Thursday, February 15, 2007

Writing About Bushtits in a World Gone Mad

A lot has happened to me over the last six or eight months, much of it not good.

As a result, there are a lot of things I "should" be writing about.

For example, I should be writing about the disparity between the "haves" and "have nots" of the art world. I should be writing about the different interpretations of the words success and failure. I should be writing about Bay Area arts organizations and the point at which they lose sight of what really consitutes support for local artists, and how artists wind up caught in the middle and are the real losers. I should be writing about how video work is still greeted primarily with puzzlement in terms of what to do with it and how to get it out in front of the public. I should be writing about whether art for money is smart marketing or selling out.

But I don't want to write about that. I would much rather write about the bushtits.

Bushtits, in case you don't know, are small gray scruffy birds who are impossibly social and impossibly chattery. They're one of my two favorite birds, right up there with turkey vultures, in terms of my fascination with them. They live communally in groups until they pair off to mate; they spend the day flying together in straggling clumps from one tree or shrub to the next, chattering all the while. I got to know bushtits shortly after buying my house in Berkeley in 1993, when a group of them took up residence in a low fat shrub in my front yard. I noticed early on that they talk basically nonstop, and the closer you come to the bush they're in, the louder they chatter ... until you're right on top of them. And then, in unison, they all go completely silent, as if perhaps now that you're close enough to reach right in and grab one, you'll forget that they're there. You can literally look them in the eye at this point, and they'll sit silent and still, waiting for you to go on your way.

I learned later that the constant chattering is actually a defense mechanism, crafted so as to confuse a preditor who might be intent on picking off one of their number--the loud group conversation makes it difficult for a preditor to focus on any one bird, thus improving each bird's chances of survival. But that's not entirely relevant for this entry.

There is a colony of bushtits who live in a fat, shrubby tree in front of an apartment building on College Avenue. They've been hanging out there for at least two years, and when I walk to or from work I enjoy hearing their manic little voices--until, of course, someone comes out of the building or walks by on the sidewalk, at which point all the chattering goes silent for perhaps a second or two, then resumes. One morning, I swear they followed me to work, straggling from tree to bush behind me until we reached my office six blocks away.

But a few days ago, I noticed something different. The chatter comes from the opposite side of the street now; the bushtits have moved house.

The tree they have moved to is remarkably similar to the one they moved out of, not only in size and height but also in position--it too is in front of an apartment building, near the front door. And it is literally almost exactly across the street from the old home shrub. Yet the whole colony is there, still chattering madly, apparently pleased with their new living quarters.

I still walk past them nearly every day, only now I have to turn my attention to my right rather than to my left to see them. Sometimes I stop and talk to them, and listen to their focused silence as they take in my words. I tell them they are funny and cute and thank them for being my constant, a little bit of happy mad chatter in a world that for me for awhile now has been a difficult uphill climb. The bushtits seem fiercely optimistic, somehow. And that, much more so than writing about the good and evil of trying to be an artist in the world, has been very very good for me to take in.

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