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Flight Lines: Learning the value of patience and going slow

Nature often reveals its hidden secrets -- such as this green darner (Anax junius) dragonfly hiding in a bur oak tree -- to those with a measured approach. Keith Corliss/The Pioneer

Tempo and pacing, two words we run across in just about everything we do. Golfers understand it, as do baseball pitchers and runners. Musicians are keenly aware of these terms. Even economists and city planners talk of pacing. "Ops tempo" is a phrase used in the military to describe the pulse of activity.

I was involved in the area's sugar beet harvest yet again this fall. The choreographed ballet that is the beet harvest runs up against obstacles aplenty, put down mainly by the vagaries of weather: Too wet, too cold, too hot. Given our fickle climate here on the northern Great Plains, it's sometimes a miracle it even gets done. But when the harvest is in full operation, it's an all out, pedal-to-the-metal, fast-paced race against time. Even individually, you can't help but feel the frantic pulse of it all. It's, at once, exciting and stressful.

A large portion of my personal time used to be occupied by fly fishing during a previous segment of my life. I couldn't resist the siren's song of clear running streams and darting trout. Even then I was in a hurry. After a couple casts into likely water, I would move on to try another.

It wasn't until I fished one day in Colorado with an older gentleman that I came to understand the value of going slow. With practiced eyes he would study a particular spot in a river, determine the likelihood of it holding a large trout, then carefully play out artful casts over and over and over again. For a time, I dismissed his dogged confidence as wishful thinking, until he met with success more often than failure. Without a spoken word, I was schooled in the art of patience by a master.

The same principle applies to bird watching. It's another case where my usual approach could more aptly be described as hurried than serene, more by impetuous than by tranquil. But I'm slowly coming to realize the worth in a more thoughtful approach.

A few years ago, a friend and I were viewing shorebirds from a car in a search for rarities. Another friend followed in our tracks in the same pursuit. After driving past a small flock of what we thought were quite common greater yellowlegs, the person in the following car waved to get our attention. It turns out we had driven right by an extremely rare bird called a ruff, which strongly resembles a yellowlegs. Lesson learned.

There's another fellow bird watcher in town with a penchant for slowness and it pays off with dividends. He will typically ride a bicycle into a likely area near his home and stop to eat a sandwich. All the while he diligently listens and watches the bird activity around him. His roster of rare finds through the years reads like a birder's wish list.

Enter the Big Sit. This brainchild was hatched 15 years ago by the New Haven (Conn.) Bird Club and now reaches internationally. On one designated day a year, bird watchers everywhere gather in a 17-foot circle somewhere and count every bird seen or heard in a 24-hour noncompetitive marathon. Although I've never taken part, it sounds like just the remedy for the hasty birder.

The Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge near Pingree has taken part in the Big Sit for a few years and it seems to be gathering steam. Refuge personnel set up a tent while serving food and drinks for hardy participants, making the day into something of a social event. Wildlife Refuge Specialist Stacy Adolf-Whipp said about 20 people showed up Oct. 10, to watch birds. "We didn't see anything really unique but we got some really good looks at sanderlings. And there were some gorgeous (American) avocets and dowitchers we got to see through the scope," she said.

While speaking with her I got the feeling the event is about more than just the birds. "Sometimes it's fun to chase, chase, chase. But as the season dies down it's nice to sit back, relax, see what you can see, and chat with old friends," said Adolf-Whipp. I think I get it now.

Years ago I read an interesting book by a guy named Tom Brown Jr. He's now a world-renowned tracker of lost people and runs an outdoor skills and survival school. I refer to one particular quote of his as a sort of personal mantra, "Only by silence and rapt attention can anyone hope to feel the ripple in the flow of life in the woods."

I'll leave it to a golfer - in this case, Ben Hogan - to put it all in perspective, "As you walk down the fairway of life you must smell the roses, for you only get to play one round."