When the weather and workload allow it, Cara and I walk around the pond on our lunch break. We began this habit early this March, after what felt like a long cold imprisonment inside. We kept a close eye on the bare branches and iced-over pond, looking for the first stirrings of thaw and then spring.
One day in April we saw a narrow white question mark across the water—the distinctive silhouette of a heron. Last year I had seen both white herons and a great blue heron, but this year, it seemed the pond played host only to white ones. There were three of these solitary hunters standing out against the far dark shore. The turtles came out to sun themselves on the log. We could see up to ten turtles of all sizes, and ages, lined on the log in the far corner of the pond. Red-wing blackbirds flew overhead. We once saw an oriole.
Cara reported our daily heron and turtle count to one of our coworkers, who is native to Essex. “There are no herons around here, they must be egrets!” she told us. Cara grew up in southern New Hampshire and I grew up in Virginia. We hurriedly corrected ourselves, sure that we just weren’t local enough to know. A few weeks later I got into a conversation with a man on my street who is a birder. He said that he sees herons all over the place. Although he is originally from Maine, he has lived in Beverly for forty years. Who are we to believe?
The point isn’t necessarily whether we are seeing herons or egrets (although, one of these days, I’d like to settle the issue for sure). We are becoming daily observers of our habitat. In my hometown, the place where I feel the most local, the streets are not just familiar, each one has a story or an association attached to it. I know the names of the wildflowers and which direction the river flows. When someone asks me for directions, I am sometimes too full of knowledge, associations, and history to give them coherently (not to mention that I’m apt to tell them to turn left at a building that isn’t even there anymore).
Learning the names of the birds and plants around us is one way to live deeply in a place, to start the process of becoming local. And the more deeply we live in a place, the more we understand the impact of our decisions. When I leave the lights on at my house, I am using more coal from Tabaco, Colombia, to fire up the power plant across the river. When I buy books, I am supporting the economic and cultural vitality of Salem.
Create your own understanding of where you live. Learn how your town, area, region is different than other towns, areas, and regions. Learn the names of the birds that you see. Shop at your local stores and cook food you bought at the farmstand or picked or grew yourself. Maybe someday when our coworker asks us what we saw when we walked around the pond, Cara and I will be too full of details we have observed, the pattern of the seasons we spent walking around the pond, to give her a clear answer.