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Guest Post: Difficult Feats, Pointless Tasks

Posted in Marvels


My friend Jacob Haverfield is a naturalist, among other things. What follows are a couple of excerpts from a letter he once sent me, about adventures out in various fields. I will try to avoid building things up too much, but will say that this is stuff to savor.

The first section is about his time documenting an invasive plant species in the desert. The second is about birding. Enjoy.

  1. Climbing Through Thorns

I have yet to develop or discover a vocabulary which accurately describes much if anything at all about trying to move through an environment populated, or rather dominated, by “Salt-cedar.” Salt-cedar ingeniously pushes out all other forms of under-story or competing natives by copiously shedding its salt- laden leaves into a thick litter on the ground, stifling all other seedlings in a kind of toxic blanket. It can grow unspeakably large – as tall and broad as a 30-foot cottonwood – but seems more commonly to top out at about 9 –12 feet.  It is unspeakably difficult to move through. Only Himalayan blackberry would be more horrific. If a fire were to break out while you were in the center of even a smallish stand of Salt-cedar, your odds of escaping would not be good; not only is the ground a tinderbox of leaf-litter, and the “forest” thick with dead shoots, but the bare fact is that you cannot move beyond a predictably,  unbelievably slow speed. You are impeded. You either cannot stand up because it is so thick, and therefore must crawl, or you cannot move forward because it is so thick. It is common to spend an hour and a half traversing 800 linear feet of flat ground. We often emerge looking as though we had encountered a mountain lion somewhere in the middle. We are filthy, covered in black Tamarisk dust: a glassy, charcoal-like substance that when you are thrashing through the thickets fills the air much like a cloud of burning pencil graphite.

Claustrophobia is a common sensation. If you have crawled your way into this shit, there are no shortcuts for getting back out. The branches are strong enough that you build upper-body strength pushing against their springy masses, but not so strong as to let you climb very high. Sometimes you can walk suspended above the ground by as much as six feet, but not on what you would think of as limbs, more a chaotic basket of many branches whose overlapping points miraculously, though precariously, suspend you for a time on a springy thicket which inevitably collapses, leaving you entangled like a Christmas tree ornament.  Protective glasses are essential, as your face is gouged at from every sudden and surprising angle at regular intervals of say three stabs to the face per foot of progress. It is rather like having a tree grab you by the face as you pass through. If you find yourself in a “clearing” within this horrifying jungle, wherein you have a few inches between your face and some pointy-ended branch, you stand (if you can) and survey the strange freedom of your limbs’ extension as if this might be a master bedroom, or a spacious campsite.

It could be worse, and it often is. But there is something about enduring these degrading afternoons which sharpens the sense of humor. Performing difficult feats to accomplish pointless tasks seems to be good for humans, for some reason.

2. Birding Is Your Ideas About Birds

The people I am working with are generally of a wonderful sort.  Birding is an imaginative exercise as much as a taxonomic one. The interpretation of birdsong requires imagination in order to distinguish one call from another, a feat which is absolutely essential to identification, both to distinguish visually similar members of different species, and because birds are so often heard and not seen.  Associations and descriptive analogy are commonplace – as with the unforgettable “quick, three beers” which describes the Olive-sided Flycatcher’s song so well, and establishes it firmly in your mind. Working with nerdy musicians means I am privy to a lot of apt musical descriptions and comical associations.   Bird songs are described as “the broken robot”, or “the ghost call”, or “the digital trill”, the typewriter “chak, chak chak” call note of Bewick’s Wren. It is absolutely essential to find some way for your mind to play this trick, to sort through a cacophony of blended species noise, and separate the strands by identifiable monikers. Needless to say many, many, birds sound grossly alike, and only some part of their song stands alone or is unique. The more you listen, the more they sound different, and the more startlingly the diversity reveals itself. As soon as you have one bird placed in your mind, identifiable by song, then room is made to hear the next baffling call. It is rather like hearing one long garbled call, and then focusing the light, and seeing that in fact fifteen separate species are singing.

Identifying a bird requires a lot of detective work, running a storm of vague signals through the kludge of your mind and trying to come to some conclusion.  We listen to a lot of recordings to drill, but local dialect can be surprising.  Sonograms are interesting to give you a sense of the rhythm or spacing of notes.  Obviously there are the guide books; each has its strengths and weaknesses. In an unexpected way guidebooks can be misleading by being too “perfect.” A book filled with coffee-table-worthy photographs of good focus, close-up detail, and perfect lighting and contrast may seem like a good choice for getting a sense of what a bird looks like, but I’m starting to suspect that a better ― that is more realistic ― field-readying type would contain only distant images, high-contrast (either too bright or too dark), half-hidden or blurred by movement; that is to say a nebulous cloud of vague clues. A puzzle, requiring imagination.

You gather as many clues as you can, none of which exclusively identifies the bird, and attempt to triangulate certainty, a linked series which together forms an image.  In a very weird way birding is about your ideas about birds. Flight pattern (flutter, swoop, wobble, dart), location (high, low, mid), prominence or hiddenness, environment. A bird’s age or molting stage dramatically affects its appearance, and posture can make a bird look remarkably different (if it’s hunched or elongated). The good birders look at a swarm of hundreds of ducks of several types, all on a pond together, and swiftly somehow find the few, rare species.


If you are new to this blog, you might like to click Here to seek out other articles. If enough of you enjoyed this piece, and if you let me know, I will put up some more of Jacob’s work. I hope this happens — he has a great bit about the Grand Canyon.

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Fair leads,




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  1. Justin Straker
    Justin Straker

    Lovely, thanks, Brion. More Jacob indeed! I will try to carry these nuggets around with me, especially:

    “In a very weird way birding is about your ideas about birds.” Which could be said about almost anything we do.


    May 4, 2018
  2. “Performing difficult feats to accomplish pointless tasks seems to be good for humans, for some reason.” Marvellous.

    May 4, 2018

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