Settling in with the chickadee

Walking composition

“Man only likes to count his troubles; he doesn't calculate his happiness.” —Fyodr Dostoevsky

I stepped outside this morning, early, to find the beginnings of a new snowfall dissolving into mist and the spring chickadees’ song magnified by the fog. Everything was muffled except for the chickadee somewhere nearby. The snow has released the ground and trees are beginning to bud, but we are not yet released from winter (I’m not ready; the sight of the nearly bare yard is bleak).


I want to disrupt all the news and information and the short-term thinking flooding into my mind with this kind of input all day long. Why don’t I? Because I have to work and shepherd kids through math and feed people and do dishes and laundry and call the dentist and walk the dog. I sympathize with those wanting to cut all the obligations of income-gathering and modern life, with those wanting to walk away or close themselves off.

To walk away, it’s always an answer, even if you don’t know the question. It’s our body’s answer and we’ve had millions of years to evolve it. Walk, rest, be.


The chickadee reminded me of a documentary I watched over the weekend, Gather, about Native American food sovereignty. It follows people in different parts of the U.S. working on gathering and harvesting traditional foods—seeds, squash, fish, bison. A friend recommended it to me some months ago and I probably got around to it just when I needed it. Gather is short but bursting with all kinds of things the world needs, the stirrings of an answer to situations like those covered in Behemoth, a documentary suggested by Chris D. about the enormous human and planetary destruction wrought by coal mining and leading to the strange world of China’s “ghost cities.” As eerie as it was to see those vast, modern cities devoid of humans, it’s not a short step to cities like London or Vancouver, or even my small hometown, riddled with empty luxury dwellings owned by someone far away and wealthy beyond my imagining or desire, and absolutely beyond what the world can bear.

The chickadee isn’t far away, though. There is something comforting about their return every year, more so even than the robins, magpies, and hummingbirds. Something that says “home” in a way that makes it feel like everything will be okay. Eventually.


Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • I’ll believe it when I see it, but the report in Transport Topics that Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wants to redirect federal transportation funds to support multi-use transportation (bikes! pedestrians!!!) along with tackling the U.S.’s massive infrastructure backlog gives me a teeny tiny glimmer of hope for a more human-friendly, life-centric physical future. Please, Congress, don’t crush that feeble light.

  • Alexus McCleod’s essay in Psyche on how Chinese philosophy views mental wellness and illness as a communal, not just individual, problem, reminded me somewhat of Johann Hari’s book (which I really liked) Lost Connections.

  • Most readers of this newsletter seem to be experienced in quieting mental chatter, but I thought this piece in Nautilus about neuroscientist Ethan Kross’s work had some good, specific advice, like addressing yourself by name, which forces you to make a slight mental switch as if you’re giving someone else advice. (While I’m a too-infrequent meditator, this is actually a technique I’ve used for years either when dealing with a personal problem or trying to figure out a stubborn writing situation, except I do it in a notebook. I recommend it to friends sometimes if they’re stuck in their writing. “Sit down with a pen and notebook and interview yourself.”)

  • A riveting excerpt from Mark Dowie’s book Conservation Refugees in MIT Press Reader, “The Myth of a Wilderness Without Humans.”

  • This short piece in Scientific American about “spiritual narcissism” goes a long way to explaining why all those mindfulness retreats in Big Sur don’t seem to result in a more compassionate Silicon Valley.

  • I have a small heart,” a beautiful 15-minute video about one woman’s pilgrimage in Japan and the seemingly universal lure of pilgrimage.

  • Susana Fabre’s lyrical essay in Sapiens about her stony home south of Mexico City and its long, storied history is hard to describe but at some points I was holding my breath.

  • This op-ed in The Columbus Dispatch—about the Ohio legislature’s efforts to overturn the state’s 1912 law of home rule—reminded me of a stark conversation I had with a Montana journalist friend recently about what we lose when most of the journalists covering the state legislature are not from here and don’t know anything about the history behind many of the issues rearing their ugly heads. Maybe they should be required to google “Copper Kings,” among other subjects, before going on assignment.

  • Robert Chaney’s book The Grizzly in the Driveway might not appeal hugely to people who aren’t interested in issues intersecting with wildlife, habitat, and wilderness, but he makes some really good points at the end about being realistic in what w'e’re really doing when we’re managing something that we want to remain wild in our imaginations. If you are interested in all of those subjects, it’s a very solid and engaging read.

  • A second interview on the Team Human podcast with Tyson Yunkaporta (author of Sand Talk) covered some areas I’ve been struggling with recently, like the balance between time spent on activism versus work. I liked Yunkaporta’s perspective on looking at tools that people will need for what he called the “thousand-year cleanup”: good story and good cognition.