I’ve heard that birds are disappearing. I don’t understand all the implications of mass extinction, but I’m sure that it does not augur well for us. Maybe it’s encouraging that birds have recently found refuge in the Orient. In response to three articles published two weeks ago, I wanted to share something I noticed.

I recently saw a Chukar partridge in Brunswick. I was walking by 52 Harpswell when I spotted two older men across the street, frozen with eyes fixed on something in the lawn next to me. They were pointing and talking excitedly to each other. I will not give a detailed description of the Chukar—the article 2 weeks ago did that well enough—but will say that it’s beautiful. It certainly stands out in a suburban landscape. For its size, it was extremely disruptive that afternoon: the two men all but ran into the road to get a closer look, stopping traffic, while I scrambled to take a picture of it. This encounter roughened an otherwise smooth walk home that had been completely sanded down by routine. It reminded me that there is more to the landscape than my usual walks reveal: there are worlds besides our own that we manage to distance ourselves from but cannot quite escape. Usually, however, it takes something as outwardly extraordinary as a Chukar to wake me to this fact.

A walk across campus is usually rushed—a way from A to B. The Bowdoin landscape is pretty but is rarely more than a background for our determined lives—and a predictable, safe background at that. An erratic squirrel is the most disruptive thing most of us encounter regularly and even that is hardly enough to free us from our busy heads. We rarely observe what we see.

This summer, I worked with a number of avid birders in a community where loafing is virtue. They walked slowly and paused frequently, keen on small details and nuances I could not perceive. They saw things I didn’t and loved the wildlife refuge in a way I could not. As Liam Taylor’s Talk of the Quad explained, going birding gives us the chance to observe and connect with beings radically different from us. Done well, it can be a hobby of humility: past plumage and species lies an experience alien but not entirely inaccessible to us. The distance implied by the difference need not be insurmountable.

In the solitary setting of a beach or forest, it may be natural to step into a more active, inquisitive mindset. But to assume the posture of a birder in our crowded human habitats is a spiritual challenge. It’s one thing to realize we share a planet with people and things with inner lives as rich and vibrant as our own—in theory or in momentary glimpses in the woods—but it’s another, much thornier thing to adjust ourselves according to this knowledge. To wake up and find our mundane surroundings solid and pulsing with meaning. This opening of ears and eyes seems to ask for a lot of heart.

But we don’t have to talk abstractly about what has practical implications and examples close to home. You don’t need to dwell on last year’s frustrating campus dialogue about race to begin to suspect that we aren’t good listeners: I think about any time I let prodding personal stress keep me from following a class discussion, having a conversation with an author or understanding a friend; or how fear of awkwardness and discomfort—truly self-centered concerns—shackle all modes of discourse. There is clearly a difference between ideas you listen to and noises you hear, just as there is between seeing a living thing and feeling yourself in its eyes. Good listening is like questioning: a pursuit of truth, valuable whether or not you get an answer. It should move us. In a community of bad listeners, my peers become a collection of background noises and decorations.

Last February, Marc Lamont Hill gave a talked titled “Fighting for Freedom in an Hour of Chaos” to a small Kresge audience. He talked about global politics, Black Lives Matter and our campus, which was struggling to make sense of itself at the time. I gather that we all want to feel safe and somewhat ordered. We want to know what’s happening and especially where we are going. Most of us plan courses of life on a clean piece of paper, letting our lives fall into place around a few formal activities. We even pencil-in Ivies: binge drinking and hookup culture are not distractions from but rather natural extensions of resume culture. Waxing effusive at meals about the week’s work or the weekend’s social chores, it’s easy to ignore the soft uneasiness in each other’s voices or sadness behind the customary cheer. Our lives are rigidly structured and our community unstable. Last year had many people questioning whether or not Bowdoin even is a community. At least last year people were questioning.

It’s possible that the way we order our personal lives has made the community ill; and it’s possible that below the C.V. and the hard athletic bodies, we are not so healthy and secure. Hill prescribed “radical listening” to our ailing nation and our wavering campus: only by seeking knowledge through other’s perspectives and vigorously questioning our own could we become a community. This, he implied, is the sort of knowledge that diversity and a liberal arts education offer, but hardly guarantee. It cannot be honestly pursued on the way to something else.

Now my point has barely fledged, but I’ve said more than enough: a refuge is a good thing, but it’s far from a home. Birds belong in conversation.

Ben Bristol is a member of the Class of 2017.