Why I enjoy bird watching

The 8th edition of the Oxford advanced learner’s dictionary defines a bird watcher as one who watches birds in their natural environment and identifies different breeds as a hobby.  I began doing this a few months ago. At the time, I did not know there was a name for such an activity.  Now that I do, I consider myself a bird-watcher. I love birds. At the surface, it seemed this love was kindled accidentally. However, upon scrutiny, I realized my new-found love for these creatures was motivated by deep-seated reasons. As is the case with timeless love stories, they are best told (or written) from the beginning.
On the 5th of January, the year of our Lord, 2013, a young man was deeply engrossed in his studies. Intricacies of human nutrition were being unraveled with the utmost of concentration. It would have taken a happening of tremendous proportions to lift his eyes from the books spread out before him. Examples of such include a fatal accident nearby, an earthquake or (God forbid) the unexpected news of a loved one’s death. Nay, none of these happenings occurred. Instead, a simple, seemingly random event caught his attention that was initially thought to be devoted wholly to his studies at the time. A rapid fluttering movement was heard at the window. It persisted. He tried to ignore it but in vain. Irritated, he lifted his head to see what sort of creature was responsible for such undesired interruptions. He expected an insipid and ugly being. On the contrary, a beautiful yellow crested, green bird with a remarkable shine greeted his tired eyes. They came alive. The bird ignored this attention it was receiving as though one used to it. Going from one budding banana finger to the next, it sucked nectar from its flowers in admirable grace. The young man ignorantly thought it was a humming bird. Having seen one in a television documentary that behaved in a similar fashion, he could be forgiven for such an error. It was a variable sun bird-a Nectarinia venusta variable sun bird. And what a beauty it was. He later learnt, much to his amusement, that it was a male, and that the female was rather dull looking.
 The little beauty seemed to be keenly aware that it was being watched for it momentarily stopped and stared in the direction of its audience. It surveyed him and his strange abode. It surveyed the even stranger trappings within it. Perhaps it wondered why any creature would need such a large home when its sole purpose was to lay your head in after a long day’s search for food and water. It returned its gaze at the young man, tilted his head up and down in rapid successive movements as if trying to make out the stature of the man. A long interval passed between them-enough to communicate sundry peculiarities in the young man’s life as opposed to its own. Through the bird’s penetrating eye, he perceived a few; that ambition had robbed him off the joy of life-he no longer enjoyed the beauty that is now, no longer appreciative of God’s providence in the moment; that his soul was trapped in his possessions such that the outdoor life was no longer relished-his life consisted of the trappings within his abode, trappings that were the source of his fleeting pleasures and enduring pain; that he had forgotten the art of singing for the sake of singing-that art that does not care for the approval of its audience and is so uplifting to the singer.
Instinctively, the bird knew it had achieved its objective-reminded a higher being the forgotten pleasures of ancient days. That life spent in too much ambition is futile and thus needs to be tempered by pauses of reflection. Reflections on the providence of God-that ever present help in time of need.
The young man paused from his wearisome studies, took a snapshot of the bird and watched it fly away. Since then a love for the outdoors was kindled. And every opportunity spent with his prudent kindred cherished.

The Great Leveller

 

William and Omondi were residents of Nairobi. They lived a stone’s throw away from each other yet led very different lives.
It was unusually silent that dull and cloudy morning. William’s family had travelled upcountry to visit grandmother. She had been ailing for some time. He had planned to visit but something came up. An attempt to explain to her what was met by a sharp retort that something always does come up. Reluctantly, he woke up and plodded his way to the showers. An eerie foreboding engulfed him. He could tell his chauffeur was in the driveway. Rather than honking at six in the morning, David preferred to whistle church tunes at a very high pitch. William always thought that in another life, David would have been a game warden; his whistle calmed the neighbourhood barking dogs. He tried once to imitate him but the dogs could tell he was an imposter. They barked the more. Quarter to seven and they were whizzing through the city to William’s office. Therein, he nonchalantly flipped through the local dailies. Nothing interested him. That eerie foreboding still gnawed at him. A coffee aroma permeated the lush office. Since his family’s departure, he had formed a habit of taking breakfast at the office. Sarah, the office cook had outdone herself that morning. A croissant and poached eggs were for the offering. He nibbled at the pleasantries and for a while, felt at his usual bubbly self. Later, when lunch beckoned, his secretary reminded him of his appointment at two with Mr. Patel.
