Go to the gift shop at your local nature center and check out the section with journals, planners, and calendars. Pull one off the display, flip through the pages, and you’ll come upon the inevitable quotes by Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Aldo Leopold. And this one from William Shakespeare: “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
We smile at those words. We love the thought that a sunset or rainbow or flock of cranes can have the power to unite us, as different as we might otherwise be.
The funny thing is, that’s not really what the playwright is saying. When he says “nature,” he’s not referring to mountains and forests and such. Instead, Shakespeare intends something closer to “human nature”—something inside ourselves, something along the lines of “empathy” or “fellowship.”
I’m aware that most of you reading this celebrated Thanksgiving a week ago. Thanksgiving is an occasion for fellowship, a time to reflect on the “nature” that sustains and strengthens our sense of community.
Not me. I took a pass on Thanksgiving this year. I skipped town, big time. I was in Malaysia, all the way around the world, a country where Thanksgiving is not observed. I was a guest at an international tourism and conservation conference based out of the bustling coastal city of Seberang Perai, population just under one million.
Nobody said “Happy Thanksgiving” to me the whole time I was at the conference. Nobody asked if I missed my family. Dinner Thursday night was anchovies and curry, not turkey and stuffing. And the only talk of “football” was of the sort played by Manchester United and Real Madrid.
No matter. The holiday was wonderful, a Thanksgiving I’ll never forget.
Turkey Day itself was a largely indoor affair, the conference proper, with presentations by policymakers, NGO heads, tour operators, scientists, and journalists. The conference was stimulating and inspiring, but I’d had enough. After sundown, my hosts kidnapped me—I put up no resistance at all—and took me to a forest where two species of frogmouths were singing. The experience was magical. Not just the frogmouths, on my bucket list for, oh, most of my life, but also my companions—Andrew, Azhar, and Azlina, so ridiculously similar to me. Our bodies and outer garb looked different, but our hearts and minds were conjoined in one touch of nature.
The first item on the Black Friday agenda was a bird walk. One of the attendees was the mayor of Seberang Perai, cheery and short of stature. A woman. A Muslim. Of “Asian” ancestry, and a Malaysian national of course. And me, a “WASP,” so much so that, when I’m in Europe, people sometimes address me in Dutch and German.
I could tell right away that she and I were soul mates.
The mayor spoke passionately and knowledgeably about climate change. She has a special place in her heart for “Gen Z,” the “iGeneration,” as do I. She hopes my country will not retreat from engaging the economic and environmental issues that affect the entire Pacific Rim; same here. And she’s a bird lover. She and I marveled together at Crested Serpent Eagles and Brahminy Kites, at minivets and malkohas, and more.
As we were saying our goodbyes, I asked myself a question. What if the mayor and I weren’t both bird lovers? Would we still be soul mates? Would I still feel a Shakespearian kinship with her?
I wondered about that.
A few days later, I had an experience that provided a definitive and satisfying resolution to the question.
I went back home on Sunday evening. The couple in front of me in the queue to Immigration were Muslims—he in plain khaki, she in the full-on niqab. I was ambivalent about them. They were young and beautiful, and I admired them for their evident devotion to each other. Yet like so many Westerners, I’m uncomfortable with the tradition of wearing the niqab. It’s not about personal safety. Rather, it’s a cultural judgment—a bias, a prejudice. The niqab signifies gender norms that differ from my own.
A brief digression. My ABA colleague Greg Neise joked with me a couple weeks ago that he was counting on me to precipitate some sort of international incident during my time in Southeast Asia. What can I say, Greg? Your wish is my command. Read on.
I got past Immigration and found myself on the airport train. Now you need to know that I’m a “stander.” I prefer not to sit while on public transportation. I like to pace around while eating lunch. I always take phone calls standing up.
The man next to me couldn’t have known those things, so he offered me his seat. It was the same young man who was in front of me at Immigration. He spoke in perfectly idiomatic American English; he was courteous and solicitous to a fault; and he wouldn’t take no for answer. There was no point in protesting, so I sat down—next to his wife.
The train was very crowded. But we made it a point to avoid contact, she and I. Fine with me. Let me tell you, I am so into the concept of the “personal space bubble.” There was also the matter that one interpretation of Islam prohibits women like her from having any physical contact with men like me.
She was loquacious. That much was immediately obvious. I soon discovered that she was also possessed of the sort of “nature” that Shakespeare says unites us. She asked me where I was going, and she said she was going to the same place, which surprised me. I had misunderstood her. She meant she was going “home,” like me, to her own country, a country officially at odds with mine. She asked me about my family, and she implied that she was happy about starting one of her own. And as we got off the train, she said, “I hope you can still enjoy some of your Thanksgiving,” followed by something in Arabic, a blessing perhaps.
I told you that I’ve now ticked frogmouths off the bucket list. Needless to say, a few items remain, and one of them involves Greg Neise. I want to do the Chicago Lakefront Christmas Bird Count (CBC) with Greg and his Chicagoland birding pals. It’s one of the very few CBCs held on Christmas Day.
Look, this coming Christmas will be my 49th, and Christmases are getting to be drearily similar. I need a change of scenery. No, not this year. I burned through my credits with that little Thanksgiving escapade to the other side of the planet. I’m so guilt-ridden, I’m even letting my kids buy a tree this year. (Don’t get me started on Christmas trees; we’ll just say that allowing a tree in the house is a huge concession from a Scrooge like me.) But one of these years, I swear, I’ll make it out there for the Chicago Lakefront CBC.
Part of it is for the birds. The last time I birded with Greg in Chicago in winter, he and his friends found me a Hoary Redpoll, a Snowy Owl, and a small flock of Monk Parakeets—all in sequence like that. The redpoll, then the owl, and then the parakeets, with no intervening starlings or gulls or anything. I’ll never forget that amazing trifecta, and I yearn for more.
Another part of it is for the insanity of it all. I hope it’s minus-two and snowing. I suspect someone will bring a ninety-gallon tub of chum. I’m picturing a tripod or camera or even a birder winding up in Lake Michigan. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I find myself involved somehow in an international incident.
Yet another part—honestly, the biggest part of all—is the promise of kinship and camaraderie, “the true spirit of Christmas,” me and sundry pagans, atheists, Jews, Muslims, and whatnot, the usual suspects on the Chicago Lakefront CBC. I really mean that bit about the Christmas spirit. We who celebrate Christmas say that it is supposed to be about sharing and giving, about acceptance and forbearance, about hope and new life. Those are the virtues I most esteem and the outcomes I most covet in this life.
I want to return to Chicago to reaffirm a powerful lesson from my visit to Malaysia: that one touch of nature makes the whole world kin.