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The Cassowary Strikes: Into the Woods with the Bird Club

in Campus Journal by

My introduction to Swarthmore Bird Club came several weeks ago during the beginning-of-year activity fair. Wearing a full bird mask, Ben Schmidt ’18 writhed on his back, propelling himself in circles in front of Parrish Hall like the frontman of AC/DC. While Schmidt was clearly fueled by a passion for birds so intense as to be impossible to manufacture, this exuberant piece of performance art was also part of a well-honed marketing strategy (which included a number of hand-drawn signs extolling the virtues of owls) that left the Bird Club with over 100 names to add to their already considerable listserv.

Curious about Bird Club’s appeal, I reached out to Sayed Malawi ’18, the club’s founder — who also spent a significant portion of the fair disguised as a bird, albeit a slightly more reserved one — and he agreed to let me join the club for one of their bird walks.

I met Schmidt and Malawi at 9 a.m. on the steps of the Martin Biology Lab on a clear Saturday morning, the first day of the year that felt like fall.

Malawi, a competitive birder before coming to Swarthmore, has observed over 500 species. He introduced Schmidt to birds and it stuck, and Schmidt now serves as second-in-command (officially speaking, he used to be treasurer, but admitted that these days he mostly has “soft power” in the group). The pair of friends are a study in contrasts — Malawi, with an affect that alternates between the comforting calm of a nature guide and a cutting deadpan, generally serves as the straight man to Schmidt, who has the ebullient and genteel manners of a man born to the wrong era.  

Christine Lee ’18 and Richard Mobley ’20, two staunch regulars, were also in attendance, bringing the day’s group to a fairly average size, according to Malawi. Despite the club’s large email following it can be difficult to roust the casual bird enthusiast out of bed early on the weekend. Malawi is also not a natural early riser, and when no club members show up for walks he generally heads back to sleep.

But today, we grabbed several pairs of binoculars and descended into the Crum, Malawi leading the way and identifying the calls of blue jays as Schmidt kept up a constant stream of bird puns, which were generally met with mingled amusement and horror. We came to a thicket of rhododendrons and Malawi paused for a moment, making a “pishing” noise towards the underbrush.

“He doesn’t actually have a reason for doing that,” said Schmidt. “It’s just when he gets stressed out.”

Malawi paused wearily before explaining, “The real reason I’m doing this is to mimic a harassing call that birds make to alert each other about predators.” Nothing happened except a soft rustling of wind among leaves.

“That’s slightly embarrassing,” Malawi said.

After spotting several chickadees, we reached the Crum Creek, which prompted general reminiscences about the time the group forged the water to hunt for owls. On this day, the area by the creek was short on birds, the stillness only disturbed by yellow leaves falling into the low water and a nearby grey squirrel. However, the group was unfazed, clearly enjoying being in the woods and each other’s company.

Schmidt mused, “If an owl saw another owl at 10 a.m., do you think he would say, ‘hey, you’re a real day owl?’” Mobley attempted to push him into the creek.

We continued on, passing a small stream, and Malawi identified an oven bird, which excited him. He explained that it is unusual because it resembles a warbler although it is actually a thrush, and that while it breeds here it will soon head to South America for the winter. He described it as a “personable bird.” Over the course of the walk I picked up a number of bird facts from Malawi. I learned that blue jays appear blue because their feathers refract light from the sky, and on overcast days they appear grayer. I also learned that birds are strongly drawn to water, and the backyard birdwatcher may attract more birds by setting out a birdbath than a feeder. I learned that hummingbirds, amazingly and adorably, make small, cup-shaped nests out of spiders’ silk and lichen. I managed to spot a female cardinal through my binoculars.

We headed back to civilization around 10 a.m. to talk and fill out the day’s bird journal, Malawi noting that in the old days of bird club they would stay out much longer.

“You have a bad habit of saying everything used to be great,” said Schmidt. “Don’t sell yourself short.”

“Everything is great,” said Malawi. “I saw an oven bird. I’m happy.”

