On Tuesday this week it dawned on me that I was in heaven. Several factors brought me to this moment of bliss: that I was alone; that I was surrounded by nature and birdsong; and that I was safe.
Yes, that I was safe. And by that I mean I was as far removed as you can get from that low-grade fear you have as a woman walking down a dark street. I'm talking here about fear of human threats, not natural ones. That fear has kept me safe, but it steals from the pleasure I get when I am in nature, and it keeps me from venturing out alone very often.
You know from past posts that I love birding with friends, and there's that thing about a group and safety in numbers.
But sometimes I want to experience a place alone, and meet birds as a solitary, quiet admirer. Make that a solitary quiet admirer of the whole setting--There is something about the way the summer wind shimmers the maple and cottonwood leaves, creating that sea of sound that is so soothing. And even with the breeze the birdsong is audible in layers, and with no one else around, the birds are confident, even curious about me, if I am lucky.
This week I've been in Burlington, Vermont visiting my friend Jean. We spent most of my five day visit together, but on this particular day when we visited Shelburne Farms, she left me alone to wander the miles of trails by myself.
The Farms are privately run as a working non-profit and serve both as a spectacular demonstration and working farm, and as a wildlife sanctuary. The landscape of fields and woodland islands created 100 years ago have matured and provide habitat for hundreds of bird species. Another friend back in Seattle had recommended Shelburne for the birding, so in planning this trip, it was the only request I made of Jean for my time on the ground.
And the place delivered. Nesting Bobolinks and Savannah Sparrows in the grasslands; Eastern Wood-Peewees and Great-crested Flycatchers in the woods; and my first Indigo Bunting along the forest edge. Plus the view across Lake Champlain west to New York and the Adirondacks in the distance. The moments I indulged in stopping to look back on the path, I was admiring my surroundings, not shuddering in dread of someone jumping me. It was total freedom to be alone and not be afraid.
Because birding alone for hours far from help got me thinking, how few places are really safe for a solitary woman to be out birding, at all. That I felt completely safe in this contained "wilderness" of a private farm--which charges entry fee and is surrounded by a fence--didn't escape me. The Farm felt like endless countryside, yet it wasn't. Its barriers kept out opportunistic harassers. I would never have let my guard down like this in a city park, on a hike, or camping; in those environments, a lone female out there by herself, on public land no less, and still not feeling safe.
I wonder if my guy birder friends have this same concern when they are out alone in the field. Those with expensive gear might worry about theft, but what else would they worry about? This is not a rhetorical question. I'm going to ask them.
I'm speculating that one reason there aren't more famous female birders is partly the danger in the solitary. Phoebe Snetinger the most accomplished female birder to date (if you count the most birds seen as your criteria--she saw over 8,000), was gang-raped on one of her birding trips. No matter if you are a lone woman out there by yourself or a lone woman with a hired--usually male--guide, there is a risk in birding as the one female in the landscape.
There was a moment ten years ago when, woozy from the 100 degree heat as I stood next to my Italian guide along an isolated channel in the Po River delta, it occurred to me that I knew nothing about him. He'd been word of mouth from the Italian bird advocacy group Lipu, and we'd communicated only by email prior to my hiring him. It was a leap of faith that I took, trusting him to guide me. Yet suddenly I had doubts. And here we were, looking for a Pied Avocet, and no one would hear me scream.
The thought sullied the previous ease of our interaction, and distracted me from the rest of the day's birding. Am I so programmed as a woman to fear for my safety that I can't loosen up when all usual signs indicate the guy is safe? Whatever the "usual signs" may be?
Ultimately the day ended and I gave him a big tip, feeling guilty for doubting his integrity. But I never forgot the discomfort of the situation, for my being female and alone and not feeling safe.
WELL...after all that, here are some beautiful photos from my walk across the properties of Shelburne Farms, which I heartily recommend to any gal wanting a solitary stroll and birds galore. I also found this tongue-in-cheek essay about assertiveness training for female birders by Lorna Salzman to be a comforting read.