Context is what appears when you hold your attention open for long enough; the longer you hold it, the more context appears. Here’s an example. In the first year that I really got into bird-watching, I used The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. The book has a checklist in the back where you mark the different species you’ve seen. That many birding books have such a list tells you a lot about how people tend to approach this activity; in its most annoying form, bird-watching potentially resembles something like Pokémon GO. But this was somewhat inevitable for me as a beginner, learning to pick out discrete, individual birds. After all, when you learn a new language, you start with the nouns.
Over the years, my continued attention began to dissolve the edges of the checklist approach. I noticed that certain birds were in my neighborhood during only part of the year, like cedar waxwings and white-crowned sparrows. In the winter, my crows came by less often. Even if they stay in the same place, birds can look different not only throughout their life but during different seasons, so much so that many pages of the Sibley guide have to show different ages, as well as breeding and nonbreeding versions, of the same bird. So, there were not only birds, but there was bird time.
Then there was bird space. Magpies abounded near my parents’ house an hour south, but never here. There were mockingbirds in West Oakland but not in Grand Lake. Song sparrows had different songs in different places. The blue of scrub jays got duller as you went inland. Crows sounded different in Minneapolis. The dark-eyed juncos I saw at Stanford had brown bodies and black heads (the Oregon subgroup), but had I traveled east, I would have seen variations. Read More