Fishing, birding, waiting

(09 November 2020)

Some of the skills I learned as a young parent are proving useful now. One of these I perfected while teaching my kids to fish. It’s all about waiting. Put a worm on a hook and drop it into the water at the edge of a dock. Then wait for a fish to come along and bite it. Take the fish off, toss it back into the water put on another worm, and wait again.

There’s a lot of hurry up and wait during a pandemic. A lot of things happen by accident. Serendipity, you might call it, when the unintended consequence is a nice one. Like this column. It’s not the one I was planning, but it’s the one you’re getting. Let me explain.

The column I was thinking of dealt with a worn out old cliché. There are no atheists in the chemo room, it goes. The notion isn’t confined to the treatment of cancer. It has its origins in an older war time trope that told us there are no atheists in a foxhole. Of course, it’s not true. The people who say this are not, themselves, atheists. They are, for the most part, monotheistic Christians. Christians with a capital C.

I have never been in a battlefield foxhole, but I’ve been in a chemo room. Every time there was at least one atheist in the room. Maybe more. I don’t really know because we didn’t chat about such things.

One of the books I read earlier in the year was When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. I remembered that it touched briefly on the question of chemotherapy and Christianity. I looked for it again in the Guelph Public Library catalogue. I entered the title as key words in the online search engine and came up with 11 hits. Seven were for different iterations of the book itself. I downloaded the e-version, then browsed the other four titles.

The third one down immediately grabbed my attention. Birds art life: a field guide to the small and significant, (Penguin Random House Canada, 2017), promised to be “an elegant and exuberant memoir about a year of bird-watching, reflection and art.” The author, Kyo Maclear, met a Toronto musician who had been captured by the many bird species to be found in Toronto. She arranged to follow him around for a year while he taught her about birding. The memoir “celebrates the particular madness of loving and chasing after birds in a big city.”

That was it for me. I borrowed it and read it right away. I’ll have it returned soon, so you can read it for yourself.

In the last few months and years, I’ve become fixed on photographing yardbirds. Not those in the English blues band. I missed that boat by about 50 years. I try to capture the ones on my back yard feeders. Or on the fences and hedges and trees surrounding the yard.

Downie woodpeckers, northern cardinals, blue jays, Baltimore orioles, grackles, European starlings, goldfinches, robins, dark-eyed juncos, nuthatches, chickadees, an indigo bunting. I was even congratulated by an avid birder for a photo I took of a hermit thrush in the garden.

All these and many more pass through most gardens in southern Ontario. In the spring, some are on their way north to summer breeding grounds. In the autumn, they could be going back to their winter warming places. Some  stay in the neighbourhood all year round.

Since last February, I haven’t wandered far from my back yard. Instead, I’ve put some effort into learning to tell one bird species from another. Not all yellow birds, for example, are the same. Some might be goldfinches, some could be Baltimore orioles. Others are probably something else.

Bird photography and cancer treatment are a lot like fishing. They require the same essential skill: the ability to hurry up and wait. As Maclear says in her book, waiting is the ability to not do something until something else happens. What makes waiting painful, she says, is the desire and goal to not be waiting. It doesn’t matter if you’re waiting for a COVID vaccine, or for a cure for cancer, or anything in between. You’d still rather celebrate its arrival.

I’d prefer to be in the kitchen cooking a fish than on a dock watching a bobber float on the water’s surface. Wouldn’t you?


  1. Thanks Al! Stay safe, whether in the back yard or not.

  2. I love this column because it has made me think. Would you mind if I refer to it in my own writings which I may put on my social media writer sites? I, too, have returned to fishing this season and I have never taken so many bird pictures as I have during COVID. They truly are forms of waiting. One thing this pandemic has given us is time; big, huge chunks of time. Fishing, bird photography, chemo treatments, strolling through parks and outdoor trails, are all forms of waiting, of slowing down our frantic ‘doing.’ You’ve made me see them as metaphors for the pandemic itself. Everything normal stopped and all we can do is wait it out, patiently, learning to live in the moment with faith and hope that the future will be better. I’ve learned to savour the moments and, to tell you the truth, I’d rather be on the dock watching the bobber float on the water’s surface than cooking in the kitchen. There’s a lot of beautiful moments going on around me on that dock if I slow myself down and give them enough attention. And if I’m lucky, I’ll have that fish to cook in my pan. So far, I haven’t been that lucky but I sure have been enjoying the process of trying to catch one. Keep healing, Alan, keep waiting, keep hoping, keep writing. And thanks for taking us along with you.

    1. Author

      Hi Barb, and thanks for the comment. You can feel free to refer to my column(s), and quote from them whenever you see fit. Cheers, Alan.

  3. How often have people said they are waiting for the right time or special occasion to do something?
    Time awaits for no one & it took a pandemic to make many of us to realize this. So whether we are hoping for a clean health report, waiting for the pandemic to be over or waiting for the perfect bird photo op or catching the big fish……patience is the name of the game.
    Alan…you are an inspiration to all of us. Through many of your blogs you have taught us the value of time, waiting & patience. Thank you.

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