William took his lunch at his usual place, cordon bleu. Their service was impeccable-especially when it was Laura waiting on him. She had the beauty and the brains to go with it. She approached his table and for a while, he got the jitters typical of infatuated teenagers.
“Well, we seem anxious today”, she quipped while twirling a strand of her long black hair
“Is it that obvious?”
“No. Just to one familiar with your usual demeanour”
“Oh, so you know me that well?”
“Nope, just enough to keep you a…a satisfied customer”
Satisfied customer-the words rang a long time in his ears. An uneasy smile formed across her lips, the twirling continued, this time, more suggestively. The cue had been given. Every bone within him wanted to take it. A more opportune time he could not find; he had the house all to himself, it was the coldest month of the year and lately, he was not on the best of terms with his wife. The seconds that passed between them seemed like eternity. All he had to do was lead the conversation down that lascivious path. Judging by the look in her eyes, she was sure to follow. It is a thin line between fidelity and infidelity. At that precise moment, William had all the intentions to cross it. However, the image of a portrait of his wife and kids hanging on the office wall held him back. Laura was something but his family was everything. He quickly gave her his order and pretended to attend to an important message on his phone. A few minutes later, he was on his way to Patel’s.
Meanwhile Omondi was out of work again. Construction on the building he was working on down town had been temporarily stopped. Something about the land being the community’s and not Patel’s. The face of hunger that Sheila, his daughter, usually has in the evening prompted him to struggle out of bed earlier that day. It was on such days that the angelic smile from her mother would brighten things up. However, it had been six years since he had to learn to do without it. His sweet angel robbed from him by a senseless mugger! Now Sheila, seven years old, had to grow without the love of a mother but she was a strong one. She could tell when Papa needed a hug. And she gave it ever so tenderly. He skipped breakfast that day. Yesterday’s left over was not enough for father and daughter. As he walked out of their single room in Kibera, he glanced back to watch Sheila sleeping. He whispered a prayer that God may protect her and left her in the able hands of his neighbour. Clutching at his tattered jacket, Omondi joined the throng of masses making their way to the city’s industrial area. Each throbbing heart, hoped that when the sun set, it would have something to take back home. He got a job as a stone mason on one of the construction sites. It wasn’t much but it was far much better than nothing. Time flies fast when occupied and before long, construction was paused to allow the workers grab a bite. They all headed to Mama Mbuta’s except for Omondi, who somehow having gained the foreman’s trust, was sent on a small errand. Mama Mbuta was the cook and waitress. One had to shout his order while stepping inside. The twenty or so men crammed in the food kiosk liked it that way. It was a raucous but jovial lot.  Meals were served hastily and gobbled down in the same manner. Decorum was foreign to the men. Food remains stuck between the teeth was removed using the tongue. The smacking sounds produced thereof were drowned by arguments between Mama Mbuta and a regular customer with a habit of not paying up. No one paid attention to the two. They had their own way of settling such debts outside the food kiosk. It involved throwing a fist or two at each other.
