A photo of a common bird gives flight to thoughts on technology and gratitude. [First published in the Broad Street Review 19 Jul 2022 as “A walk in the woods, with the wrens, makes me wonder: if things were simpler, when?” and reprinted here by permission.]
This is the first time I’ve taken a picture of a house wren. It’s the most common wren but apparently not common wherever I happen to be. At our previous house in the Fox Chase neighborhood of Philadelphia we had Carolina wrens all year ’round for the last few years we were there. They’re larger and more dramatically colored than the fairly plain house wren.
I had started a woodpile, kind of a messy one with whatever tree detritus was around, because I had built a fire pit, and discovered that a woodpile is a wren magnet. It’s a wren magnet because it’s a bug magnet, and wrens like eating bugs. Woodpiles, especially messy ones, are also a safe place to hang out. Carolinas flitted in and out of there, built nests nearby, and when we put up a birdhouse they used that, too.
The new house is less than 10 minutes away, in Montgomery County, but there’s a world of difference in the surrounding habitat. Out back are woods, a hill that’ll demand all of your attention when you negotiate it, and the Pennypack Creek. We’ve got deer, foxes, warblers, phoebes, flycatchers, five kinds of hawks, six kinds of woodpeckers, eagles … and no house wrens. Carolinas, yes.
I’ve made another woodpile and it does its wren-welcoming duty but there are lots of places—separate, overlapping, and ever-changing ecosystems—for wrens and bugs. At the old house, I unwittingly created a wren habitat. Here, there’s nothing but.
I’m happy for the Carolinas, don’t get me wrong. (They like to eat stink bugs, by the way; they’re crazy about stink bugs.) Both Carolina and house wrens are ubiquitous in this area, the books will tell you. It’s just funny that to see a Carolina wren, all I have to do is stay at the house. For the house wren, I have to get away from the house, into the woods. Carolina wrens are at the house. House wrens are in the woods. Anyway, I think that’s funny.
The house wren was in my sights last time we went out—Ooh, house wren, how about that, I said to myself, looking through the lens, snapping away—then discovered, checking a photo in the little display on the back of the camera, that, um, there was no photo in the little display on the back of the camera—Ooh, no house wren, how about that, I said to myself, looking purse-lipped at the display of nothing—because then I flipped open the little side door and saw that there was no SD card in the camera, the SD card being the thing the photos go on (the memory card, the digital film, in other words) … the SD card (it came rushing back to me) which was still in the back of the computer after I’d downloaded the last photos from it.
I have an extra card in my camera bag but because this was a short walk from home I didn’t bring my bag. Of course.
Used to be, as I recall, a camera wouldn’t manifest the appearance of working if you didn’t put film in it. There was no pretense. The film-advance wheel wouldn’t advance if there was no film to advance, which makes all kinds of analog sense. But not so with digital—with digital cameras, that is. Your computer won’t work (I don’t think), not in the least, without a memory card, but your camera, well, the camera has got to think it’s a whale of a gas that you continue to snap away—snap snap snap snap here, ooh, snap snap snap snap there—as it acts entirely the same way, all outward appearances acting entirely physically the same way, without the card as with the card: turning on and off and viewing and speed- and aperture-adjusting and focusing and snapping and everything. Isn’t that funny? Don’t you think that’s funny? Picture me doing all that oohing and adjusting and snapping for no reason and now don’t you think that’s funny?
Also not on the card was a photo of not one pileated woodpecker, but two pileated woodpeckers, the big ones, the Woody Woodpecker woodpeckers, male and female, one on each side of the same tree trunk, and when do you see that? You never, that’s when.
So, no, I won’t be showing those two big pileated woodpeckers on the same tree trunk since when I saw them I had already discovered that the camera was cardless and so I just laughed out loud when I saw them and said Of course! out loud, of course there are two big pileated woodpeckers on the same tree trunk as I cradled the useless, cardless camera on my arm.
I laughed because the woodpeckers didn’t exist, that house wren didn’t exist. Not in the camera, not on the card, not on the extra card. I expected a pterodactyl to fly overhead next, Bigfoot to amble out onto the trail, or Nessie herself to poke her head out of the Pennypack, with me standing stupidly there with a useless camera on my arm and laughing. It was a hollow laugh, you understand.
Yes, I know, I saw the pileateds and I should be grateful. Before cameras, people just saw things like wrens and woods and woodpeckers and were grateful. They’d tell other people if they wanted to, or write a poem or paint a picture, or maybe even just keep it to themselves.
They say life was simpler then, simpler in the time before cameras, but I think this is the simple time. It was more complex before, with all those options. You could tell people, and improve your talking. You could write it down and be a better writer. Or you could keep it to yourself, live in ever more complex layers of gratitude, a woodpile of gratitude, and get better at gratitude, get better at living.
But now, if the camera doesn’t work, it never happened. Instead of looking up and around and instead of seeing in wonder, now I’m peering stupidly at the back of a camera and seeing nothing. Instead of being overwhelmed in awe at the sight of two pileateds, I laugh stupidly and blame a camera. So simple.
Since then I’ve trained myself to remove the card from the back of the computer as soon as the photos are downloaded. I take it out, immediately stand up, walk over to the camera on its shelf, flip open the little side door, and reinsert it. And the next time we went out, the card was in the camera. There were no pileateds, but how about that, there was the house wren, in the same place, on the same cable above the trail.
So this is my first photo of a house wren. It was in the woods, not at the house. That’s where the Carolinas are.