Issue #64: The Birdwatcher's Journal
+ Various Blue Jays, the 1991 Twins, wildflower gardens, a tribute to my father, and photos from a sad night walk.
|Bryan Formhals||Feb 1||3||4|
Hello! Thanks for reading! I’m Bryan and this is my newsletter on walking, photography, and sadness. [Warning: this issue deals with the death of a parent, so if that’s a tough subject for you, then you might want to skip this issue. I totally understand]
On January 9th, 2021 at 2:02pm I spotted a blue jay in a tree while walking in Central Park. I attempted to create some photos with my RX100. This is not the ideal camera set up for birding. But it was all I had, and I wanted to photograph this blue jay.
In 1991 the Toronto Blue Jays won the American League East by 7 games over the Boston Red Sox. This was the third division title for the franchise which was founded as an expansion team in 1976, the same year I was born (right near the end of the Carter Administration. I’m eight presidents old.)
The team conducted a contest for the nickname and received 30,000 submissions. Of those, 154 people suggested they be called the Blue Jays. They pulled an entry out of a hat to name the grand prize winner, with the honor going to: “Dr. William Mills, a periodontist from Etobicoke Mills.”
There were mixed feelings about the name. Some were not fans. Others like Ron Thorpe, former president of the Toronto Field Naturalists Club thought it fit nicely.
“I think it’s quite appropriate,” Thorpe said. “It’s a super idea. I hope the ball goes as fast as a Jay can fly. It just goes to show how people are more environmentally oriented than they used to be.”
When I was a kid my father nicknamed me blue jay, short for Bryan Jaymes. Oftentimes it would just end up as blue as in ‘hey blue, dinner, get up here.’
I wasn’t crazy about the name but at least he was the only one to use it. I didn’t know much about blue jays other than they were blue and you didn’t see them very often. I decided to research their behavior to see what clues I could find.
“Blue Jays are known for their intelligence and complex social systems, and have tight family bonds.”
“The blue jay is a noisy, bold, and aggressive passerine.”
Hmmmm. Ok. I think that’s enough research, seems like a complex bird.
The Blue Jays took on the Minnesota Twins in the 1991 ALCS. I was born and raised in St. Cloud, Minnesota so the Twins were my favorite team. They won the World Series in 1987, but the 1991 season was special. I was 15 years old and at the peak of my baseball fanaticism.
My family watched the first two games of the ALCS from our seats behind home plate. My father was a big baseball fan and had made a decent enough living for our family where we could split Twins season tickets with another family.
I knew I was lucky because none of my other friends had season tickets, but at that point I didn’t understand our privilege. Now looking back on it, I know that I was very fortunate. Understanding these privileges is a lifelong process. I wish I knew how to write about it more effectively. I suppose the only way is to be aware and fumble around.
My father owned a computer supply store which he opened in 1980 and would give some of the tickets away to his best customers. It was his third attempt at starting a business.
Previously, he launched two computer magazines. He sold one of them for a small sum but the other flopped before he gave up on publishing. He pivoted and figured there would be more computers and printers in offices, and they would all need supplies.
Those supplies would run out eventually, so they’d need to come back and order more. He worked very hard to make a good living for us, closed the business in 2004, and retired.
It’s strange to think about him in the context of the tech industry. What would have happened if one of those magazines had been sustainable and eventually gone online?
I don’t know but I’m guessing it would have faced long odds given what I know about the industry. It has reminded me that I’ve always loved magazines. I stashed all my Sports Illustrated copies in my closet and would look back over them, absorbing the history, and finding little tidbits of interesting information in the pages. I think they were all tossed in a move.
I don’t think my father cared too much about the tech industry, it was a means to an end. He just wanted to be his own boss and have time to watch baseball, fish and tend to his gardens.
After the Twins beat the Blue Jays in the ALCS, they took on the Atlanta Braves in the World Series. Both teams had gone from worst to first that season, setting the stage for an automatic story about an underdog team that miraculously overcomes their obstacles and comes together to win an improbable championship.
In Game 1, we were sitting in our seats behind home plate when Twins catcher Brian Harper fouled off a pitch, launching the ball directly toward us.
My eyes lit up and I put both my hands up quickly. I was going to catch it. But just before it hit my hands, my father lunged over me and snatched the ball out of the air with his left hand.