Amidst the scuffle between Mama Mbuta and the rogue customer, loud tyre screeches were heard nearby. The rowdy lot’s attention shifted to a lifeless figure lying beneath the hood of a Mercedes Benz. As they drew closer, they realized it was wearing a dirty blue overall. It was one of their own-Omondi. Inside the car, a handsome man clutched at the steering wheel. His hands trembled. He had just killed a man. The frantic voice of his wife could still be heard on the other end of the phone, once in his hand, now fallen on his lap. The crowd surveyed the man. He reminded them of everything they were not. His head buzzed with stories of hit and run. Having hit, he contemplated running. Sliding his left hand to the gear lever, he engaged the reverse gear. Just as he was about to release the clutch and step on the gas, a large stone came through the windscreen and landed heavily on his chest. An oil smeared hand yanked him out of the car. By this time, the moral strands that had held back the crowd from committing murder had been loosened. Every kick, every blow, every stone, was delivered with the intention to kill. And killed they did. His body now lay next to Omondi’s. The twitching had stopped. The crowd had dispersed. Police sirens blared through the still air. The mountains and valleys of differences between William and Omondi had been levelled by that great and grim leveller.

War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace is not one of those that can be read in a sitting. Tolstoy serves the reader four books in one novel, 1,444 pages of history, witty remarks and a remarkable understanding of the human nature. Flipping the last page is immensely satisfying, improving to the mind and of course, spiritually awakening. Reading through the intimidating volume, I could not help but underline a few lines here and there. Here are a few written in their entirety lest I water down their import.
“He spoke with such self-confidence that no one could be sure whether his remark was very witty or very stupid”
                                                                                                                        Prince Hippoplyte
“Influence in the world…is a capital which has to be used with economy if it is to last”
Prince Vasili
“Moreover, he could see by her manner that she was one of those women-mostly mothers-who once having taken a notion into their heads will not rest until they have attained the desired object, and if opposed are ready to go on insisting day after day and hour after hour, even to the point of making scenes. This last reflection made him waver”
Prince Vasili on Anna Mihalovna
“In considering the action of a statesman, one has to distinguish between what he does as a private individual and as a general or an emperor.”
Prince Andrei on Napoleon
“It seems to me rather useless to spend time in reading what is unintelligible and can therefore bear no good fruit. I have never been able to understand the mania some people have for confusing their judgment by devoting themselves to mystical books which only arouse their doubts and excite their imaginations, giving them a bent for exaggeration utterly contrary to Christian simplicity”
Princess Maria writing to her friend Julie
“Without turning their heads the soldiers glanced at one another out of the corners of their eyes, curious to see the effect on their comrades. Every face from Denisov’s to the buglar’s, showed around lips and chins one common expression of conflict, excitement and agitation.”
Russian army at the imminent war
“Nikolai Rostov  turned away and, as if searching for something, started to gaze into the distance…how beautiful the sky looked, how blue and calm and deep! How brilliant and majestic was the setting sun! How tenderly shone the distant waters of the Danube! And fairer still were the purpling mountains stretching far away into the river, the convent, the mysterious gorges, the pine forests veiled in mist to their summits…O Lord God! Thou who art in heaven, save, forgive and protect me!”
Nikolai Rostov wounded in war
“Bilibin enjoyed conversation only when it could be made elegantly witty. In society he was always on the watch for an opportunity to say something striking, and took part in a conversation only when this was possible. His talk was always plentifully sprinkled with amusingly original and polished phrases of general interest.”
