Tuesday, September 05, 2006

An Exploration of Memory

The process of reviewing my lifetime of field notes, one bird at a time, has been a great revelation on the phenomenon of memory. Many of these birds I have vivid recollections of, which are called up when I see their names in my notes. The memories replay in my mind, and then I read the details in my notes... and with surprising frequency discover than my vivid, detailed recollection is fundamentally wrong in major ways!

I remember my first Marbled Murrelets; the only ones I ever counted in California. There were two of them, in basic plumage, bobbing in the waves along a rocky section of the San Mateo County coast, on one of my early excursions there with David Houle, back when he was introducing me to the California avifauna. I can see it as clearly as if it were yesterday. Except...

It seems these birds were actually in Pacific Grove, not along the San Mateo coast. And the steep rocky cliff I have been picturing them in front, well... it was not behind them. There's no cliff like that in Pacific Grove. And now all the rest comes in to question, too: Were there really two of them? Were they really in basic plumage? Were they actually bobbing in the waves near shore? This is a particular issue because as it turns out, those months were covered by the only field notebook that I have lost (lost years ago, no hope of recovery). My records from that time are reconstructed from much skimpier data: dates on year lists, marginal scribbles in my copy of Arnold Small's The Birds of California, that sort of thing. In this case, since it was a lifer, I do have a secondary set of details that confirm location, number, and the bobbing-on-the-waves thing, but not specific field marks. And I also have my trust in my former self, bolstered by the observation that my surviving notes from my California years are very clean: there are no clunkers in there, everything is in order, documented, and seems to have been carefully identified. So did we see the diagnostic white scapulars? Well, we must have. But I can't prove it.

Well OK, that was over 26 years ago. My more recent memories must be more reliable, certainly. But just today, I came upon my records of the only migrant Alder Flycatcher I have ever identified, a bird in Fort Collins in June, 1995. Ah, what a spring that was. For weeks on end cold, wet weather settled in, and it was snowing to our north, west, and east. The migrants piled up along the Front Range. I tallied 95 Yellow Warblers in just one morning. Through May the trees were hung with Western Tanagers and Black-headed Grosbeaks like Yule ornaments. And the Empidonaces were everywhere. A wonderful opportunity to learn their voices and tiny, subtle distinguishing characteristics. On the morning of June 4th I studied a "Traill's" type flycatcher carefully, noting that it was saying "pip" not the usual Willow's "t-wit." As I examined it while it moved about in a big pile of brush alongside the bike path, it let out one single "fee-BEEoo!" to announce it's identity. Again, as clear as if it were yesterday. Except...

According to the notes I wrote down about 30 seconds after the actual event, it wasn't in that brushpile where my mind always pictures it. It was across the river from me. I wasn't watching it from the bike trail, I was watching it from the observation pier out in the river. It's a narrow river (in Tennessee it would be a "creek") and it was still plenty close enough to see and hear well, but still... Once again the mini-movie in my head proves to be heavily fictionalized.

When I think of these vivid memories of past days, I do almost feel like if I could just think about it long enough, or maybe if I meditated or even were hypnotized, I really could replay the whole scene with every detail filled in, recover every tweet, every leaf, every puff of wind. Or, perhaps, in reality... I would fabricate a detailed fantasy, filling in every tidbit of an imagined day so fully that I'd not be able to tell it from the real thing if I didn't have the notes for comparison.

It's fascinating, and sobering.


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