Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Eyeball on the Prize

Like the gunpowder Ed Ruscha uses in some of his drawings, the 'how' of art can sometimes invoke a deeper meaning in the work. I had that realization again recently, perhaps inappropriately, with a book - "The Big Year," (subtitled: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession), by Mark Obmascik. But I'm not sure the writer was attempting to use this subtle device. Maybe he was.

The book is about birding. Not the passive, contemplative, relaxing style of bird-watching, but a competitive hybrid. A "Big Year" is when - over the course of one year - someone is attempting to site all the native bird species of North America, plus as many rarities as possible; blown overseas by storms, or some other freak occurence.

The book follows the lives of 3 men who decided to go for it, in 1998. That year turned out to be a 'perfect storm' sort of year for birding: a very intense El Nino produced freakish changes in prevaling winds and weather, added to some incredible luck - at least for the ultimate top scoring participant.

It is an interesting and fast read. But I couldn't help but read between the lines, into the lives of these guys. They couldn't have come from more divergent backrounds: an overweight Y2K software debugging programmer, who works at a nuclear power plant; a retired corporate CEO, with a mega house on the ridge above Aspen CO; and a self-made, polyester-wearing, braggard from New Jersey.

I won't give away the ending, in case you want to read it (it's an OK book). But the final impression I came away with was 'how pathetic, how inappropriate.' Each one of the 3 led such lonely vacant lives, at least during their Big Years. The contrast of what they were doing, to how they were doing it, was the most significant message I got from their stories. The 'gunpowder' of their year, being a sublime and otherwise lovely act: witnessing natural beauty in one of it's most exquisite manifestations. What is wrong with us, that we have to go to such lengths to pursue our dreams, at any cost?

Look, a bird.

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