A View from the Hill: Embrace the boredom

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As I watch from my balcony, two large jet-black birds come screaming like fighter jets across my vision, turn sideways, and, without slowing, disappear into the green canopy of a big leafy tree in front of my house. They do not emerge from the other side of the tree. It seems impossible that they could have found a foothold at that speed.

But yet they are gone. Poof! Magic.

The pandemic has given rise to hobbies like bread baking, learning to dance, and now, bird watching. Some say that’s because we are bored.

But perhaps less attention paid to over-busy lives has allowed more opportunities to notice things that have always gone on in the world around us – like the magic of supersonic winged flight straight into the leafy orb of a tree.

Brian Doyle, in his book “Martin Marten,” which explores the interconnectedness of human animals and the ones in the woods and water and sky, calls these moments “stories.” And these stories are everywhere, ripe for the picking if we just take the time to look.

“The fact is,” Doyle writes, “there are more stories in the space of a single second, in a single square foot of dirt and air and water, than we could tell each other in a hundred years.”

So maybe, with all our spare time, we are beginning to read those stories.

And Doyle says that’s a good thing:

“The fact is that the more stories we share about living beings, the more attentive we are to living beings … perhaps the less willing we are to slaughter them and allow them to be slaughtered.”

I wrote early in the summer about my fascination with the mockingbird and the repertoire of up to 200 unique songs each one can belt out. Each of those songs tells a story of somewhere the bird has been, something it has heard. Even a siren or a cell phone or a crying baby.

So what was the story with the feuding hummingbirds at my daughter’s house in West Falmouth the other day? She has two sugar-water feeders on her terrace that have seen steady traffic all summer. It is fascinating to watch the little guys zip up to the feeder at full speed and brake instantly for a sugary sip in just the right place, hovering as their wings buzz. Just as quickly, they disappear.

But lately one of the hummingbirds, the iridescent green one, has taken up station in a nearby tree, where he keeps an eagle eye on the feeder. Soon, a more drab version heads for the feeder and hovers but doesn’t feed. Without fail, the colorful hummingbird darts from the tree and makes a threatening beeline for the drab one, who flees in the nick of time.

This happens over and over again. It’s a mystery. It’s a story. About love? About dominance? About simply being a brat?

Here’s another story of mystery and suspense, this time of a more aquatic nature. I was out on Casco Bay between Mackworth and Little Diamond islands with a friend the other day when we saw a huge fish jump clear out of the water.

Seeing one fish jump is not unusual. The blunt-nosed sturgeon, which spends most of its time on the ocean floor, is known to occasionally catapult itself clear of the water and land with a great, loud splash.

But then there was another jump several hundred yards away. And another in another spot. And another. And another, until in the space of 8 or 10 minutes we had seen at least a dozen such jumps. The grand finale was a startling jump just a foot or so from the boat, happening so quickly that we couldn’t get a good look at the creature.

I argued that the leapers were in fact seals enjoying dinner so much that they were flipping for joy.

My friend bet they were sturgeon.

I lost.

Mike Doan, research associate at Friends of Casco Bay, told me he’d seen a lot of that activity that week, “probably seven or eight in about five minutes on Thursday. Sorry to say … but I believe these are sturgeon.”

According to research scientists, the jumping truly is a mystery. Perhaps they are feeding. Perhaps they are shaking off parasites. Or perhaps, one researcher suggested, they are communicating, speaking to each other in loud crashes.

Telling stories to each other.

If this is the kind of stuff we learn when we are bored, then maybe a little boredom isn’t a bad thing.

In fact, I think it’s pretty exciting.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.

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