Earth N00b: Bird-noticing with Jenny Odell
Wolfman Books, 2017
This profile of Jenny Odell originally appeared in New Life Quarterly issue one, in 2017.
Once me and Jenny Odell actually get on the trail, it starts to feel good to be on the trail. It was borderline hectic getting up here, with a wall of traffic and confusing Google Maps directions. And the heat. We’re a few days in on a late summer heat wave. It’s usually so mild in the bay. When the temperature rises a few degrees, we feel it.
A lot of the trail up here is shaded. It’s the kind of trail that’s like a long leaf cave cut into a bush mountain. Occasionally there’s a break in a bush and we slow down to squint into the roasting East Bay hills.
Jenny has been running around the last few days prepping for a trip to Sweden for a conference called, “The Conference.” She’s going to give a version of her talk, “How to Do Nothing,” which she originally delivered as a keynote at EYEO 2017 in Minneapolis. That part was all set up. Post-conference, she planned on driving to Stockholm from Malmö. She rented a car online. She wasn’t clear on how real the car was. “I still don’t really trust that that’s going to happen,” she says.
One of the last things on Jenny’s list before leaving is crow-friend-bonding-time. She befriended this adult crow a while back. Every day at about noon, the crow would come by and sit on a telephone wire near Jenny’s window. Sometimes it would bring along what she assumed was its baby—a juvenile crow she named Crowson. At first she left peanuts on the window ledge and they would come and grab them—but the crows seemed to prefer diving for them. So she tossed peanuts out the window, and the crows dived and dropped in these really acrobatic ways to catch the flying peanuts. There is a video of this in her “How to Do Nothing” presentation.
Anyway, it wasn’t long before Crowson started coming alone. She worried about it at first—the baby was a) alone, and b) it was making this alarming noise. Sort of like a raspy quacking. It was a hard sound to describe. Jenny offered to play it on her phone but we couldn’t get a signal, so I had to imagine it based on her impression. Jenny was concerned, and went into research-mode, trying to figure out what was up with this crow and the strange non-crow-like noises it was making. It turns out, the call Crowson was making is the call babies make when they want food. It is a sound a crow makes when it is talking with its family.
It was extra important that she connected with the crows because not only was she about to leave town for Sweden, she’d just been out of town on another trip. “I’m worried they’ll forget who I am!” she tells me.
As we walk deeper into the trail-cave, we see these heavy iron posts every few yards. Like the kind of thing that might hold an official park plaque, but the signs have either been taken off, or were never added.
We find a post nearly hidden in tangled brush with the word “huckleberries” in lumpy cursive paint pen on it. There is an arrow pointing directly up to the bush. The berries are near black—the color of the purple part of a night sky painting just as it edges into the darkest blue. They are smaller than anything I can think of. Like tiny ceramic beads. BB gun pellets is maybe the closest thing, size-wise. But do people know what size those are? The size of huckleberries is maybe the best way to describe them. There are a ton of them, though most are kind of shriveled. I pick one and give it a cautious taste. It’s sweet. I pick a few near berries and collect them in my hand. Popping them off one by one, it takes work to get a few rolling around.
“I love checking the auto-complete in Google for berries,” Jenny tells me as we make our way, picking and eating berries as we go. “It’s always, like: berry name and then, edible?”
As research on a piece about Cascadia for MoMA’s Open Space blog, she was reading Ernest Callenbach’s, Ecotopia. She showed me the 1980’s edition book cover and a big color book for identifying trees. She was learning to read the landscape. Tuning herself to be able to see it better.
In “How to Do Nothing,” she talks about a way she’s started to see this. Her mother is from the Philippines, and Jenny always assumed when she was speaking to another Filipino person, that she was speaking Tagalog, but she was actually sometimes speaking another language, Ilonggo. Not a dialect of Tagalog. An entirely different language, unique to where she is from. “This type of embarrassing discovery,” she says in the talk, “in which something you thought was one thing is actually two things, and each of those two things is actually ten things, seems not only naturally cumulative but also a simple function of the duration and quality of one’s attention. With effort, we can become attuned to things, able to pick up and then hopefully differentiate finer and finer frequencies each time.”
“I like to call myself an ‘Earth N00b,” she tells me. “Anyone around here—anyone who is not Native American—I think of as a sort of Earth N00b.”
We come to a clearing and eat citrus fruit and share water on a fallen Eucalyptus trunk. We talk about her work at the dump, The Bureau of Suspended Objects, and about her work at the Museum of Capitalism, researching the origins of the Free Instagram Watch. Whatever we’re talking about, we pause whenever we hear a bird sound. It’s just the way the conversation goes—we hear a chirp, or see a rustling somewhere, we pause, we tune into the sound, follow the rustle of leaves, then continue with whatever we were saying.
She tells me about the red-breasted nuthatch. How it’s call is one of the funniest bird calls. It’s a sort of rhythmic beeping. Kind of like the sound an electric toy kitten might make. Like, “wah! wah! wah!” Or not like that at all. There are lots of great videos online if you want to know for yourself. Anyway, she tells me nuthatches cling to a tree like a woodpecker, vertical against the tree. She tells me woodpeckers poke holes in trees and stick nuts in them.
On our way back, we hear a rustling in a ravine below—scrub jays, she thinks. She pulls binoculars from her bag and gets them in sight. They are scrub jays, as she guessed. She hands me the binoculars, but I can’t figure out how to locate the bright blue birds in all the dense foliage.
She tells me about the California towhee. “The Toyota Corolla of birds,” she calls it. She tells me how it has a particularly annoying call. I look the call up online later and it is, in fact, annoying. Mainly it’s just that the frequency of it lands in a sort of fingernails-on-chalkboard kind of frequency. Someone online describes it as “reminiscent of a squirrel’s alarm call.” Despite the grating call and its relatively drab appearance, Jenny says knowing it is only in California makes it special, gives her a feeling of kinship with it.
We’re nearly back now. We pause at a clearing and consider the hills for a moment. We talk about how thankful we are to be in the Bay Area, and so near to so much nature.
She tells me about the place she’s going in Sweden after her conference. One of the reasons she’s going is the place has a lot of something she calls bio-regional pride. “The right to nature is woven into the fabric of the culture,” she tells me. “It’s part of the popular imagination.”
She was going to spend some time on the Swedish equivalent of the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail has a nice website. All of the hotels and AirBnB’s heavily lean on the closeness to nature, to the path. “Environmentalism in the US maybe had an image problem,” she tells me. One of the reasons to go to Sweden was to try and learn from their relationship to the environment to see if she could bring some lessons back. “It’s like, everyone there believes that everyone needs and deserves the right to be outside.”
As we’re heading into the parking lot, Jenny tells me about a recurring dream she’s had for years. In the dream, she realizes she has tickets to fly to Berlin, and it’s leaving in one hour, and she has nothing planned or set up for herself on the other end. She’s just getting on the plane and stressing out because who knows what’s going to happen? “This trip to Sweden is a little like that literally,” she says. We stand in the parking lot, not really ready to get back in the car. It’s so peaceful here in the woods. We’ve really moved down on the wavelength to the woods-level. I jog across the parking lot to a drinking fountain near the bathroom. She follows after, and we take turns drinking from it. “More places should have drinking fountains,” she says.