It’s sacred coffee time on the patio, that time of day when silence is supposed to reign. I pay attention to the slow migration of the sun each day—it has begun rising each morning just a tiny bit further to the south—and watch the birds settle into the day’s routine.
Today, there are two types of dove (mourning and Eurasian collared), house finches, lesser gold finches, a white-breasted nuthatch and hummingbirds too speedy for me to identify. Each species arrives from a different direction and in its own rhythm. After a while, they settle into their favorite spots: the doves below the feeders, the goldfinches at the thistle. Aside from disagreements over who gets to stand at which feeder, their chirps reflect contentment.
It’s 7:24 am, and they’ve achieved “baseline,” even with me sitting out here, sipping coffee and scratching in a notebook.
In What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, Jon Young writes about baseline as a species’ “very comfortable mode of being.”
At baseline, he explains, animals are confident in their sensory awareness and their ability to respond to threats. “This awareness allows them to avoid danger, and avoiding danger conserves energy,” he writes. “It is in their best interest to have as early a warning of trouble as possible, not only, obviously, to escape death and live to breed another day, but also to avoid the trauma of fight-or-flight response, which triggers several biological reactions, all of them energy intensive.”
Fight-or-flight responses trigger increases in heart rate and surges of adrenaline. Stored energy is consumed, the body’s overall resistance suffers and the animal, Young writes, is more susceptible to starvation and disease. Plus, fleeing and fighting are hard work. Baseline is about being relaxed but vigilant, so that the animal can avoid danger and conserve energy.
That’s how I feel about my sacred coffee time. Without it, my days are unsettled. Up early, watching the community of birds that live in my neighborhood, I can plan the day in quiet. But it’s more than that.
Throughout the day, I won’t forget the way the pair of lesser gold finches peers up at me in between sips from the pond a few feet away. With this time an integral part of my day, I’m always mindful of how I fit into the world around me.
For a few days at the end of summer, my daughter and I traded the Rio Grande Valley for the Gila National Forest. Our days revolved around watching the raucous antics of acorn woodpeckers and piñon jays, surprising resting turkey vultures, looking for cool rocks in old roadbeds, standing aimlessly in streams and staring at rainstorms over distant ridgelines. We also peered into the expanse of the Santa Rita copper mine—a good reminder to reuse the metals we’ve already mined—and compared stretches of stream that are fenced off from cattle with those that aren’t. Checking out one particularly sad stretch of the Mimbres River, where the skeletons of giant cottonwoods stand surrounded by alien tree of heaven growth, we wondered how, here in the desert, humans fail to be better stewards of our waters.
This time spent in the Gila provided a respite from the cellphone and email, and a chance for both of us to transition from summer to the school year. Everybody has their own way of achieving baseline—and when we don’t, our bodies usually tell us we’re failing miserably.
That’s why it’s surprising that when it comes to big threats, humans seem inept at occupying baseline. Any fights or flights involving, say, climate change are going to be pretty stressful. Yet we’re not using this time wisely.
This inability to prepare for such a threat is likely tied into what Richard Louv coined “nature deficit disorder” in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods. As we adults upgrade our iPhones, check our email for the gabillionth time and TiVo The Daily Show, we hook our kids into TVs, iPads and videogames. Along the way, we are losing touch with the rhythms and realities of the natural world.
No wonder most people don’t see, never mind care about, the changes occurring. Most New Mexicans aren’t aware of the migration of species, the changes in plant communities, the spread of deserts and the lengthening of the growing season. Sure, we greet the monsoon rains with cheers, but are we planning for the likelihood that next winter’s snow will melt and peak before irrigation season? Even “extreme weather” doesn’t quite capture our attention. We’re just not tuned into the natural world—even though we’re still inextricably a part of it.
Every few weeks, a Cooper’s hawk appears from nowhere and nails a dove feeding in my yard; there’s no way birds can anticipate and avoid every threat. Whenever we see the puff of feathers hanging for a moment in mid-air, my daughter and I gather the feathers we find and keep them in a bowl. They’re a reminder of life and death, of the circle of life and of the need for awareness in the wider world.