The following essay appeared as an OpEd in both the Daily Hampshire Gazette and the Greenfield Recorder on January 2, 2008.

Karl Meyer © 2007
Conspiracy to Bird

I am standing at the intersection of Wildlife and Freedom—or that’s what it feels like. Actually I’m on Northeast Street, a secondary road with farms on one side and condos on the other. It’s fifteen degrees on Christmas Bird Count Day and I’m looking for birds in Amherst, Massachusetts. I’ve returned to this college town each December for 23 years–since about the time I voted in Amherst Town Meeting for funding to preserve these farms.

When I turn around a policeman is there, cruiser lights flashing on low. He rolls down his window and peers at me–laptop and police equipment in easy reach. I’m surprised, mildly annoyed. He is friendly though, “Hi Sir, could you tell me what you’re doing here with binoculars?”

Here it makes sense to set the scene a bit more. I’m 5’8”, with white, white, hair. I’m standing on the shoulder in a bright yellow anorak, wool pants, and mittens–a pair of binoculars at my neck. I’ve been peering into patches of scrub and staring at old farm silos hoping to identify birds. My main concern—what with the yellow slicker, is not getting shot by deer hunters—or picked off by a car at this farmland edge. I’m as conspicuous as can be, and it’s backfired. An officer of the law is now assessing my threat status.

“I’m looking at birds,” I say. “Looking at birds?” he repeats. I nod. I can tell this is making sense–the binoculars, the funny dress. “Someone called–I had to check it out.” This too makes sense. I offer a little more, “I’m counting birds, it happens every year. They usually hold the count on a Sunday, but changed it to Saturday because of the weather. There’s a bunch of people out doing this.” This seems plausible. “So, you’re counting birds?” “Yup.” With that he appears satisfied. I turn back to my business. But he hesitates, “Could you tell me your name?”

At this point something shifts.

I look back at the young man in the cruiser. He hasn’t been impolite. But now I’m dealing with a whole different animal. Can you tell me your name? I ponder this existential moment: a middle-aged guy in flame-yellow and mittens. I understand. Some older person saw me peering through spy glasses, grew nervous; called. This officer came to check. It should have ended there. His further question moved a polite inquiry to the level of personal invasion, given my lack of guile. My expression changes again, to surprise; annoyance.

I can see the charges—including conspiracy to bird. Will there someday be a national registry–birders spying on birders?? I consider the next twenty years at this spot; a country grown more suspicious, fearful. I look at the computer. I’m staring at a rolling data bank when I’ve come for horned larks.

That’s when I state, with more than disinterest, “You’re going to have to talk to a lawyer, pal.” I should have left off the pal, but my rights were being trampled. I was threatened—like that old person. Civil rights are my territory. They’re every citizen’s turf–that free space in our hearts and minds that make each of us safe. They make this country of common laws special. Each time we cede them, individually, collectively—we are less safe; less free.

And so I reply with, “This is a public way. These are binoculars,” and walk on. His lights flash as he drives off. But that computer had likely long-ago scanned my plates. He had my information—likely knew it while we talked. He didn’t offer his name.

Just like the edges of these farms–slowly disappearing before developer’s cash–our rights are eroding. They fray from disuse, ignorance, the abuse of fear by an increasingly secretive government banking on a sheep-like acquiescence of citizens. Absent an understanding of civil rights, we are no special country at all. We trumpet math and science, while the tenets of freedom, privacy, and democracy gasp for air. Perhaps why I head out on cold December days is to feel a little free. It’s why “pal” slipped into that brief interrogation. My rights are a bit raw at the moment. It’s why I chose to be simply “free citizen” that day, under blue sky.

The next morning the BBC interviewed Judith Krug, Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom for the American Library Association. Krug has fought for the right to free inquiry for decades–has stood up to keep the government from snooping library records of ordinary citizens. She’s defended books banned for stating simple truths. Her final question was “why have you kept up the fight so long?” She answered–clear as a winter day, “Because I’m not a person that the government can rule by fear.”