Bilibin, a Russian diplomat
“My vocation is to be happy in the happiness of others, in the happiness of love and self-sacrifice”
Princess Maria
“Temptations to Pierre’s besetting weakness were so strong that he could not resist them. Again, as in Petersburg, whole days, weeks and months of his life were busily filled with parties, dinners, lunches and balls, allowing him no time for reflection. Instead of the new life Pierre had hoped to lead, he still lived the old one, only in different surroundings”
Pierre’s spiritual struggles
“The Bible legend says that the absence of toil-idleness-was a circumstance of the first man’s blessed state before the fall. Fallen man, too, retained a love of idleness but the curse still lies heavily on the human race, and not only because we have to earn our bread by the sweat of our brow but because our moral nature is such that we are unable to be idle and at peace. A secret voice warns us that for us idleness is a sin. If it were possible for a man to discover a mode of existence in which he could feel that, though idle, he was of use to the world and fulfilling his duty, he would have attained to one facet of primeval bliss. And such a state of obligatory and unimpeachable idleness is enjoyed by a whole section of society-the military class. It is just this compulsory and irreproachable idleness which has always constituted, and will constitute, the chief attraction of military service”
On the idle state of the Russian army
“Though the enemy was nearing Moscow, Moscovites were not inclined to regard their situation with any greater degree of seriousness: on the contrary they became even more frivolous, as is always the case with people who see a great catastrophe approaching. At the advent of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal force in the human heart: one very reasonable invites a man to consider the nature of the peril and the means of escaping it; the other, with a still greater show of reason, argues that it is too depressing to think of the danger since it is not in man’s power to foresee everything and avert the general march of events, and it is better therefore to shut one’s eyes to the disagreeable until it actually comes and to think instead what is pleasant. When a man is alone he generally listens to the first voice; in the company of his fellow-men to the second. So it was now with the inhabitants of Moscow. It was a long time since Moscow had seen so much gaiety as there was that year…
…There was that feeling of everything was about to collapse, and that a sudden change was imminent, but up to the 1stof September things still continued the same. Like a criminal being led to the gallows, who knows that in a minute he must die but yet stares about him and straightens the cap sitting awry on his head, so Moscow automatically carried on with the routine of daily life, though aware that the hour of destruction was at hand when all the conventional condititions of existence would be torn asunder”
On Moscovites before the invasion of Moscow by the French army led by Napoleon
“According to her understanding, the whole point of any religion was merely to provide recognized forms of propriety as a background for the satisfaction of human desires”
Hedonistic Hélène having converted to Catholicism for the sole purpose of obtaining a divorce from her husband Pierre who was in war that she may marry a young foreign prince
“There were, it is true, some rigid individuals unable to rise to the heights of the occasion who saw in the project a desecration of sacrament of marriage; but such people were few and far between, and they held their peace, while the majority were interested in Helene’s happiness and which would be the better match for her.”
                                                 Minority’s view and silence concerning Hélène’s seeking divorce
“The one thing Pierre desired now with his whole soul was to get way as quickly from the terrible scenes through which he had lived that day and return to ordinary conditions of life, and go to sleep quietly in his own room in his own bed. He felt that only in the ordinary conditions of life would he be able to understand himself and all he had seen and experienced. But such ordinary conditions of life were nowhere to be found.”
 Pierre after witnessing the ravages of war
“Man can be master of nothing if he were afraid of death. But he who does not fear death is lord of all. If it were not for suffering, man would not know his limitations would not know himself.”
Pierre’s meditations
“In quite, untroubled times every administrator believes that it is only by his efforts that the whole population under his charge is kept going; and in this consciousness of being indispensible lies the chief reward of his pains and exertions. So long as the calm lasts, the administrator pilot holding on to the ship of the people with a boat-hook from his frail bark, and himself gliding along, naturally imagining that his efforts move the ship he is clinging to. But let a storm spring up, let the sea begin to heave and the great vessel toss about of itself, and any such illusion becomes impossible. The ship ride on in mighty independence, the boat-hook no longer reaches to the moving vessel and the pilot, from being the arbiter, the source of power, finds himself an insignificant, feeble, useless person.”
                                   On Count Rostochpin, governor of Moscow, upon Napoleon’s invasion of it
“When a pause occurred during his short visit Nikolai, as people do when there are children, turned to Prince Andrei’s little son, caressing him and asking him whether he would like to be a hussar. He took the child on his knee, played with him and looked round at Princess Maria. With a softened, happy, shy look she was watching the little lad she loved in the arms of the man she loved. Nikolai caught that look, and as though he divined its significance flushed with pleasure and fell to kissing the child with simple-hearted gaiety.”
