Autumn never stays long enough and winter arrives too early; this year, winter arrived far too early. Over the past four weeks, I’ve watched the golden trees along my running path discard their red, gold and yellow leaves; I’ve suffered the autumn breeze turn into a blustering frosty wind; I’ve observed the migrating birds fly south.
Ah, the birds. As the season turns to winter, ducks, geese and other birds take their yearly journey to avoid the cold and find better food sources, while seagulls move more inland from Tokyo Bay, presumably for similar reasons. Running beside these birds is an experience I look forward to every autumn, even if most of my memorable experiences with these feathered friends happened on miserable rainy mornings, as what happened close to a month ago.
November 29. I woke up to a gloomy Saturday morning. The silvery pavement told me that it rained while I slept. The dark low-lying clouds promised rain. The gloominess added to my sadness as I remembered my mother who passed away on this day seventeen years ago. I wanted to sleep in but I was to sing at the second recital of my firm’s newly formed music club. Hence, I reluctantly got out of bed for an early Saturday morning run.
Overcast, cold mornings dissuade most people from getting out of bed. That morning was no different. Not even the last of the autumn foliage, which faintly glowed against the gray skies, drew that many people out of their homes.
“Good,” I thought, “I can run in peace and psych myself up for the recital.”
My peace was disturbed only by the birds flying along my route but I wasn’t complaining. The sight of these birds cheered me up. Running along the river that morning was like running through a long aviary to watch a parade of birds.
As always, I started my run right outside my apartment building. There, I was greeted by two big colonies of seagulls. These colonies eyed each other and repeatedly swooped towards each other only to dash away from each other at the last moment. It was like I was watching a dance. Imagine the rival gangs from Romeo and Juliet, or West Side Story, or Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, but without the actual confrontation and fighting.
Gulls congregating in front of our window often foretell cold winds from Tokyo Bay and a drop in temperature. I hurried with my run before the wind turned colder.
After running for about a kilometer, I came across a group of noisy small brown birds. I don’t know what kind of birds they were (I’m not very good at identifying species) but the group resembled a host of sparrows. They were flitting about in the bushes and brown dry grass. I clapped my hands loudly, as I usually do when I spot or hear them, just so that I can watch them surge out of hiding in one swift move only to land somewhere not too far away.
Further downstream, I ran past our familiar neighborhood flock of pigeons and the unshaven old man who religiously feeds them. There is no such thing as a famished pigeon in that flock. Those pigeons were portly. My hungry stomach started sending images of spicy pigeon soup to my brain.
As I continued to run south, I came to a point where the river makes a massive bend and the water looks relatively calm. This is one favorite resting spot for migrating birds. Through the years, especially after a major storm, I’ve come across probably more than two hundred geese and ducks at a time on the water, and hungry ducks waddling through the wet riverside grass to hunt for worms and other duck nibbles. But on that Saturday morning, there were only a few resting ducks.
It just rained. Where are the ducks? Why aren’t they here to feast on those worms that the watery soil is flushing out? Did I arrive too early or am I too late?
“What a disappointment!” I thought as my face contorted into a grimace.
Then, without warning, the gray skies turned speckled black as discordant gaggling noises filled the air. I looked up in time to see a gigantic skein of geese swoop down towards the river. The handful of intrepid fishermen and runners who were there all watched in awe as the magnificent shadow descended upon the water.
For a brief moment I wished I had a camera. But I was grateful that I did not in fact have one. If I had my camera, I’d be too busy getting it out, turning it on and focusing it on the geese, to pay attention to what was happening at that moment. I’ve had too many similar moments when not only did I miss the photo but I missed the spectacle completely as I readied to take a shot. I have also often experienced events through the camera instead of enjoying these events with all my senses. I have become a recorder, a note-taker, an observer, a member of the audience, instead of a participant. I remember hunting for photo moments, which in turn diminished the pleasure of whatever I was doing or the appreciation of the moment, whether dining with friends or taking a late afternoon stroll. That is why I don’t always carry a camera with me these days and I will myself not to whip out my iPhone to photograph everything. So, yes, I was happy not to have captured the moment in pixels. You just have to take my word for it.
Going back to that morning, that breathtaking moment, together with my other bird encounters and the fading luminescence of the autumn foliage, reminded me once again why I run outside despite the miserable weather, instead of running indoors on a treadmill that goes nowhere.