Trump is Trumped by a Towhee

Donald Trump is trying to raise my cortisol levels. Or increase my wine consumption. I woke early knowing that his disastrous Executive Order to “restore” the coal industry and undo President Obama’s climate change legacy would be breaking news. I headed to my computer ready to rally the troops of the Rachel Carson Council and anybody else in the world tuned in to our Tweets, Facebook, and Instagram pictures. I could feel my stomach acid rising.

Then my wife called from the kitchen window that looks out over our best fancy bird feeders. “Bob, Bob, it’s a, it’s a, it’s a…” she repeated, almost unintelligible with excitement, pointing wildly like an umpire in a rhubarb. “A towhee!” she finally managed to blurt out. “A towhee!” I vaulted half onto the sink, trying to get a look. “It’s a towhee!” I echoed, also suddenly bereft of words.

There it stood in the morning sun, a male Rufous-sided Towhee (officially an Eastern Towhee) — a robin-looking bird, though more streamlined, with a longer tail, and a more tailored suit of black and white and rusty red.

You have to understand. Although I live in somewhat leafy Bethesda, towhees are pretty picky about which properties they visit. They prefer more wooded areas with lots of cover and oak leaves to poke through as they hop backward, scratching at the ground. In short, they are not usually seen alongside sparrows, grackles, and other semi-urban birds who compete at my feeders with the cuter chickadees and titmice and woodpeckers.

When I calm down, I also realize that my towhee has arrived a full two weeks earlier than the one that visited us a few years ago. I know because I put down the date in my book, Washington in Spring: A Nature Journal for a Changing Capital, when I first spotted a towhee migrating through my yard. I also noted how, if it stayed on, maybe it could increase my property value. “It is an upscale bird, a rich man’s robin that needs a decent wooded area to find enough to eat. A towhee is not zoned for houses on quarter-acres lots…”

Now I think briefly, “Warm spring. Climate change. Bad… But it sure is nice out.” Donald Trump has not even crossed my mind. Just my own personal, lovely towhee.

My wife and I decide not only to head outside and watch our newly-resident towhee scratch around in the somewhat sparse samplings of oak leaves in our garden beds, but to head out for a long walk through the Kenwood section of Bethesda. Kenwood was developed in the 1920s with some fine, big houses and a country club. It was planted, too, with hundreds of Yoshino cherry trees, just like the ones around the Tidal Basin that draw mobs and jam traffic. Kenwood has a bucolic stream running through it, and is a decently kept secret from much of the rest of the tourist world. And its cherry trees have also been at peak – at least two weeks earlier than usual.

It is 75 degrees and sunny with a few puffy clouds. My wife and I pause beneath a stand of pine trees and breathe deeply. We notice the rich blue of the sky and a single, unthreatening cumulus cloud. We pick up acorns for our squirrels; we gently stroke moss and touch lichens on some of the ancient cherry trees planted here nearly a century ago.

I am feeling decidedly un-Trumpian. I am getting the responses described by Florence Williams in her new book, The Nature Fix: Why Natures Makes us Healthier, Happier, and More Creative,. My stress is gone, my mood is elevated, and I just plain feel better. I met Florence at her talk at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in nearby Shepherdstown, West Virginia. She explains, with photos, slides, and data, how neuroscience can now study and document the effects of being outside in nature that have long been touted by philosophers, poets, and environmentalists, but without “hard data.” Hard data is that magic elixir needed to convince skeptics and doubters and people without imagination. But, if taking in a walk in the woods by the numbers helps, so be it.

The pine aromas my wife and I are enjoying, for example, contain phytoncides, a class of chemicals that are anti-microbial. They also lower cortisol levels raised by stress. For pine trees, the magic is in pinenes and turpenes. But even dirt, according to the scientists whom Williams interviewed, is good for you. (Not to eat, just to dig around in). Dirt, we happy campers now know, contains geosmin. Geosmin is responsible for that rich smell that hikers and gardeners relish. It comes from soil organisms like streptomyces bacteria essential to antibiotics.

Now there are new ways to measure the response of our body (brain waves, hormone levels, respiration rates) to almost anything in nature. The aroma of cherry blossoms, the richness of soil, a gentle breeze under the pine trees, the sights and sounds of all this.

The day has gone happily and lazily by as my wife and I return home. Suddenly, My wife freezes and points quietly toward the azalea by our front door. Our towhee has either returned or simply waited to welcome us home. We tiptoe closer. A small bird and two humans simply gaze in wonder at each other. We share our home, our yard, our soil, our scattered oak leaves with this elegant Rufous-sided Towhee. For today, it is enough.