Sitting in the lounge in Martin, Malawi and Schmidt discussed why they’ve stuck with Bird Club throughout their time at Swarthmore.

Schmidt touted the benefits of spending time outdoors. “It’s really important for me to get out into the Crum,” he said. “It’s a great way to deal with Swarthmore at the end of the day, and that’s probably true for more people than realize it. Two thumbs up.”

Malawi said that while he used to be driven by a desire to increase his life list of birds identified, these days he is more interested in sharing birds with other people, and takes pride in the complete bird novices that he’s been able to convert to regulars.

The competitive aspect of birding has always confused me a little — collecting bird sightings can seem like a somewhat acquisitive way to interact with nature — so I asked Malawi how he feels about it.

“I used to be more into that,” said Malawi, “and listing is a lot of fun. You make a game out of it. It can get to the point where maybe you’re sort of missing the point, where you’re just seeing birds for the sake of adding them to your list rather than actually watching them and getting to know them, but at the end of the day it’s still just a great excuse to go out and look at birds.”

Schmidt took a more philosophical approach. “I’ve heard that if you want to find somebody happy, find someone who collects things. If listing is like collecting without even holding the things or hoarding them, it seems like a pretty healthy way to be happy. There’s certainly different ways to think about birding, and listing is not the only way to think about it, but it’s valid.”

My reservations resolved, I asked Malawi and Schmidt how they would describe the culture of Bird Club.

“Lowbrow,” said Schmidt.

“Yeah, that’s about it,” Malawi agreed.

Schmidt got serious: “The culture of bird club is very enthusiastic, and it’s very interactive.”  He described a number of activities that the club offers its members apart from bird walks, including screening movies and documentaries, bringing speakers to campus, birding in various nature preserves, and, the highlight, banding tiny saw-whet owls at the nearby Rushton Farms. But there’s also a distinct Bird Club attitude.

“There’s a real aspect of fun, a sense of humor, and that’s present in the way we communicate with our membership and the way we behave on bird walks — it’s a pretty chill atmosphere,” Schmidt said.

This aspect of fun was vividly displayed for me when I asked what Schmidt’s favorite bird is. He explained his love for the cassowary, which is “just a very, very interesting bird” around the size of an emu that occasionally attacks people by stabbing them with “a long, deadly middle toe.” He stood and began performing what I can only imagine was an extremely accurate cassowary impression, which involved holding a hand to his head to imitate a crest, wiggling his entire body, and occasionally flying through the air on one foot. At that precise moment a tour group walked by, and Schmidt, with a devilish gleam in his eye, increased the intensity of his performance.

“Huh. Look at that,” said the guide, somewhat uncomfortably.

It’s great because they don’t know you’re a cassowary,” said Malawi once they passed. “You just look like a psychopath. Yeah, that’s Bird Club in a nutshell.”

 

However, over the course of the interview it became clear that while this wackiness is an important part of bird club’s ethos, equally central is a deep, serious love of birds and of bringing people together around them.

Reflecting on his bird antics at the fair, Schmidt said, “I think the reason we’re able to be that way at activity fairs is because we all legitimately want everyone to feel comfortable being a part of this club, to come on bird walks with us, to chat with us about birds.”

Malawi said that he was happy about their success at the fair, but he seemed personally pained by each person who signed up and wouldn’t ultimately participate, viewing it as a missed opportunity to give them something important.

“I don’t run around with the bird mask just because I think it’ll be fun to run around with the bird mask, though it kind of is,” he said. “Every person that I get on the email list, I wish I could just mind meld with them for them to understand how much I really want them to come to bird club.”

The room reacted with surprise to the evangelical fervor of this comment, but Malawi continued.

“I honestly think everyone in the world should be a bird watcher,” he said. “I think it’s for everyone. Birds are just the coolest thing, dude. They can fly! There’s all these kinds of them, they all look different, they all have names. I love putting names to things. Everything about it’s fantastic.”