Blossoming love between Nikolai and Princess Maria
“In men Rostov could not endure to see the expression of a lofty spiritual life-he referred to it scornfully as philosophy and moonshine; but in Princess Maria that very sorrowfulness which revealed the depth of a whole spiritual world foreign to him was an irresistible attraction.”
        On Nikolai’s Rostov’s spiritual awakening attributed to the fairer sex-Princess Maria
“His Speech, his voice, and especially that calm, almost antagonistic look betrayed the detachment from all earthly things which is so terrible for a living man to witness. He plainly found it difficult to understand the concerns of this world; yet at the same time one felt that he failed to understand, not because he had lost the power of understanding but because he understood something else-something the living did not and could not understand, and that entirely absorbed him”
         Prince Andrei on his deathbed
“His physical strength and agility during the first period of his imprisonment were such that he seemed not to know what fatigue or sickness meant. Every night before going to bed he repeated: ‘O Lord, lay me down like a stone and raise me like new bread;’ and when he got up in the morning he would give his shoulders a certain shake and  say: ‘Lie down and curl up, get up and shake up.’…He was always busy and only at night, allowed himself to indulge in conversation, which he loved and singing. He sang not as a trained singer does who knows he is being listened to, but like the birds, obviously because he was as much obliged to give vent to those sounds as one sometimes is to stretch oneself; and his singing was always light, sweet, plaintive, almost feminine, and his face the while was very serious…In the eyes of the prisoner, Platon Karatayev was just an ordinary solder like the rest of his kind…but to Pierre he always remained what he seemed that first night-an unfathomable, rounded off, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth”
     On Platon Karatayev (one of the most amiable characters of the novel)
“In burnt and devastated Moscow, Pierre experienced the almost extreme limits of privation a man can endure…And it was just at this time that he attained to the peace and content with himself for which before he had striven in vain. He had spent long years in search for that tranquility of mind, that inner harmony…he had sought it in philanthropy, in Freemasonry, in the dissipations of society life, in wine, in heroic feats of self-sacrifice, in romantic love for Natasha; he had sought it by the path of intellectual reasoning- and all these efforts and experiments had failed him. And now, without any thought on his part, he had found that peace and inner harmony simply through the horrors of death, through privation, and through what he had seen in Karatayev.”
         On Pierre’s spiritual wakening when he least expected or sought it
“And it never enters anyone’s head that to admit greatness not commensurable with the standard of right and wrong is merely to admit one’s own nothingness and immeasurable littleness. For us who have the standard of good and evil given us by Christ, nothing can claim to be outside the law. And there is no greatness where simplicity, goodness and truth are absent.”
                                  Tolstoy refuting the appellation “c’est grand” given Napoleon by historians
“After the deaths in such rapid succession of her son and husband she felt herself a being accidentally forgotten in this world. She ate and drank, slept and lay awake, but did not live. She wanted nothing from life but peace, and that peace only death could give her…her existence had no manifest aim but was merely, so far as could be seen, occupied by the need to exercise her various functions and proclivities. She had to eat, have a little sleep, ruminate and reminisce, shed a few tears, do some handwork, lose her temper occasionally, and so forth, simply because she had a stomach, brains, muscles, nerves and a liver.”
                                                                                                             On Countess Natalia Rostov
“Nikolai put down the book and looked at his wife. The radiant eyes gazed at him questioningly: would he approve or disapprove of her diary? There could be no doubt not only of Nikolai’s approval but also of his admiration of his wife. Perhaps it need not be done so pedantically, Nikolai thought, perhaps it need not be done at all; but this constant, tireless, spiritual application, the sole aim of which was the children’s moral welfare, enchanted him. If Nikolai could have analysed his feelings he would have found that his proud, tender, assured love for his wife rested on this feeling of awe at her spirituality, at the lofty moral world, almost beyond his reach, in which she had her being.” 
   On Nikolai upon discovering a diary that his wife, Princess Maria, kept of their children