Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: The Grub Awakens

The Grub is an old friend of the blog. In fact, he is one of the fist interview subjects of The Human Birdwatcher Project ("Birders are people too!"), and that conversation is still a great read; it also sets the tone for the conversation we just had with him, almost ten years later! For most of the years I've known him, the Grub was in the unusual position of being in contact with birdwatchers all the time, generally disliking them, but somehow doing things that involved watching birds. The Grub is a janitor (specifically known for his "ground attack" method of janitoring) and an artist; comparisons to a modern day Charles Bukowski have been made more than a few times. Unlike Bukowski, The Grub is also known to dabble in venture capitalism and cryptocurrency, but before our interview he requested that we not delve into those mysterious (and perhaps extremely lucrative) aspects of his life.

These days, Grub no longer exists in that rare niche, with a couple toes of one foot in the birding camp and one foot firmly on safe nonbirder ground. Since BB&B first spoke with him, Grub has fallen for the dark and shameful temptations of birdwatching. A few found this to be predictable, the natural order of things, but many of his friends were shocked. Minds were boggled. The Grub is many things, but neither his detractors nor his friends have ever claimed he was a nerd.

Until now. BB&B recently sat down with him at Toby and Jack's, a Humboldt institution that was just shuttered forever due to its reputation for supplying customers not only with beer and liquor, but powder drugs and pills as well. Grub spent a lot of time here in his formative years, which even led to an attempt to open his own bar, "Toby and Grub and Jack's". It was the perfect place to catch up with him.

It needs to be noted that these are some of the only interviews in the world that document someone's opinion on birding both before and after their transition. Inclusion of these precious documents in the U.S. National Archives is both critical and inevitable.

BB&B: What happened Grub? We have you, on record, describing your life and worldviews as a nonbirder. But you have since undergone a drastic transformation....how? Why?

The Grub: How embarrassing...but I have become convinced that I have always been Doomed...even if you look at that old interview, underneath, you could sense the dread and deep-seated knowledge of Impending Disaster in that 26 year-old idiot's voice... he knew that he would become one eventually... in the end it was The Only Way.

There is quicksand at Mono Lake, real and metaphorical...people get stuck around here as much as their cars do...I know people who came for a weekend and have been here for thirty years. In my case, what hope did I really have? Like I said last time, I was raised in a birding atmosphere, I have always known a lot of birdwatching people...[Grub's voice trails off in a sort of soft, dreamlike disgust]

Something I've realized more recently, I've known a lot of actual birds for a long time too. I don't mean I knew what they were called and all that, but the Spotted Towhee, for instance, has been hopping around me since I was a child, we've shared the same habitat. For many years I was an asshole and I didn't acknowledge them much, but we would see each other around you know?

I've always been Doomed... I tried to drown it with drink, with apathy... at one point I ran up to Humboldt to hide... a lot of fucking good that did! I met even more birders up there! The cards were stacked against me, but I held out pretty long considering, a good thirty-three years before I conceded to the Terrible Reality...

Here's what happened: Maybe I could have ran for it again, left the area, but the mud was too thick. I kept working seasonally for the Forest Service, year after year, ended up buying a house in Hawthorne, Nevada, 50 miles east of Mono Lake. I ended up as the only guy in charge or with any knowledge of a wetland system on the north shore of the lake. I started turning valves and filling ponds, flooding meadows, and I started noticing how the birds were reacting to it and benefiting from these actions...I STARTED CARING OKAY??!!

[Grub's eyes are now wide but fearful, his body strained in a defensive posture]

So it was about 2013-14 I started realizing that I might actually be doing something important and that it might not be done without me, and as I started paying more attention to the birds, I started to realize I LIKED THEM OKAY???  I mean they're so much better company than people. I started valuing the position I had found myself in, that I had ended up in kind of despite myself (but let's not forget the Inevitable Doom)... and so I started trying to understand better about what the birds needed and how I could make better habitat. I of course had a vast array of Ornithological Advisers at my disposal, the foremost of them was The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive....I consulted them on what I could do, and then I decided I had better go ahead and actually KNOW WHAT THE BIRDS WERE I WAS LOOKING AT.

Is this what Doom looks like? One of The Grub's ponds he has been tasked with maintaining. Photo courtesy of The Grub.

