird walk for North Branch Nature Center. It rained. Two people showed up. We walked anyway.

Towards the end of the walk, while watching a dauntless northern parula bounce around, I heard them coming in — the chickadees. They were rasping away. And I realized what had struck me about “mute friend” — nature isn’t mute. It has voices. Immediately, I felt so welcomed, so at peace — these were my friends. They were coming to say hello. The woods were warm, all of the sudden, despite the rain.

Nativity, or rootedness, or even “home” aren’t states. They are feelings. Asking for constancy is like asking for the birds to stand still. You can’t. All you can do is notice the feeling, the warmth of friends — and trust that when they say hello, they mean it.

So I did. I turned to the chickadees, and watched them fly in, and said hello to each one. How else should we greet our friends?