The Dead Sea

Birding has been a spiritual practice for me.  It empties my mind and allows room for other thoughts.  It’s like a good house-cleaning.  Until this trip, I mostly birded a day at time.  Occasionally, in years when I wasn’t employed, I would bird a few days in a row during the migration, but I had never experienced anything as intense as this tour.  So if a day of birding is like a good house-cleaning, imagine what intense, dawn to dusk birding did after several days.  I believe God was preparing me to hear something I hadn’t been capable of hearing before.

The sixth morning of the trip provided a much needed opportunity to mentally process what I had experienced so far.  I wrote in a journal that I hadn’t had enough down-time and that I was glad for some space to reflect. I also mused that it was out of experiences like this that novels arise.  My idea for a title on that morning was “Searching for Self with the Bustards,” referring, of course, to the first, rare birds I saw in Nizzana and not my travelling companions.  It occurred to me that it actually had been a search.  I had come to the Holy Land expecting to look for God, who, it turns out, never left me.  I was the one who had been missing.  I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself.  Who had I become?

Right before the trip, I had seen photos of myself from the 80’s, and it seemed to me my appearance then better matched my identity. I was happy, care-free, a little reckless, a little clueless.  Now, I reflected, I’m a little sad, a little cynical and tired most of the time.  But I’m also more empathic, less self-centered and certainly wiser, but mostly sadder.  And very much alone.

I also made this telling comment: “The six men I’m with don’t care to know me, so I find that I miss ‘being known.’  Friendships are hard to start.  We fear intimacy.  I fear it.”  So in that strange and ancient land, I found that I was part of the age-old human story — of people looking for identity as they wandered in the wilderness.  I am not really certain it will have a happy ending, because at its core it’s about existential loneliness.  There’s no solution for that.  I miss being loved by someone.   I don’t think the Garganey from the night before, with their 1200 member flock, have identity issues. Why do I?

We “twitched” a bird at Neot Semadar called a Pied Bushchat, that had all the men salivating.  The term “twitch” is a funny British birding expression that refers to the seizure-inducing rapture birders feel when they bag a rarity. This little bird was only the 12th record in the Western Palearctic.  What brought him here?   Maybe he came for the same reason I did — whatever that was, and all by himself, too.

 Pied Bush Chat on an irrigation sprinkler at Neot Samadar - photo by Paul French

Pied Bush Chat on an irrigation sprinkler at Neot Samadar - photo by Paul French

I was anxious to leave Eilat and head north to the areas of Israel that are richer in biblical history.  I was keenly aware that the route we’d be taking would be like the Israelites as they came to the Promised Land.   Exodus 3:8 -  “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

We drove north on Route 90 to the Dead Sea, where we birded for a while in the shadow of Masada in Wadi Mishmar.  I tried to point out to my companions what I thought was the Roman seige wall, to the north west of Masada.  The Roman army built it to gain access to the stronghold, which resulted in the mass suicide of 960 Jewish rebels and their families in 73 a.d.  They preferred death to slavery.  No one even lifted their binoculars to look. 

 Masada - the Roman Wall is on the right - to the west.

Masada - the Roman Wall is on the right - to the west.

We joined another 40 people for an excursion into a canyon to look for Hume’s Owls.  Our guide there was an Israeli, who was rather militant; insisting we neither speak nor move when they were calling the birds.  It was an odd, but sort of funny experience.  While it was still light enough, we could make faces at each other.  We took stealthy pictures of a man with gun on his belt.  Paul thought later that maybe he had been hired for security.  After dark, we stood stone-still and waited.  Eventually, we got great looks at the owl.  Then we climbed out of the canyon to move on to saltmarsh at the southern end of the Dead Sea to look for Nubian Nightjars.  We stopped at a rest stop, and I got separated from the group. I waited in the parking lot for 45 minutes while they had a beer.  They hadn’t missed me, except to say that they thought maybe I’d been flushed down the loo.  That made me feel like crap.

 Humes Owl - photo by Paul French

Humes Owl - photo by Paul French

I think that’s when I started crying.  It was dark, and I was in the back of the van, so no one knew it, but I was crying hard. I remembered that when I sent my brothers a copy of my passport in case there was any trouble from the missing Malaysian jet (Mom’s irrational fear), Chuck wrote back, “If something happens, I’ll come get you.”  That made me cry, too.  Was he the only one in the world who cared?  Quite possibly so.  When we got to the saltmarsh, we got out of the van and walked the fields in the dark.  Fifty strangers, unable to talk or touch, wandering and stumbling in the darkness at the Dead Sea; searching for something we didn’t know and couldn’t be sure was even there.  Oh, and it was a mine field.  Literally.  We had to stay on the paths.  I’ve never experienced such complete and utter isolation.  We never got to see the birds — we only heard them, calling in the minefield. 

It’s has taken some time to unpack this strange experience, and I’m not sure I totally understand it yet.  But I’m learning that I crossed some sort of liminal threshold that night.  From Wikipedia:  “One's sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation, but also the possibility of new perspectives.Suddenly and dramatically it occurred to me that I have been living as if I was dead for the past fourteen years.  I have been pretending to be married to a dead man.  Carl was gone...he has been gone for a long, long time.  I stopped living the day he died, and an important, vital part of me died with him.  I realized I’d been dead; at the Dead Sea; the lowest place on earth.