The Arusha Birdman has lived in equatorial Africa for six years. By the grace of God and hominid ingenuity on almost everyday of those six passed years he’s been able to watch the birds, contemplate the ethereal heavens and listen-in a little to what is being said.
My in-depth knowledge has been limited however to just two geopolitical entities. Tanzania, which is my “country of residence”, and Sierra Leone – a different place entirely. Sierra Leone is not especially famous for its wildlife, Tanzania most certainly is. So it has been my good fortune during the past twelve months to have worked extensively in two highly dissimilar African areas, one a stone’s throw south of the Equator, the other not far north.
Both countries lie largely within the still green girdle of Earth’s equatorial zone. Much of Tanzania is elevated, occupying part of the East African plateau and above 1,000m, while the far smaller Sierra Leone manages a much smaller area largely below 1,000m. Tanzania, especially the more familiar safari-land of the north, is (was) savanna – open woodland with grasses – supporting hordes of grazing animals. These were until recently chiefly indigenous wild ungulates but since the time of the Arab arrival have been increasingly replaced by northern and middle eastern species ushering many of the dire consequences which we now experience. Sierra Leone is, or should be, forested – jungle (I spent some formative years in India – long ago); moist evergreen associations stretching from the Atlantic to the top of the highest peak. This has been converted almost entirely to rotational farm-bush, which in the absence of agricultural change, currently suffers an ever-shortening fallow period.
Birding in these two equatorial African nations is therefore very different. The “good birds” in much of Tanzania are not interior forest species. In Sierra Leone they are.
Returning to jungle birding after a hiatus of nearly twenty years (of the globally-deregulated forest removal facilitated by the late empire) has helped me think again about many ‘issues’. One of the more pleasant of which is as follows:
Since going across to the forest patches of Sierra Leone it has become clear that there was something seriously missing from my life during two decades of birding largely in eastern and north eastern Africa. That absence was the joy of jungle birding. More accurately I should say that the absence was of something that happens ‘to me’ (or not to me) most reliably when I am searching for birds in a tropical forest.
What is this thing?
To be honest I do not really know, but something I think I first started to become conscious of at about twenty-five years of age. It coincided with the first wholly successful barbarian assaults on what was left, after WW1 & WW11, of the citadel of human sanity. Something which, through these past thirty years, has been a guiding hand through much of my life, directing and determining many of the choices I have made.
In 1976 I developed an interest in the purpose wrapped within the two oriental practices called Zen Buddhism and Taoism. I soon discovered that I was somehow incapable or unwilling to effectively follow through with either discipline at least when within any four walls. Mercifully it began to occur to me during the eighties that my interest in, or affinity for, these two eastern forms of mysticism was likely in various ways, intimately and intricately, enmeshed with my life-long love of Nature. More specifically it seemed reasonable to believe that the thing, by some it’s been called the numinous, was occurring only through my being immersed in nature.
Occurring when unselfconscious, utterly absorbed in the moment, as whilst searching for tropical forest birds. It has happened elsewhere; most memorably by a frozen snowy river in Lethbridge Alberta and trapped in a crumbling napoleonic tower in a storm beyond Tarifa at the Strait of Gibraltar; yet these were somehow, of themselves, exceptional events. So in general I remained, wanting.
Just before the passing of AD 2010 it had become clear that there is something inherent in pursuing “The Art of Forest Birding” (at which I am by no means a master) which may facilitate a condition, or situation similar to, that referred to in the zen literature by the japanese words kensho-godo if not yet the ultimate Satori!
To clarify perhaps I should quote from my dog-eared diamond-cutting manual, bravely named, A Zen Dictionary compiled by Ernest Woods (sadly people of EW’s metal have become increasingly rare, especially, it seems to me, since the widespread introduction of mains electricity) in the years prior to 1957 whose copyright is possibly held by the Philosophical Society of New York.
kensho-godo: “looking into your own nature and finding it to be the same as the ultimate nature of the universe.”
satori: “consciousness of pure consciousness itself, as such, without objects either mental or bodily.”
