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Free Bird – Design Story: Appreciating the Overhead

detail of the watercolor of two whooping cranes heads with yellow highlights in their beaks and red on their heads

The birds still remember what we have forgotten, that the world is meant to be celebrated.” –Terry Tempest Williams

A small animation of our piping plover doing what it does best: running across the sands of the Great Lakes.

I was an avid bird watcher as a child. I spent hours with the Audubon Society checklist, tromping in the Virginia woods adjacent to the Potomac River–oversized binoculars slung around my neck. Bird sightings permeate my childhood memories: the orioles, the cardinals, the wrens, thrushes and vireos, and a rare osprey or two. It was the late seventies and early eighties, so the river was not as clean as it is today and wildlife was much more scarce. But there were birds. Then the dark side of teenage self-doubt took over, and I fretted that bird watching was uncool. I pulled the hood of conformity over myself and tucked that passion away. 

When I moved to Colorado many years later as a wife and mother, I started watching birds again. I am a clumsy birder, and much of it now revolves around the bird feeder and the morning dog walk. But the thrill has never waned. I know my birding laid the foundation for being an artist. It made me more observant, and I developed patience (never my strong suit)  as I was trying to catch the flash of color in the overstory. I learned about color and nuance and how the animal world wields color and camouflage. I certainly underestimated these field skills until I was older, but isn’t that always the case?  I will always be drawn to birds, particularly the most vulnerable ones, which is how our endangered bird series evolved. I found painting them delivered equilibrium and reinforced awe.

This has been an impossible year, and I don’t know how we restore a country that is bound up in so much contempt and anger.  I do know that when you look at anything in the natural world, wonder comes calling. Reverence keeps your heart open and pushes away absolute thinking. I am taking this ethos to heart and want everything I design to be decorative, original, and an invitation to further inquiry. The studio is also committed to sustainability — the world does not need more disposable stuff, and all businesses need to walk the line to reduce our collective footprint. This is a tall order and always a work in progress, but we are determined.

The writer Jonathan Franzen wrote an essay a few years ago on why birds matter and this passage is particularly striking:  “A person who says, ‘It’s too bad about the birds, but human beings come first’ is making one of two implicit claims. The person may mean that human beings are no better than any other animal – that our fundamentally selfish selves, which are motivated by selfish genes, will always do whatever it takes to replicate our genes and maximize our pleasure, the non-human world be damned. This is the view of cynical realists, to whom concern for other species is merely an annoying form of sentimentality. It’s a view that can’t be disproved, and it’s available to anyone who doesn’t mind admitting that he or she is hopelessly selfish. But “human beings come first” may also have the opposite meaning: that our species is uniquely worthy of monopolizing the world’s resources because we are not like other animals because we have consciousness and free will, the capacity to remember our pasts and shape our futures. This opposing view can be found among both religious believers and secular humanists, and it too is neither provably true nor provably false. But it does raise the question: if we’re incomparably more worthy than other animals, shouldn’t our ability to discern right from wrong, and to knowingly sacrifice some small fraction of our convenience for a larger good, make us more susceptible to the claims of nature, rather than less? Doesn’t a unique ability carry with it a unique responsibility? …..The radical otherness of birds is integral to their beauty and their value. They are always among us but never of us. They’re the other world-dominating animals that evolution has produced and their indifference to us ought to serve as a chastening reminder that we’re not the measure of all things.”

Magic… in its perhaps most primordial sense, is the experience of existing in a world made up of multiple intelligences, the intuition that every form one perceives — from the swallow swooping overhead to the fly on a blade of grass, and indeed the blade of grass itself — is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations, albeit sensations that are very different from our own.

David Abram