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© Bella Stander


Peter Cashwell
Author of The Verb 'To Bird'
(Paul Dry Books)

April/May 2003

by Bella Stander

The verb "to bird" has long been one of my pet linguistic peeves. When I mentioned it to a friend, he agreed, "It's like using 'summer' as a verb." Putting on a grandly airy tone, he said, "Oh yes, we summer on The Vineyard." We both rolled our eyes and snickered.

So it was with no small amount of disdain that I first glanced at the email press release announcing the publication of The Verb 'To Bird' by Peter Cashwell, illustrated by Grant Silverstein (Paul Dry Books). But when I read that Cashwell is a grammarian who has wrestled with the troublesome verb, and that he "lovingly but irreverently explores the practice of birding," I thought I'd give the book a shot. Much to my surprise, I was hooked by the second page. An even more welcome surprise was the revelation that Cashwell is a local boy (at least by adoption; he's a native of Chapel Hill, N.C.) who teaches English and speech at Woodberry Forest School.

Cashwell didn't set out to write a book. "It started as an attempt to put together an article in the spring of 1995," he explains by phone from his home on the Woodberry Forest campus. At the time, he was living in Fayetteville and not having any luck getting his short stories published. "I figured if I can't sell fiction I'll sell non-fiction." He went on a bird count with a friend and thought he'd write some impressions of the experience. Instead, he says, "I found myself thinking about the larger question: What makes birding so appealing that otherwise rational people would get up at 4:30 in the morning and go out looking for owls?"

Cashwell's "impressions" kept growing. "I didn't do a really good job of counting words," he explains with wry understatement. "When the piece got to be about 30,000 words long, I thought this probably won't work in most magazines, and started thinking of it as a book." In the meantime he moved to Woodberry Forest; almost three years later he finished the first draft. A few more drafts-and years-later, he found publisher Paul Dry through an online event at Readerville.com (fledgling authors take note). "It's a book that couldn't have been published without the Internet."

So why do supposedly sane people tromp around looking for birds? "I tried a lot of answers," sighs Cashwell. "I thought maybe it's an intellectual pursuit, showing off what you know. Or nature worship, seeking the beauty of the woods like Thoreau. Or obsessive-compulsive disorder-there are those who are heading in that direction." Ultimately, he concludes, "It's an activity. People do it for the same reasons they do anything. They run, they knit, they write, they build treehouses for their children. So I wound up thinking of 'bird' as a verb. But it sounds odd somehow, and as an English teacher I have mixed feelings about it."

"It's hard to look at yourself and say that what I do is perfectly normal when you see so many depictions of birders in cartoons, news or stories as eccentrics," admits Cashwell. However, he points out, "Anyone who collects anything is seen as eccentric, whether it's snow globes or lists of birds." He sees his pursuit as healthier than collecting, say, baseball cards. "In collecting most things, you focus on the item of collection. In birding you have to focus on the process. You can't ignore the natural surroundings in which the birds are living. Sometimes Mother Nature just won't cooperate and let you identify the bird. The lighting can be bad, you see the bird at a bad angle, you see a bird that can only be distinguished by its call and it doesn't make a call. You can't blame the dealer who sold you the high-priced card. It's almost a Taoist feeling-you have to accept the flux, the change in the situation. You can't control it."

I can't say that I've been converted to "birding," but I now find myself stopping more often to observe birds that I barely noticed before. In so doing I've discovered other small beauties, such as a spray of dripping red berries on a recent misty morning. So I'll allow Cashwell his verb. After all, no one makes a fuss over people who say that they were out "gardening" - unless (like me) they track mud through the house afterwards. But that's another conversation.

© 2003 Bella Stander

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