To try to put this into a more modern english parlance as dictated by the temporary triumph of electrified consumer-totalitarianism:
kensho-godo is a vehicle and road map within, and around which, alienation has been delivered unto oneness; or maybe one might prefer: Like, it starts cool, goes past stunning and then way beyond awesome to …!
Anyway, to return to the tropical forests fringes where our story once began (those such as are left, yet fear not for 2011 is officially the International Year of the Forest …?) and those endangered birds that hide within; I find that this awe is true, yet so gentle in a way I cannot describe. And I just wanted to let others know, to come out and admit, in these dark days (when seemingly every thinking person faces a daily session on the rack of despair), that occasionally, not nearly as often as I would like, it appears that I may escape these thoughts, this mortal coil, forget my cares and stand at ease .. “for something like a second” to merge with what some might call the ultimate reality. I do this thing through birding. And would argue, sitting here at my little fruity screen (those that unite yet also serve increasingly to separate us all) that it is a practice preferable to that of amassing any kind of list.
Of course it helps a lot in the discipline of the Art of Jungle Birding if you know there are lifers (or even better “man-eaters”) all around you in them-there woods. Because the imminent likelihood of seeing a desired new bird is highly-motivating, as is the possibility of abrupt life-list termination, to every honest birder whom I’ve ever met.
So en route to the Joys of Jungle Birding there’s …
- Anticipation: enhanced connectivity through wish-lists to dream-birds. The real-known or supposed, or even imagined, presence of a species which you yourself may know only from a written description (best of all), or from a colourful jizz-less cartoon in the field guide (the ‘BL’ Swedish school of Lars Jonsson hereby excepted of course!), as they’ve never been photographed au naturelle (or ‘captured’ by the pornithologists) up close and far too personal, never in the wild – being shy and skulking beings of remote dark forests where Canons fail to shoot; this anticipation of itself prepares most of the necessary human senses.
- Concentration: unified physical and mental. There is the faintest chance, that at any moment now, you may meet, (see, encounter, find, get, have) that shy (and cripplingly beautiful) forest skulker, as long as, of course, you don’t totally blow it – and throw the chance away, by fidgeting, by cracking that one dry unseen twig, by swatting that wee sweat bee that’s literally right in your face, or by any inappropriate inhalation or even worse exhalation, from any orifice, as by sneezing or by coughing; this then sharpens the filaments of any senses as yet ‘unwired’.
- Perseverance: it can take an age. The protracted stalking, the creeping and, let’s admit it, crawling, searching beside those narrowest of forest trails, bins held at most at half-length, the discomfiture of sweat, easing oh so gently from one’s torso or trickling alarmingly toward those all important eyes; this forces self-control and the power of the mind over matter.
In short, it’s a birder’s meditation method.
Searching for birds that skulk in a dense and multi-storied forest, on a hill near the equator, provides a route to a consciousness which is surely missed by all too many in the teemingly toxic world of today.
I am sorry this is short. I started it Tuesday January 25, then went down with presumed falciparum malaria (a downside of Jungle Birding for all those owls, frogmouths and goatsuckers), thanks to all the plasmodia are passing away!
So before going (to lie down for a bit!) I would like to thank firstly my most recent co-meditators on the forest floor in Tonkolili district of Sierra Leone; for I shared my Christmas retreat with five memorable leaf-tossing friends. I present them here in order of their appearance in the indispensable 2010 edition of Ian Sinclair & Peter Ryan’s Birds of Africa south of the Sahara.
An Illadopsis duo: Puvel’s and Rufous-winged, Grey-headed Bristlebill, White-tailed Alethe and Western Forest Robin.
And secondly some all too human jungle-skulking “birding buddies”, incomparable comrades: Andy Schofield, David Percival, Craig Robson, Jim Vaughan and Pete Davidson: co-trailers on the Way!