Before there was Woody Woodpecker. Before there was Walter Lanz Productions, Incorporated. There was a newly married couple in the early 1940’s, being disturbed by a woodpecker during their honeymoon at June Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. Thanks to his wife’s suggestion, the noisy pileated woodpecker became the inspiration for the Woody Woodpecker animated cartoon character by Walter Lanz. The trademark “Heh-heh-heh-HEHHHH-heh” was internalized his wife, Gracie Lanz. She became the voice of the character in the late 1940’s when her audition tape was secretly recorded and submitted. For the next 40 years, she did the voice and wrote the words that came out of Woody Woodpecker’s mouth for about 200 cartoons.
This is another case of pausing to listen. In this case, being aware of the birds around them allowed the Lanz’s to cash in. However more than that, it taught the Lanz’s to pause to consider the sounds of nature around them. The pileated woodpecker is the largest of the woodpeckers and creates one large habitat each year. This noisy work of the woodpecker and trademark red head make is easily identifiable. We are happy to have it around in the Sierra Mountains because it eats up the carpenter ants that we don’t want in our family cabin on Silver Lake.
I have discovered that being aware of the birds around you opens up a whole new layer of understanding of the place where you live. When I wake each morning, I listen for the birds. Sometimes, they may be the ones waking me up, as in Spring when crows prepare to go to war to protect the young in their nest. Battles begin at sunrise.
This summer we have travelled around a fair bit in our neck of the woods. In Kitsilano by the beach in Vancouver, generally the seagulls are the first birds of the morning with their plaintive cry. In Whistler, I had to really focus. It was more of a dialogue than a cry, and it was croakier than the crows I am intimately familiar with from living by Mundy Park in Coquitlam and in various neighbourhoods of Vancouver. I had to get up and look out the window to see that it was in fact the larger cousin, the raven, heavily engaged in foraging through the garbage cans in the early hours, while carrying on an animated conversation. In White Rock, the morning was filled with flitting songbirds and some particularly aggressive hummingbirds. In Penticton, the nervous Nelly quails would scurry across the road with the familiar refrain “Kill me. Kill me”, as they scurry out of the bushes in front of the car. In Halfmoon bay, the washed-up dead harbour seal brought frequent visits from turkey vultures.
My morning ritual is most importantly an exercise in learning to pay attention. It is easy to spring out of bed, off and running, without ever stopping to notice. The rat race with no finish line. Jumping on the tread mill and staying on it until you fall into bed at the end of the night. Adults may be focused on family obligations and career building. Kids may be responding to the yells to get up, move faster, get to school, finish assignments, followed by a myriad of lessons, practices, and achievement activities. Stress goes up. Enjoyment correspondingly goes down.The practice of paying attention can take a number of forms. For me, I delight in hearing the birds in the morning and thinking about what it is going on in their lives. For some people it is the weather. The changes in the sky or the impact on the flowers and trees. Observations of nature are not only helpful in slower down the pace of life, but also frequently sparks joy. You never know what you may learn or what will delight you.