Gavi Mallory and the Crum’s Identity

in Campus Journal/Let's Give a Damn by

 Gavriela Mallory ’17, known as Gavi, is a long distance runner, a member of the Crum Woods Stewardship Committee, and a Bio and Studio Art double major. She’s one of the few Swatties that can go into the Crum and tell you which species are invasive, tell you what kind of trees are around you and draw what each of the trees’ leaves will look like once spring comes. She’s an avid protector of the area, working hard with the Crum Woods Stewardship Committee and facilities to protect and preserve the Crum.

She’s also chainsaw certified.

As someone who, in freshman year, imagined myself in the Crum more than I actually went, I find it both surprising and sad that the general student body’s engagement with the Crum is so minimal, and that understanding of its history and circumstances is so limited. Myself included.

        “It’s incredibly disappointing every time I hear about someone who’s never even been to the Crum,” Gavi said, “I mean I know seniors who go, ‘Oh, yeah, let’s take a walk in the Crum, I’ve never been’ and … it’s been such a huge part of my experience at Swarthmore it’s just so sad to me.”  

The Crum Woods is around 220 acres of mostly forested land straddling the Crum Creek. There are dozens of classes over a myriad of departments that involve the Crum, and there are often other community events such as cleanups and tree planting. Gavi first started consistently exploring the Crum as a cross-country runner. She has also interacted with the Crum as a biology student and an art student, finding the Crum a source of inspiration for her art work. For Gavi, the Crum serves as a place of rejuvenation and recuperation.

“It was so nice to have thse three hours set aside where I would know that I would be away from everything and be in the woods,” Gavi said ( about an art class). “Tt is an opportunity for me to be present with myself.”

Part of the magic of the Crum for Gavi is how it serves as such a stark juxtaposition to the suburbia that is Swarthmore. She is critical of what neighborhoods such as the Swarthmore Ville represent, for she believes the convenience present in these neighborhoods can easily promote ignorance, especially when it comes to resource use.

“I find that I can just breathe better in the Crum,” Gavi said, “it just makes more sense to me.”

She further explains that the Crum being located next to this neighborhood poses a sort of identity crisis for it.

“It’s hard to know what a forest in the middle of suburbia should look like” Gavi said.

        The Crum has been impacted by many different projects throughout the years, most recently the sewer line restoration and the SEPTA trestle. Gavi explains that the Crum is now past a lot of active intervention and is going through a period of restoration. As I followed her sure-footed trod towards Crumhenge, an open field with a couple of large stones arranged in a circle, she pointed out a tree stump.

“I chopped that,” Gavi said.

She explained to me that she chopped the Norway Maple down because it was an invasive species, which are species that take up the resources in a new area and do not have natural competitors in the area, and thus can often times easily overwhelm the surroundings.

“When we talk about restoration and preservation in the Crum, there are some discussions about restoring it to pre-Colombian era, what it would look like if we weren’t here,” said Gavi, “but that’s absurd and probably counterproductive.”

It’s a strange balance. Any human conservation effort is always riddled with tensions that often don’t have right answers. We walked up the gradual slope towards Crumhenge, and in front of us appeared a hill with an eerie, almost neon green grass under the bridge.

        “That is just so visually invasive for me,” Gavi said. “This all stayed green, so bizarrely green, for way too long.”

        Furthermore, the hill and surrounding areas were scattered with thin plastic tubes to protect new saplings. The plastic is to prevent the deer from trampling or harming the trees, but its visual effect is jarring.

        “Doesn’t it look like a graveyard?” said Gavi.

        A graveyard full of baby trees.

Yet despite the visual strangeness and obvious human intervention, Gavi explains that these are all important strategies to help restore the Crum. The grass is so green because the seeds that were used were covered in fertilizer, and the trees need to be protected from the deer. Gavi let me know that from her research, the best argument and aim for an area such as the Crum is for the woods to be resilient.

“Resilience is the idea that it can bounce back and thrive even if there are some disruptions on the system,” Gavi said, “It won’t ever be able to survive without some human intervention because it’s in the middle of suburbia, and there is constant human impact. But the woods can be far more self-sufficient than it currently is.”