It happened so fast. There was a commotion, with the people in our section focused on us for a brief moment, before darting their attention back to the game.
My dad looked at the ball and then handed it to me before his focus went back to the next pitch as if nothing had really happened.
We taped all of the games on VHS and would periodically go back and watch the play knowing that my father had caught the ball.
I found a copy of the game on Youtube, and set it to start at the moment of the foul ball, which feels like kind of a cringe thing to do, but also, how could I resist?
Future memorials are going to be strange.
The Twins ended up winning the World Series in 7 games. We were there. It was one of the fondest memories of my childhood. The series is often considered the greatest in the history of the sport.
It’s been a tough week. My father passed away at 76 last Monday night due to complications from COPD. He didn’t have COVID19. It feels strange to make that clarification but it’s something we do these days.
My family's grief is only a very small part of the ongoing global trauma and mourning. I know there are thousands of people grieving the loss of their loved ones because of the pandemic, and to them, I send my condolences today, and tomorrow, and every day until…well, forever I guess.
I don’t know how we continue to function with this background grief. I’ve seen on Twitter that some people think we’ve hit a new pandemic wall and then read today it might take four or five years before the pandemic ends. I’m having a tough time trying to grasp that possibility, especially this week.
When my family sent me the obituary it contained a detail about my father’s hobbies that I either didn’t know about or didn’t remember. Turns out my father had been keeping a bird watching journal for over 30 years!
The objective was to document the first time he noticed specific birds at the birdfeeders in his yard during the season. I’m told that by doing this you can better understand the migratory patterns of the birds.
The archival aspect of it obviously resonated with me, and I couldn’t help but chuckle thinking about how I notate and archive walks in a journal. I also appreciated that he did it all by hand.
The last blue jay my father spotted was on January 1, 2021. A week earlier my family and I connected over a Facetime call during Christmas. It was the last conversation I had with my father. It was brief. It should have been longer. There should have been more of them. I have so many questions about the Birdwatcher’s Journal!
Beyond birdwatching, my father was an avid gardener, planting perennials and a vegetable garden filled with potatoes, corn, carrots, tomatoes, squash, you name it. I think we even had pumpkins at some point.
But the crown jewel was the Minnesota Wildflower Garden he planted on our property. I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but knew it was somewhat unique. They would have to burn it periodically so that it can renew. I thought that was cool as a kid.
I tried to make some photos of it during a trip back home in 2012, but couldn’t really do it justice. I wish I had made a few more attempts over the years, but my folks ended up moving a year later, so I never got the chance.
After talking to my mother this week, I understand she made a bunch of photos over the years so at some point I’ll be digging into those archives to see if I can perhaps make a nice little book from her photos as a tribute.
The death of a parent is one of those events that doesn’t map internally. It’s new information that’s difficult to process. I’m trying to learn from it.
I’ve found that diving into my father’s hobbies and realizing that his love of gardening, landscaping and nature have trickled down to me in some way. It makes me realize that my intuition about these passions has probably been correct all along.
I know my sadness is just part of a much larger sadness we’re all going through right now. It’s tough. I hope we can be kind to ourselves, and kinder to one another. I’m going to try.
The night he passed away I took a walk to make some photos. The only purpose was to direct my focus on the external world and away from my internal ruminations.
I’m not sure what it means that I don’t have to think too much when making these type of photos. It’s almost automatic at this point. I’ve always found it to be a calming activity, and a good way to get out of your own mind, and focus on the small details of the world around you.
After all these years, it still does the trick, even if the photos don’t equate to much more than a small collage in a newsletter.
I’d seen most of the photos from the memorial photo slideshow but there were a few that were new to me.
The photo I found the most interesting was the one above from a Christmas gathering in the early 80s. The look of amusement on my father’s face as he stares at the birdfeeder is one that I don’t recognize.
I like to believe this is probably the moment he started dreaming up his project, and thinking about the Birdwatcher’s Journal. You never know when you’ll get one of those creative ideas, and how far the project will take you, or how it will impact people.
I’m an photographer, writer and editorial strategist in New York City. This is my newsletter on art, walking, and mindfulness. Each issue, I share new work from my projects and try to make connections between ideas, articles and people that fascinate me. You can email me at email@example.com or follow me on Instagram & Twitter