How birds make me feel: E. B. White


My daughter and I have been reading E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan for the past couple of weeks. It’s been about 30 years since I read it, so I’m really enjoying the parts I remember, and rediscovering parts I don’t.

In the first chapter we meet 11 year old Sam Beaver. Sam loves to explore nature, and he knows his birds. He goes off alone in the woods, sometimes for hours at a time, just to see what he can see. He delights in moving silently over the ground, and probing into the most wild and out of the way places he can. He is, in these regards, exactly like the 11 year old me.

One day, in a secluded and swampy place, Sam discovers two Trumpeter Swans at their nest. These are enormous birds, and were very much a conservation priority when White wrote this book. He describes Sam’s emotions at finding the nest, and they are similar to what I have felt many times at stumbling across some wondrous bit of nature – a reward so often found after heeding Frost’s advice and following the literal path “less traveled by.” Here is E.B. White:

As he trudged on, the boy’s mind was full of the wonder of what he had just seen. Not many people in the world have seen the nest of a Trumpeter Swan. Sam had found one on the lonely pond on this day in spring. He had seen two great white birds with their long white necks and black bills. Nothing he had ever seen before in all his life had made him feel quite the way he felt, on that wild little pond, in the presence of those two enormous swans. They were so much bigger than any bird he had ever seen before. The nest was big, too – a mound of sticks and grasses. The female was sitting on eggs; the male glided slowly back and forth, guarding her.

Nothing he had ever seen before in all his life had made him feel quite the way he felt, on that wild little pond, in the presence of those two enormous swans. Take out “two enormous swans” substitute “that funny little rail running over his feet” or “that puffed up grouse drumming on his log” or “the tiny yellowthroat bursting forth in song”, and you’ve tapped into the emotion the birders are so often at a loss to describe to the uninitiated. In fact, even White does not describe what that feeling is, only that it’s like nothing else, and you get a sense that it is wonderful.

It is.

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