But what finally pushed me into Absolute and Irreversible Ruin was when in the fall of 2015, my brother sent me a pair of good binoculars. I had mentioned to him that I had started to try to actually identify all the birds I was seeing at my wetlands, but that the binoculars the Feds gave me were shitty. One day in September, like an unexpected fall vagrant, a package arrived from my brother... it was a pair of Eagle Optics binoculars.

At first I just thought it was funny. The Grub! With an actual pair of high tech optics! I was grateful though because it would help me at work, which is the only place I expected to use them. But shortly after I was out in Hawthorne and I looked at a few brown birds I saw in the bushes with the binoculars. The brown birds transformed into creatures with rich crimson heads like nothing I had ever seen before. I had seen Cassin's Finches before, doubtless, but I had never really SEEN them or paid them any attention.  I was astonished, the binoculars were like a portal into another world.....

So then I started looking at other shit through those goddamn things and now I'm totally fucked.

That's what happened.

This is a two-parter...what do you think of other birdwatchers now? After all, you know what drives them. And since you are one of them...what do you think about *yourself* now? I believe that when a person falls for birding hook, line, and sinker, something awakens inside of them...and it may not be pretty. 

My relationship with other birdwatchers is more complex than ever, I suppose. I guess I understand why they do the things they do better...I can speak more of their language...but just because I know where they're coming from now doesn't mean I want anything to do with them.

[Grub abruptly takes a big drink, too big, and looks around suspiciously at other bar patrons, ostensibly for any birder-types. Birders haven't set foot in this bar for about a decade though, preferring Everett's next door. He looks down at his beer again before continuing.]

One of the reasons I think I've continued to birdwatch is that not only is it something I can do by myself, it encourages me to go to places few other people ever are...if I see other birders somewhere I go, I usually want to get the hell out of there. Some of this is of course due to my lingering Deep Shame at becoming one myself, but I don't look at birds because I am interested in meeting people. Quite the contrary. I look at birds because I like birds more than people. For these reasons I have not become interested at all in the group aspects of birding. That said, there are a handful of [Grub seems to choke back vomit] fellow birdwatchers who's company I do enjoy, and, being very much an amateur still, looking at birds with these few Trusted Confidantes has been helpful for getting better.

A quick anecdote related to this: I got my first real taste of what I am going to term "playground politics birding" i.e., being suddenly thrust into a social situation complete with all the weird popularity hierarchies/competitiveness/awkwardness of the old days on the playground... when one of these Trusted Confidantes I do like birding with, Nora Livingston, and I went up to Bridgeport one cold December morning to look for a Black-Legged Kittiwake that had been seen recently. Now I know better, but at the time I was completely shell-shocked when at 8am I found myself standing in a group of 20 or so other birders looking for the kittiwake. Forced conversation, meeting new people, all the things I go birding to avoid, I suddenly was going to have to do if I was going to see the kittiwake. Furthermore, I quickly learned I was in the company of High-Level, and even Famous Birders, like people who have written Field Guides! [Grub's voice is rising now, and he is beginning to gesticulate wildly] I tried to say as little as possible, but having shown up with Nora, who is locally ranked as "Kind of a Big Deal", I was confronted for my credentials. I mean I didn't get punched in the face or anything, but I was put in my place. We were also the only people there who didn't see the kittiwake...Nora went back a few days later and found it without me, thus distancing herself from the "new kid/piece of shit rook-job". 

So now I know that the rarer the bird, the more you had better expect to have to go back onto the playground, because there will be a bunch of other birders there...and you better bring some rocks in your pockets.

[Grub's eyes narrow, then relax. He unzips a filthy, paint-stained hoodie to reveal...another filthy paint-stained hoodie beneath it. He pulls out his phone from the inner hoodie and appears to be checking what look like stocks. I get a glimpse at a lot of six-figure numbers on the screen before Grub silently slips the phone back into a pocket.]

So that's how I feel about other birders I guess... how do I feel about myself? If I continue to learn how to birdwatch and hone my skills I'm sure that some day I can turn into just as much of a Prick as the guy who wrote the field guide who was at the kittiwake.

You have started birding in the age of eBird. I consider eBird to be a great luxury, while some other newer (whinier?) birders consider it to be a god-given right that eBird is always perfectly functioning, constantly improving, and never inconveniences a user in any way. How has eBird helped you in beginning this nerdy endeavor? Or hurt you?