Self-sufficiency would mean that the dominant species in the woods are native species, such as beech-trees, tulips, and several types of oak and maple, and that they are effectively reproducing to fill in their own gap.

“You can see, for example, a large old beech tree, and what it would do is send shoots up the same root system to make sure that when the old tree eventually dies there would be someone to take its place,” Gavi said.

The ideal forest would have trees that cover all age ranges.

“You want to be able to see saplings, awkward teenage trees that are kind of skinny and tall, and then you’ll see slightly larger trees  a little smaller than a Frisbee and then you’ll get bigger older trees that are close to a hundred years old.”

As we walked close to the creek behind the Lang Concert hall, Gavi told me that there is an age group missing

“It’s strange, and we don’t know why this is,” said Gavi, “over-abundant deer probably had some role, but there just aren’t a lot of middle-aged trees, and that’s worrying.”

Despite the many worries concerns, the Crum Woods remains one of the best preserved woods in Delaware County, especially for a free space. Gavi said that many people from the Ville take walks there, and  kids can often be seen biking or playing in the space. Many cross country runners also run through, but other than runners there don’t seem to be many Swarthmore college students just hanging out.

        “I find it difficult to get people [from the college] to come out to the Crum,” said Gavi, “because as with any space, there needs to be a community, a norm, that can help bring people out here.”

        She looks up at a large tree and traces etchings of someone’s initials.

        “See this isn’t good for the trees at all, but you can see love notes dated from the 50’s, how cool is that?,” Gavi said.

        Gavi showed me the different markings and how the etchings are stretched out as more time has passed. She believes that, in the Crum, one can feel connected with something greater than themselves; seeing the trees that have survived so long gives her a sense of larger life. Gavi recognizes that people find recuperation in different ways, but she finds the indifference to space and land astonishing.

        “People don’t ask the question: ‘what is this land that I am on,’ anymore,” said Gavi.

        There is a culture at Swarthmore College that perpetuates the stream-lined I-have-to-use-G-Cal-and-run-from-meeting-to-meeting mindset that makes a walk in the Crum seems almost ridiculous unless it’s on your calendar. But on the other hand, if we know what the Crum should look like, the question that still remains is who the Crum can benefit.

        “As a society I think we have stopped actively trying to understand our place,” said Gavi, “we stop caring about where our resources come from, where they are going to go after we dispose of them, that inherent understanding and value of place and understanding of context and the lack of that is sort of an identity crisis.”

         In the Crum Woods Stewardship Committee there is a lot of discussion about student’s safety in the Crum. One of the fears is that those who did not grow up surrounded by nature might be unsure or scared going into the woods.

        “It’s straight up just land, and although it is obvious to me to spend time there, it isn’t for a lot of people,” Gavi said.

        A good rule of thumb that Gavi shared with me for those worried about entering is, uphill: campus, downhill: water. One of the larger questions for Gavi and for the identity of the Crum is accessibility.

        “This is definitely the best natural area that is accessible to people in Chester, but there really is no relationship between the Crum and the community in Chester and you have to question who has the time and resources to set aside time to be outside and have the capacity to learn about the woods and how to be safe in it,” Gavi said.

Are preserved and accessible lands such as the Crum really just for the rich and liberal elite families who can afford to take time off work to stroll with their kids? A nice idea in the backdrop of a nice neighborhood? It is strange to realize that free and easy access to land such as the Crum is a privilege, for it seems that no one really values land such as the Crum anymore. I admit the idea of the Crum in the backdrop of my college experience is appealing to me, but is that all? Can we re-imagine this space, or are we stuck in this strange liminal space of continual restoration efforts with no idea what the Crum’s identity should be? But the next question is who cares if we don’t know what it should or shouldn’t look like? We should all take advantage of this beautiful land keeping in mind that natural spaces like this have been exploited for far too long, far too vigorously. It should be cherished in its own right, and I hope the Crum can begin to have more meaning to more students at Swarthmore.

Go for a walk.

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