The chickadees came first. On a warm day last March, five or more descended on me. One landed on my little finger. I felt its bounce, its tiny quiver, and I looked straight into its face. White, with an elegant black mask. Eyes black and shining. Gold underbelly, soft and tufted. Its feet as sharp as little thorns, greasy almost, like coated wire. They dug into me, held on. Was I beginning to feel something?
The Ipswich River Wildlife Sanctuary in Topsfield is known to many as a place where chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches are tame. If you go there and walk to where the meadow meets the forest, fill your palm with birdseed, and stand very still, the birds will land on your fingers, grab a seed, and push off. Sanctuary staff say that hand-feeding seeds to these birds does not harm them.
I started visiting the sanctuary early in 2022, soon after I retired from a career focused on environmental protection. For more than 40 years I had worked as a community organizer, policy researcher, and administrator, setting up programs to build awareness of environmental risks and the role that businesses could play in addressing them. The looming climate crisis seemed like the culmination of the harms I’d worked so hard to combat. The stakes were higher than ever, but I was weary from the fight. As I considered what to do with my new free time, I found myself hiding from climate change. I’d skip over articles in the paper with the latest bad news, skip opening the Zoom links to meetings of local climate action groups. With an almost deliberate detachment, I would look out the window and feel nothing. I didn’t want to think about what would soon be lost. I didn’t want to feel it.
The winter was warm, and I’d head out every morning to walk. My sister suggested I visit the Ipswich River sanctuary. When she told me about the birds, I felt a jolt, as if my body had started pulsing again. The next week I drove up from my home in Newton. I parked and walked down the trail to the arbor where I’d heard the little birds liked to congregate. I poured some birdseed into my hand and extended my arm. In seconds, the chickadees were on me, grabbing sunflower seeds. Their wings were so close I could almost feel them brushing my ears.
I have never been a “birder.” Before retiring, I didn’t know a robin from a redstart. But after a few visits to the Ipswich River sanctuary, I was able to tell which kind of bird had landed on me without looking, just by its feel. A full-grown chickadee is no heavier than a spoonful of rice. A titmouse weighs double that and stays in my hand for longer. A nuthatch is nearly as heavy as a titmouse but is shyer, so it grabs quickly and springs off.
I began taking out books from the library to learn the habits of these little birds. Their bodies are blast furnaces, hearts beating up to 1,000 times a minute. They are hungry all the time. They will gather hundreds of seeds in a day and hide them all over the sanctuary. Their brains are maps, recording each hiding place. Each season, they wipe part of their brains clean, erasing memories of depleted stockpiles. Then they grow a new portion of their hippocampus and draw a new map to mark the new season’s stashes. Their resourcefulness astonished me.
I knew that the birds and I had struck a deal: They would come close and stand on my hand if I gave them a seed. But after several visits I began imagining that they felt tenderly toward me, just as I felt toward them. The sensation was like what I used to experience wheeling my newborn daughter around my neighborhood in her carriage, unable to keep my eyes off her face. Her mouth would be in a little half-smile before she even knew what smiling meant. The birds were that beautiful.
Sometimes when I came home from a day at the sanctuary, I’d imagine I could still feel those spiny bird feet on my fingers. When I looked closely at my skin under my bathroom’s strong light, I could almost make out tiny red scratches, places where their feet had left little marks. Those birds had pulled me into their world.
Rachel Carson wrote that connecting with nature requires tactile experience: “It is not half so important to know as to feel.” I began looking around my yard for places to connect. I put up a standing feeder, filled it with sunflower seeds, and started noticing cardinals and blue jays dipping for food.
A culvert runs along one side of my yard. Most of the time it carries just a thin stream of brown water. I’ve lived in my house for 35 years, but I’ve never given it much thought. A city map I found online calls it “Laundry Brook.” It runs underneath suburban streets and yards, surfacing at the edge of my property as if for air before disappearing again beyond my neighbor’s shed. It’s unstoppable, despite a century or more of people building on top of it. I have claimed Laundry Brook as my place of wonder, hoping to learn from its determination.
I still go to the sanctuary when I can. When I visited last week, children were everywhere. One girl, in a sky-blue jacket, not more than 4, caught my eye. Breathless, she ran to the arbor with her big container of seeds. My wish for that little girl is to remember the weight of a bird on her finger her whole life, the sharp pinch of those little claws. I wish for that feeling to lead her to her own yard, to the street in her city, to the tree and sky and puddle. She will feel her own wildness and the wildness of the urban landscape. She will feel her connection to the world right outside her door.
Today I feel the dampness of the soil and the crispness of the air. Feeling drives me back to the newspaper, those climate reports, and my letters to elected officials. I’m ready to keep trying.
Jennifer Nash is the former director of the Business and Environment Initiative at Harvard Business School. Her research about environmental management and regulation has appeared in Harvard Environmental Law Review and Yale Journal on Regulation.