The sign outside the Arcadia Mass Audubon Visitor Center said the center was open, but the desk was closed.
This could spell trouble. Waking up feeling a bit directionless and disconnected, I’d driven an hour from Worcester to Easthampton to see something I was sure would lift my spirits: an American bald eagle nest.
Inside, I noticed only an older gentleman, stooped over a rather basic broom and dust bin, intent on cleaning duties. Just the same, he turned as I walked past to the restroom, asked if he could help.
“Yes,” I said. “Where’s the restroom?”
Coming back out, the man was still sweeping. At the counter, I grabbed the Arcadia Mass Audubon map. Trails were named for all manner of flora and fauna except the bird I was looking for – possibly because only this year did a bald eagle couple hatch and raise its young.
Clearly, I was going to have to trouble the guy who was probably just trying to finish cleaning up. “Excuse me,” I said. “I’m looking for the eagle nest.”
He quickly set aside his broom and dustbin. He started giving directions that were, well, nature-specific, right down to the sumac that might be blocking the view so late in the season. Sensing I needed the visual aid, he circled the spot on the map – then cushioned me for disappointment, reminding me there was no guarantee I’d see eagles right now, since the young had fledged. I was clearly in the presence of a birding expert; he was, in fact, a card-carrying naturalist. (He would hand me said card after our conversation ended.) But his love of nature and birds led him to do cleanup duties two days a week.
I felt like Jim Carrey in Bruce Almighty. In that film, Bruce is surprised when God, played by Morgan Freeman, disguises himself as a janitor, only to then knock the disbelieving protagonist across the room with an infinitely long file drawer of records on humanity. Only this man’s drawer was in his head. Sometimes his tours stall right outside the door of the visitor center, if only because he could see or hear 25 bird species in the parking lot.
The Morgan Freeman Effect would multiply a few minutes later, after I run into a woman and her two young nieces, all toting binoculars. She’s driven from Boston – twice the distance I traveled – and picked up her nieces, hoping to get them into the natural world. They’re focused on what’s either a redtail hawk or an eagle, sitting large and still atop a pine. Unable to resolve the issue, I look inside for our expert, whom I find whistling as he sweeps a back room. He comes out to help, then, instead of going back to finish up, says, “I wonder if we have a scope inside!” Rushing back inside, he emerges again with a telescope with tripod, and uses it to educate us on the subtleties that tell him it’s a juvenile redtail hawk.
The woman pulls out her paperback Sibley Guide to Birds, with its lush illustrations of birds from various angles and stages. They commiserate. “People will say they saw five different kinds of seagulls,” he said, “and it’ll turn out they just saw one kind, just in five different stages of development.” At no point does he talk down to her, or her to him – and, in a more transcendent accomplishment, they both avoid talking down to me, the novice.
After a quarter hour of connecting, and swapping of contact information, we go our separate ways. I feel I’ve already gotten more than I’d hoped for from my trip; my spirits have risen from sharing a passion with others, even if I didn’t know them an hour ago. But their enthusiasm energizes me further, so I still drive out to the spot he suggested, park the car and walk across a wide field of mown hay, trying to find the nest, which is supposed to be visible in spots through the tree line. At a great distance, I think I see an eagle – I note the suggestion of the white head – but it’s flying along the road, giving no clue on the nest.
I see no trace from the field, so I walk back to my car, edge down a road by a crew club; the Oxbow of the Connecticut River glitters perhaps a hundred yards away, and I note a heron on a sandbar. I note a second path running along the shade of the tree lines, and realize this was the turn my friend had suggested. So I parked again, walked down the tree line, got to what I was guessing was the spot – and looked in vain through the tree trunks and the sumac. Oh well, he’d warned me that the sumac might have grown in too much.
I give up, but as I approach my car, an earphone-wearing, power-walking man waves hello; encouraged by the friendliness at the visitor center, I ask about the nest. “Here! I think it’s this way,” he says, going back down the path I just left.
At first I think he’s just going to walk a dozen or so strides, then point me onward, but he keeps going.
“You don’t have to interrupt your walk,” I holler.
“It doesn’t matter which way I walk, as long as I’m walking!” he yells.
Along the way we learn we’re both college professors – only he in the considerably headier subject of artificial intelligence. He shows me a coupe of subtle spots where folks have cut branches off through the brush toward the marsh, and leads me part way, but the remaining brush seems to wall us off. We part ways, and I start to head back to my car – only here comes one more man, toting a small scope, so yet again I ask. This one leads me back yet again – only he helps me bushwhack almost to the water’s edge.
“Watch out for the stickers in this one spot,” he warns over his shoulder, but he’s the one who gets nailed by the plant. (I’m the one who gets stung by a bee.)
None of which seems to matter a lot when he points across the water and through some trees. I don’t see it at first, but he’s patient. Finally I find the nest – with the juvenile bald eagle sitting so large and still, I mistook it for the top of a dead tree trunk. My guide hangs around long enough to talk herons and eagles, and the effect of one on the other. We don’t exchange names, or occupations, or any of the other superficial information we use to pigeonhole one another – and yet I feel a kind of connection as we gaze, vegetation pressing in from all sides.
In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of the spiritual delight of the woods, arguing that the “power to produce this delight does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony of both.”
Me, I’m certainly feeling more, well, harmonized. I migrate on down the road into Northampton, intending to celebrate my outing at an outdoor beer garden. I perch on a stool in the shade, continuing to observe birds and humans – happily waiting for the next sighting, and the next connection.