I definitely give much credit to eBird for creating the monster I now have to look at in the mirror. Once I had the binoculars I was more interested, but once I learned about eBird, which was right around the same time, I quickly found myself more and more eager to go out and record what I was seeing. I never birded before the age of eBird, but I can see how you would find it luxurious. It's very convenient. I've been fascinated at how polarizing eBird seems to be among birdwatchers. I know several birdwatchers of the "Old Guard" who claim to despise eBird (they all still use it though). I guess it's unwashed vermin like me who represent one of the reasons they hate it, now ANYONE can be a birder!

But the petty competition offered by eBird, ranking people against each other as it does, as well as the animosity of the "Old Guard", has been galvanizing for me. I look at the "Old Guard" as being mainly upset that others have moved in on "their thing".  I think I can truly say that vindictiveness is one of my favorite things about birdwatching, and eBird has been crucial for this.

The Grub expounds upon something, probably loudly, at Mono Lake County Park.

I would also say eBird has been very helfpul, not just as a motivating force, but it has also taught me a lot about what birds are rare and when they should or should not be some place, etc. Having to explain myself when I see something that is considered rare has taught me how to pay more attention to field marks, behavior, habitat. In other words, it has made an amateur a slightly better birder without having to go take a class or something, which I wouldn't do anyway.

It seems to me that eBird has become an invaluable resource, not only because of the immense volume of data it is amassing from millions of volunteer surveyors, but it is also turning millions of people who maybe only sort of cared about birds, or didn't care much at all, into bird enthusiasts. I can understand some of the reasons the Old Guard and others may hate eBird, but I can't understand how anybody who loves birds could have such a problem with something that has caused so many more people to appreciate birds.

[I am amazed to be listening to Grub speak eBird fluently and sing its praises without a hint of sarcasm. This is not the same Grub of years past...there has been an awakening. Grub orders a Coors from the bartender, who is looking like he is expecting us to order a little something else as well.]

You go birding regularly, I think it's safe to say it's one of the main things you do in your free time, at least while the sun is up. What would you have been doing instead a few years ago?   

A few years ago I would have been spending a lot of my time driving around dirt roads drinking beer, and sitting around along the creek drinking beer...[Grub pauses thoughtfully] or on a ridge somewhere drinking beer. That is literally what I did with my free time, especially in the summer. So guess what? Now I do exactly the same thing except I bring my binoculars. This is one of the reasons I think I've gotten so into it. It really hasn't changed my lifestyle too much, it's just complimented it. I've enjoyed paying more attention to my surroundings, it's given me a renewed connection to the area. I also have started going to more places that I didn't bother to go very often. But for the most part, I'm still driving around on dirt roads, now I just don't have my head so far up my ass...now I know, for instance, that the Slate-colored Fox Sparrows move through the Mono Basin for about one week in April every year. I think that's good to know.

The Grub is known as the darling of the east side art world. His work inspires many emotions and many patrons, like Eli Brooks, an Art Collector. Here, Mr. Brooks is seen fervently admiring a recent Grub.

I think knowing much more about the area I spend the most time in has been what I'm most interested in so far, but I'm sure before much longer I'll descend into the final Black Pit of Big Year Birding all over the country or something. At this point my Doom probably knows no bounds. 

One other thing I want to say about this though, is I have often thought back to another interview you did about the same time as my first one, with Coco [see the classic "Birding In Tamarisk Is Like A Rectal Exam"]. Coco described how when he started birding, he realized that his boring neighborhood was actually really interesting and diverse... if you watched the birds instead of the people. At the time, this was lost on me, but now I know what he meant. I've had to apologize to all the Sagebrush Sparrows and Juniper Titmice, the Lazuli Bunting couple that lives down the road, and the towhees of course, for living next to them all these years and rudely ignoring them.

Lastly, one thing that has certainly changed in my lifestyle is I might get up at fucking 5AM and drive to some godawful place in 15 degree weather to find a Common Redpoll or something... I have done this to myself and will probably do it again, and there is little I can do about it but proclaim my shame and embarrassment.

That concludes Part I of our interview with The Grub, check back for more Grub later this month!


  1. If the Grub ever starts printing his own bumper stickers I'll take one that says "I don't look at birds because I am interested in meeting people."

    1. We also needs shirts and hoodies that say the same thing.