My apologies for the thinness of the communiqués. I’ve been laid up for two days with a fever again, this time graced by a dry, persistent cough. My life has consisted of sleeping, reading, and struggling out to walk the dog – who, I think because of a pretty dramatic display of displeasure on my part after coming home recently to find my expensive Oxford Mongolian-English dictionary in dog-tooth-punctured shreds strewn across the living room floor, garnished with poopoo and peepee, has become the very model of a modern, house-trained St. Bernard puppy.
The reading, though, has been a sheer pleasure. I happily mopped up Bill Bryson’s Down Under and Jung Chang’s revelatory Wild Swans (if you’re ever in one of life’s rough patches, read up on the 10 convulsive, demented years of life during China’s Cultural Revolution and see if you don’t feel a little better in comparison). Now I’m deep into Paul Theroux’s Riding the Iron Rooster, in which he spends a year exploring China by train in 1986-7. It’s brilliant. You remember that scene in Bird where another saxophonist hears Charlie Parker and then goes and chucks his axe off a bridge into the river? That’s how I feel when I read a writer like Theroux. Out the window with the laptop. His flawless prose, his wit, grasp of history and the spectrum of literature, clarity of observation, spot-on dialogue reproduction – in a parallel life, I would have wanted a writer’s life like his. His only flaw is he’s something of a snob.
But that’s forgiven because he also seems to be a bit of a birder. In fact, you get this right on page two, as Theroux reminisces about his previous time in China in the winter of 1980, when the country looked “bleak and exhausted”:
“I went bird-watching but saw only crows and sparrows and the sort of grubby pigeons that look like flying rats. The rarer birds the Chinese stuffed into their mouths.”
I’ve done a bit better here in Mongolia recently, as the country’s in the first faint stir from its winter slumber. Last week Axel Braunlich, Asian birder extraordinaire, told me he was going to be briefly in town and did I want to go out and see what was what, birdwise. Natch, I said, and the next day he phoned just as my Mongolian lesson was about to start.
“I’ve got a window now, this afternoon,” he said. “Want to hit the gravel ponds?”
I importuned Oyunaa to let this lesson go and was surprised by her response: “Sure. Can I go with you?”
“It might not be what you think.”
So we scooped up Axel and drove to the edge of the dingy western part of town, stopping in the parking lot of a petroleum storage facility. It was surrounded by half-frozen, stony, dead fields. Axel and I stretched and smiled. We knew habitat when we saw it. Oyunaa, on the other hand, stared at us with an expression wavering between bemusement and apprehension.
“Here, Oyunaa” I said to her brightly, “is where you get to experience the glamorous life of a birder. You sure you’re OK with those shoes?”
She offered a game OK in return, and off we trudged.
Birders may have a number of dubious qualities, but the good ones are good because they’re consummate listeners. This may be why we eschew the term “birdwatching.” The activity’s at least 75% listening and when we’re in the field you can be sure we’re listening even when it doesn’t seem so.
So it was that the three of us were engaged in some light banter and there was one of those comic moments when Oyunaa kept on with, “So I says to her I says…” for about 15 feet until she realized we weren’t by her side. Axel and I had frozen simultaneously, having heard the same little twitter that was just a slightly different twitter from the other ones. As she turned, she would have seen us in a kabuki of meaningful glances and silent gestures like we were on patrol with a Marine platoon.
We crept forward slowly until a well-camouflaged slip of a bird flushed, alit on a fence post, and started belting out a cheerful little ditty.
“Ah,” whispered Axel, “Twite.”
For a second I thought he was imitating a British twitcher with a speech impediment saying “quite,” and I was about to giggle until it dawned on me – there’s a little finch called a Twite and I’d never seen one. It’s preposterous how profoundly I then focused on the couple of ounces of hollow bone and feather that looks like this:
He very cooperatively stayed put and we showed him to Oyunaa in close-up through a scope. She seemed suitably appreciative and then said, “So, you just come out here and see the birds?”
Well, sometimes we count them.”
“Uh huh.” You could see Oyunaa beginning to calculate just how far she was from the main road and a taxi home.
But she did get an education in Ulaanbaatar’s winter birds that afternoon: tons of Ruddy Shelducks about, a Saker falcon, lazily soaring Monk Vultures (really – also called “cinereous” and “black” but who wants to call them that?), the usual corvids of which Daurian Jackdaw was the handsomest, Horned Lark and Skylarks.
She was also privileged to witness the precise location of Ulaanbaatar’s sewage outflow. This encounter left her a bit aghast (a-gassed?) and we shrugged helplessly. “It makes the only open water during Mongolian winter. Where there’s water, there’re birds.”
A couple of days later we decided not to phone her to join us for a walk in UB’s central Nairamdal Park. It was quite ratty and winter-worn and awaiting a complete overhaul in a joint project with the Japanese. But birds ain’t horticultural aesthetes. They go where they can eat.
The former made me giggle a bit, because of the peculiar associative nature of my mind. I’ve mentioned before that I really enjoyed Scorcese’s latest flick The Departed. In one great scene, Leonardo DiCaprio, a fresh police academy graduate, is in the office of Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg. Sheen starts off gently but is soon interrupted by Wahlberg who begins aggressively haranguing DiCaprio about the sketchy past of his various family members.
DiCaprio gets more and more fidgety and upset until he blurts, “Families are always rising and falling in America, am I right?”
At this, Sheen looks up and asks, “Who said that?”
To which DiCaprio spits out in such sourness that you just have to hear it to appreciate it: “Haaawthorne.”
(The Wahlberg character, I should say, pretends to fart at this and says, “What’s the matter, smartass? You don’t know any Shakespeare?” It’s a great script.)
Anyway, I longed for an unlikely scenario to arise in which I said to someone, “Oh, I went birding in the park this afternoon.” And when they asked me if I saw anything interesting, I’d make a sour, scowly face and answer, “Yeah. Haaawfinch.”
All of this is a ridiculous prelude to announcing to the two of you still reading that Axel has cracked a bottle of champagne across the bow of his new blog, Birding Mongolia. He really is an accomplished naturalist and a super nice guy, so I’m sure I’ll be linking frequently. Ooh, now that I'm scrolling through it I see that he posted a pic of the UB sewage ponds from our walk. Lookee! Um, OK, it seems Mr. Braunlich hasn't got the hang of permalinks, so scroll down to March 19.
Oh, and speaking of undiscovered blogs, I see DODR reader (and coffee supplier) Daniel Anderson – in my mind I always call him Mr. Anderson in that Agent Smith voice from The Matrix – has quietly slipped his own unique views into cyberspace. Check out his wonderfully eclectic For the Turnstiles, blending Buddhism, Integral Theory, life in rural Idaho, and whatever else catches his fancy.
OK, now I gotta see when the SOS Clinic opens. In medical terms, I really feel like dookie this morning.