To Be Is Not to Be

A story about existentialism, a good friend, and the odd hobby of birdwatching.

Justin Chen
Jun 18, 2018 · 8 min read
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My friend Will skipping rocks at Lake Crabtree on a late-night adventure.

It’s no secret that adolescence is a confusing time. When mind and body are at the brink of maturity, curiosity drives question after question about the world. As my junior year of high school faded into summer, I became more confused than ever. Collegiate personal statements loomed in the future and incessant family and friends asked me what I wanted to do with my life, while I knew the answers to the questions just as little as they did. I was pulled inside and outside by questions about my identity and purpose in the world — everybody seemed to expect me to know what I wanted to do. But I found myself rather as a log afloat at sea, at the mercy of the currents of the ocean, pull of the moon, and the absurdity of the universe. The truth is I had no idea where I wanted to go or why I was even here. And if I did choose a path, so what? It seemed that no matter what I did in life, the particles that of my body would eventually disperse, going to the ground from whence they came, adding to the ever-increasing entropy of the universe.

A question arose in my mind from the confusion — a thought that perhaps everyone flirts with sometime during adolescence. One without a definitive answer, so integral to the human condition that it was immortalized by Shakespeare four centuries ago. “To be, or not to be?” wonders Hamlet in his soliloquy. In other words: in the face of the toils and tribulations of life, why should we continue living? At the time, I certainly shouldn’t have felt unsatisfied. I had close friends, classes I enjoyed, and hobbies I liked to do. I found joy in looking for the colors and patterns of nature which I copied down in notebooks and captured on my camera. I enjoyed long, peaceful runs on North Carolinian backroads, the wind whistling past me. And there were few things I liked more than deep, late-night conversations camping under the stars. But the more I thought about it, the more arbitrary it seemed. What more were these feelings than the result of billions of neurotransmitters floating between synapses in my brain? I wanted to find satisfaction in life — a purpose. A reason. But I had not the slightest idea how or where to find it.

One day, my good friend Will extended to me an invitation for an unusual activity. This activity involved clothes on my body, shoes on my feet, and a good pair of binoculars. And to me, it seemed to make little logical sense at the time. We would search for a bird in the hot, sticky summer heat, spend hours playing its call, then jump out at a chance to spot the bird for a few seconds before it flew or hopped out of sight. “Birding?” I asked him as I pictured senile grandpas and grandmas perusing the woods for birds because they had nothing better to do. Could I find joy in such a task? At the time, birding seemed to an arbitrary obsession propelled by the irrational desire to identify and recall the names of birds. But I’d never seemed to care much about the birds around me, much less their names, families, or ranges. To my query, Will responded simply and surely. He said that there were few things a man could find more satisfying. How could I refuse that which a good friend of sound heart and mind found so gratifying and wanted to share with me? Besides, it would be a challenge. I’d never tried out wildlife photography before. And perhaps it would take my mind off the questions that were bothering me. So, I took him up on the offer and agreed to meet over the weekend.

Around a quarter ‘till eight, I heard the stout puttering of Will’s old Jeep turning the corner, and went out to see him with my jeans, hiking boots, and binoculars. As I hopped into his car, he pulled out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Bird ID app. He explained to me all the recent sightings reported through his birding social network: Summer Tanagers, Indigo Buntings, Bluebirds, and a plethora of Warblers. I scrolled through the Warblers — a family of small woodland birds typically with bright plumage. One called the Prothonotary Warbler caught my eye. The bird was like a golden ray of light, with a body of the purest yellow, blue-gray wings, and beady black eyes. It was distinctly beautiful. The extent of the beautiful birds I’d encountered before was limited to zoos and pictures taken in exotic countries. It was hard to believe that this one lived in the same state that I did. What were our chances of seeing it? I asked him. Well, he said, it was nearing the end of their mating season, and they were uncommon in our area. Our chances were slim.

As we turned off the main trail and onto a narrow, lightly travelled gravel path, the trees got thicker and thicker, and the buildings and sounds of civilization disappeared behind us. We rolled down the windows and the breeze brought with it earthy, swampy smells and the sound of running water. Then we turned right and the front end of the Jeep dropped. Splunk. The rears followed as well, and suddenly we were wading through a river. The current pulsated under the Jeep, thrumming through the cabin, tickling the seats, and filling me with a childlike glee. It felt as if we were on a fantastical foreign safari.

Will and his Jeep Grand Cheerokee.

Then, as the front tires grasped the earth bank ahead, we pulled out of the river, and the trail came into view. Dim glimmers of sunlight shone through the leaves of the trees. Frogs croaked, bugs sang, and birds chirped. Stretching out acres into the depths of the woods in front of us, the old tobacco road felt alive. I grasped my binoculars.

As we walked for about a mile down the trail, Will taught me how to make a pish — a small, repetitive noise that draws curious birds. Then suddenly, he stopped. “Do you hear that?” he whispered as he grabbed his phone. “What?” The air seemed still save for the flow of the creek and the sound of crickets in the distance. I didn’t hear anything else. Will pulled out his phone and played a series of chirps. Then, a few seconds later, similar chirps echoed from above. I snatched my binoculars, pulling it to my face and pointed it in the direction of the call, spinning the focus ring. “Check out that Summer Tanager.” He said. I spun my binoculars left, right, up, down, my attention sharp as a pin, attempting to find the bird. I heard a whoosh above me and a streak of red crossed my line of sight.

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A Summer Tanager.

Will played the call again, but this time, no response. After a few more tries, he declared that it had flown away. Even though I didn’t see the bird, I was overcome by a strange ecstasy. For a moment, I was completely present. While looking for this fascinating creature I felt so focused and so happy — connected as one with the environment.

For the next few hours, we progressed down a loop, Will’s trained eye spotting birds from the smallest movements: Indigo Buntings with iridescent indigo feathers, White-eyed Vireos with polarizing white and black eyes, and Bluebirds with blue and chestnut plumage.

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From left to right: Indigo Bunting, White-eyed Vireo, Eastern Bluebird.

Each time, I got a little better at spotting, and each time, I was launched into the same meditative state of focus. The next time we looked at our watches, we’d been birding for four hours straight. We sat down on a bench to take a break. I closed my eyes, breathed in the crisp air and took in the sounds of nature. Then I heard a new sound rising from the ambiance — high pitched and clear as a bell. We jumped to our feet. Will played the call and we look towards the wooded swamp in anticipation. A golden glint flew past my lens. Then it hopped back into view. For five whole minutes, the Prothonotary Warbler stayed, perhaps regarding us with as much curiosity as we did it. It was beautiful, striking, and unforgettable.

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The Prothonotary Warbler — a beautiful bird that occasionally graces the piedmont region of NC. | PHOTO: Will Taber

I’ve since been on numerous other birding trips. There’s something special about being so focused on something external that you forget all about yourself. I later realized that I experienced this happiness in all my other hobbies and in close interactions with my friends, but birding allowed me to identify and cherish it. While looking for a reason for existence, I was so concerned with what the world had to do with myself that I failed to consider what the world had to do with others. Now I realize that the notion of a reason in the first place is perhaps a human construct. We want to justify the concept of ourselves so bad that we assume there must be a reason that we’re here. But what if we are just a product of the entropy of the universe, just like so many other things are? When I went birding, I found the happiness, satisfaction, and connectedness I was searching for by rejecting my ego. And that’s all the reason I need.

Will and I stop to watch the sunset during a hike on the Mountains to Sea trail.

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