Here & Now

By Norman Boucher / September / October 1999
November 7th, 2007
In the fall, campus becomes a wintering ground. In the closing week of August and the first days of September, students from nearly every state and a handful of countries make their seasonal migration to Providence in a change that is both abrupt and quick. For a brief time before classes begin, campus is a tableau of recognition, characterized by joyful embraces, eager waves across the Green, and, always, the polyphony of animated talk. Where have you been? How was your summer? You went where?

The parallel to the seasonal movements of birds is striking. At the same time the students are standing around the Green feeding off the narratives of summer, shorebirds are milling around mudflats up and down the East coast, having their shorebird conversations and feeding off whatever crustaceans and other creatures they're able to snatch up. In this way, going back to school coincides with the great fall migrations, the movements of millions of birds around the world from their summer nesting grounds to the distant habitats where they will congregate and persevere through the winter.

Nowhere is this migration more dramatic than among shorebirds, the sandpipers, plovers, and terns that are so obvious along summer beaches. Just how dramatic struck me on a July evening several years ago as I walked alone on the tidal flats near Hatches Creek in Wellfleet on Cape Cod. Suddenly, in the distance, a flock of whimbrels dropped out of the sky and began probing the mud with their strange, down-curved bills. I had never seen this large, wary, and mysterious shorebird before, and I haven't seen it since. What was it doing there? I wondered. Where did it come from and where was it going?

Back at the cottage, I looked whimbrels up in a bird book. I discovered they nest far to the north, perhaps as far as Greenland. Already in mid-July they were on their way to South America, a journey of as much as 10,000 miles. Much has been written about how these epic flights are accomplished, about how the birds find their way to the same wintering grounds and, in the spring, to the same nesting sites year after year. Do they navigate by orienting themselves with landscape features? The sun? The stars? The earth's magnetic field?

These are fascinating biological issues, but I am more interested in the question of motivation. What prompts birds to suddenly leave the nests they labored so hard to construct in the spring, to abandon, without apparent emotion, the place where their young were conceived, born, and raised?

In his lovely 1967 book, The Wind Birds, Peter Matthiessen describes this restlessness. "We stand there," he writes, "heedless of an extraordinary accomplishment: the diminutive creature making way for us along the beaches of July may be returning from an annual spring voyage which took it from central Chile to nesting grounds in northeast Greenland... One has only to consider the life force packed tight into that puff of feathers to lay the mind wide open to the mysteries - the order of things, the why and the beginning."

Ornithologists use a German word to refer to the migration restlessness of birds: Zugunruhe, a word full of metaphorical possibility. Zugunruhe is the urge in the heart of nineteenth-century explorers; it's a songwriter's road song, or an old couple's decision to buy an RV. It's summer vacation and semester break, creating an independent study or changing concentrations. It's breaking up with your sweetheart as Commencement approaches.

To push the metaphor even further, Zugunruhe is restless intellectual curiosity. It's the desire to leave behind the stale in order to find the fresh. It's what draws students to campus in September and what prompts them to leave again in May, dispersing to study the order of things, the why and the beginning.

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September / October 1999