Sunday Zen

Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris)Many of you will remember the story I wrote for Texas Monthly a few months ago about birds. In it I recounted the first time I ever saw the Holy Grail of Texas Birds: the Painted Bunting. This occurred in May of 2010. I was not yet forty years old and this was the first time I had ever seen one.

A month ago a listserve I participate in about Texas’ state parks was atwitter with multiple sightings of Painted Buntings in the Hill Country, many of them in ex-urban places like Helotes and Leander, semi-urban and not your typical haunts for these astonishingly colorful birds. That said, it’s been an exceptional year for birds in my backyard, as I have identified and photographed over thirty individual species. A few weeks ago a juvenile painted bunting–they are mostly green and yellow–even wandered into my very urban yard in Austin. A week after that a photographer wrote in that he had seen almost half a dozen of them in one two hour period in Pedernales Falls State Park, about an hour west of Austin. That was it!

The next weekend my Father and went to Pedernales but only saw one Bunting from afar. (We did see the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler, which was very cool.) Dad wasn’t feeling terribly well and wasn’t really that into it, so we left early. I told the Brunette upon arriving home that her and I were going the next weekend and also that Dad and I had heard dozens of them in the trees, but, the problem is, the females are greenish-yellow and tend to blend in to the cover.

So, last Sunday rolls around and the Brunette and I get up at the crack of dawn. We drive out to Pedernales Falls State Park with high hopes. It was unseasonably cool–and very welcoming. It was about 62* degrees and there was no wind. Perfect weather!

Not five minutes into the park we saw one! (He’s the one photographed above.) And then, true to the photographers claims, down by the river we saw half a dozen more (here and here). We also saw Summer Tanagers and a Pyrrhuloxia (no photo of him). But, to think after forty years I only saw one and then more than half a dozen in one day? Great news, right?

Not so fast. The birds are being concentrated, such as they are, due to the extensive droughts in Texas and the fires. I’ve had odd vagrants fly into my yard like a Gray Catbird and an Ovenbird. Many Robins are still hanging around when they should be long gone. Clear signs of population pressure, mostly because we have a bird feeder, bath and suet in the yard. There is a very real danger of fewer birds in years to come as they compete for scarce resources, which is a shame. Regardless, the Painted Bunting is a magnificent bird and it’s your Sunday Zen.

Gobekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe PictographsI’ve had a lot of time to ponder Göbekli Tepe in the two years since I visited. The photos I took of the place will soon find their way to the History Channel, as it seems as if there is an embargo of sorts on photos from the site currently–or this is what I was told when negotiating the use of my photos–and producers are desperate to get their hands on something before the embargo ends and the results of this years excavations are published.

I offer these two older posts on Göbekli Tepe (here and here) before submitting this story by Charles C. Mann in National Geographic on the temple complex. The photo essay accompanying the story is here. Do read it, damned interesting. My photos of the site begin here.

What’s most fascinating about this place is how it is upending what we previously thought we knew about the neolithic revolution–or what most of us call the agricultural revolution. What came first? Settlements? Or farming and then permanent settlements? Or maybe as Göbekli Tepe and other excavations in the Fertile Crescent are telling us is that it was a thin concatenation of events, strategies, ideas all thrown around in the same general vicinity–the mythical Garden of Eden–and that it was ultimately a thousand or so years of trial and error. As Mann sums it up in his story:

It is more as if the occupants of various archaeological sites were all playing with the building blocks of civilization, looking for combinations that worked. In one place agriculture may have been the foundation; in another, art and religion; and over there, population pressures or social organization and hierarchy. Eventually they all ended up in the same place. Perhaps there is no single path to civilization; instead it was arrived at by different means in different places.

That feels about right to me.