When I look at the news, I’m far more likely to see a Black victim of police brutality than to see a Black birder like Dexter Patterson (a.k.a. The Wisco Birder) singing and laughing in the woods. Today’s mainstream media have shown a necessary, heightened presence of minorities, but it’s a far cry from the kind of visibility we need. The disabled, queer/trans folks, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and other people of color), immigrants and the poor are so often and so exclusively represented in our suffering, that after the latest targeted mass shooting has gone off air, we can just cease to exist in the public memory. We deserve to be recognized and amplified in our everyday joy, dignity and successes, rather than only in light of a catastrophe.
This phenomenon is magnified in the outdoors. Most of us had never seen a Black birder until a white woman tried to weaponize the police against Christian Cooper while he was birding in Central Park in 2020. But out of that trauma grew a collective awakening and a movement towards the liberation of birders of color. As Tykee James, a co-founder of Amplify the Future and Black Birders’ Week, said, “The Black experience goes beyond trauma. And Black Birders’ Week demonstrated that the Black experience includes joy, pride, resistance, strength and style.”
But the truth is that some of the trauma BIPOC birders carry into the outdoors runs generations deep, with forced displacement from Native land and a cultural fear of wild places. And so in the story I tell, we don’t choose joy despite oppression and inequity, we choose joy because of it. As the poet Toi Derricotte said, “Joy is an act of resistance.”
The Anti-racist Collective of Avid Birders (now a Feminist Bird Club chapter) had gathered in Hadley on the first day of Spring 2021. It was just after the Atlanta Spa shootings that targeted Asian women, and I couldn’t deny the amount of grief I’d been holding alone — but I didn’t have to. At the beginning of the bird walk, I recited a Bengali poem that I’ve loved forever. The poem references at least half a dozen species of birds, but it stands out for the unsaid depth of emotion — it speaks of nostalgia, grief and homesickness. I didn’t translate it at the time, but birds and emotions are beyond language anyway. It helped ease us into a minute of silence during which I silently wished for a more lasting way to memorialize the victims.
Our wishes didn’t take long to materialize in the form of plaintive, flute-like whistles. Soon, we could see up to four meadowlarks singing from exposed perches! I’ve never again seen anything like it. Commemorating the victims of those shootings, and reveling in the birds in our shared presence became two things that existed simultaneously that day — there was truth in the grief, and truth in the joy. Sam DeJarnett, founder of the podcast Always be Birdin’, said it best: “When you’re outside, still remaining in joy despite whatever is happening in your life, on the news, and right immediately around you — it’s the biggest form of protest against racism and White supremacy.”
When the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on the Dobbs case, which was fated to overturn Roe v. Wade, was leaked in May 2022, the board of the Feminist Bird Club despaired along with much of the country. By the time June 24 rolled around and Roe fell, we were prepared. During the course of the day, we ran a series of livestreams on our Instagram page. We reasoned that if we couldn’t hold our community close by going birding together, we would bring the birds to our large Instagram following. Several FBC leaders went out birding and live-streamed from the field. I was at Fitzgerald Lake, in Northampton, sitting next to the dock I know so well. I talked about the solace of being in my favorite place, all the bird songs we could hear, and how, in each moment, my joy was amplified by the memories of the thousands of birds I’d seen from there before. People were tuning in to the live-stream from all over North America and the comments kept pouring in. We were all grateful to not feel alone that day, and to be able to displace some of the emptiness with bird joy.
Cultivating bird joy and employing it as resistance doesn’t need to be in response to what’s happening in the world, or in the context of nature organizations (that are trying but not succeeding at increasing access, safety and belonging in the outdoors). In September, I was one of the co-organizers of a Birding Wikipedia Edit-a-thon with BirdNote and several other partners. One of the first tasks we’d planned to complete for the event was to edit the Wikipedia page for “birdwatching.” I’m sure most visitors to the page had just scrolled past the photo at the top of the page, without a second thought — at the time, it showed several white men standing along a shoreline peering through expensive scopes. We swapped that photo out for one with three BIPOC birders, enthusiastically viewing a nearby bird. It took us barely any time at all to make BIPOC bird joy that much more visible!
My act of defiance, of civil resistance, is intentionally opening myself to the beauty in each feather, harvesting the hope in every birdsong, and eventually, reclaiming ease in the outdoors. My protest, in a world that repeatedly reminds us to expect violence, has been to amplify our capacity for collective joy. And I need all of you to come along.