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Interview with The Avian Rebbe - Aaric Eisenstein

Name: Aaric Eisenstein

Pronouns: He/Him

Location: Austin, Texas

Job: Avian Rebbe

All photos by Aaric Eisenstein

Tell me about yourself:

I started doing the work that I do about 2 ½ years ago. This was my reaction to the covid and a way of pushing back against the darkness. I had never done anything involving birds, nothing involving photography and I certainly wasn’t much of a writer, but I decided to buy a camera, go to the parks, share thoughts about what I saw and find ways to bring a little bit of light to people’s worlds.

I started taking photos of birds, the photos were quite awful. I put together little jottings, just a sentence or two and I shared it with folks in an attempt to stay healthy. From there it started to resonate, and I was asked by my Rabbi to start teaching on Friday nights, to share further thoughts about what it was I was seeing and reflecting upon in the parks.

It grew more and now as a Rebbe, not a Rabbi, I’m not ordained, but a Rebbe is considered a community leader, a teacher and storyteller. I share photos and writing with several thousand people each month through social media, my email list, podcast and website. My first book came out a year ago, my second book that just launched and now I am starting to do a lot of in person teaching and learning together like classroom sessions or guided walks in the woods. I work with school aged kids all the way up to our senior community members.

I think of the work I do as an offering to God and the community. It’s a lot of work but it’s very gratifying and gives a lot of meaning to life.

Tell us a bit more about your books:

The second book is called The Avian Rebbe Stretches His Wings: Volume

2: Left Texas. If you think of Texas geographically and you divide it in half, North to South, it’s in the left half of the state, Western Texas. It is a compilation of 52 of my photos together with teachings inspired by and reflecting on the different sites. The title ‘Stretches His Wings’ is referencing the fact that these were photos taken on my first trips out of confinement. The first book was all about Covid and how we were restricted and confined. The second book is about leaving the nest and getting out a little bit within close parameters by Texas scale, remaining close to home but away from home and that inflection point as we start to find a bit of expansion and expansiveness in our thinking and in our horizons. I deal with some new areas geographically; I deal with some new themes, and I deal with a much larger community. It’s a book of exploration.

What made you interested in participating in this project?

One of the things I’ve found fascinating about this foray into the birding world is that there are unexpected facets of it. And how birds as representation of everything from soul to mind are quite prevalent across cultures, across times and to see how people are using birds and their experiences with birds as a reason to get out into nature. It can be a very healing thing. I wanted to be able to provide a little bit of my own perspective and my own experience and hope that it would resonate with people, bring them a little joy and inspiration.

Can you share your Mental health diagnoses/conditions?

This all started as a push back to Covid. Many people of course had mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. I don't have any diagnosable conditions, but obviously those were very challenging and stressful days for everyone.

When did you become interested in birds and birding?

Many years ago, in 1994 I spent a few weeks in Costa Rica where birds are everywhere, and you can’t help but notice them. I saw them flying around and my head was on a swivel most of the time and it was beautiful and magical, but I knew nothing about them. The fact that I saw a Quetzal didn’t register with me then the way that it might now, but I enjoyed having breakfast watching Toucans eat berries out of a tree. It was fascinating. That was my introduction to birds which I then put on hold for several decades.

I never really noticed them beyond the birds I saw in my own backyard. I have certainly had interesting encounters where I didn’t realize what was all around me at the time. I tell the story of walking through my neighborhood, a very urban, regular neighborhood, not out in the forest or the fields where you’d expect to see wildlife. As I am walking along, I happen to look up and saw a huge kettle of American White Pelicans. I didn’t know what they were, but I found out. It was amazing and I immediately rushed home and emailed Audubon and told them that the most incredible thing ever had occurred, there were Pelicans flying overhead in Austin, Texas. They very kindly and gently responded, ‘well, of course there were, they are here every year at this time’. I had no idea because I never looked up. Now I’m in the habit of looking up and I see different things and I notice different things just by virtue of being aware to look.

How has birding helped you in processing your anxiety and your daily life?

The best thing about birding at least the way I do it, it takes several hours, by myself and it’s quiet. It gives me time to reflect and to unplug from all the other things that might demand my attention. It helps to be in a beautiful place and to be focused in the sense of trying to receive photos. It’s just about having that quiet space in which to be meditative, mindful, aware and appreciative.

I’ve become a much better person just generally. People will say your life will improve when you go to therapy, and I absolutely believe that for some people. For me this has been a therapeutic endeavor. Things that might have bothered me before, now I have time to process.

Anxieties that I might have harbored now tend to slip away. Things that seemed very large or daunting now have become little blips on a timeline when they are seen in the context of the continuity of the cycle of the seasons and the eternal lasting of things like birdsong and sunrises. The birds didn’t know that Covid had hit, and they didn’t care. Every morning the birds wake up, the birds sing, they chase bugs, and they follow the sun. Putting things into that kind of perspective makes it easier for us too. It’s been a very grounding experience for me. The tagline that I use is 'Be Grounded. Fly High' and I think that’s been made possible by the work that I do.

Are you involved in your local birding community and has that helped or hindered you in any way?

I am a member of Travis Audubon which is an active and wonderful chapter. They maintain several birding locations and provide education. I have participated in some of their fundraising, and they have been very helpful in introducing me to various people who have not only expanded my awareness of how different people interact with birds but also to people who have been kind enough to offer blurbs for my books.

What do you think are some of the barriers are that are keeping people from being able to use birding to improve their wellbeing?

I think probably the biggest one is that people just don’t know. If somebody was to be told you’re dealing with whatever kind of psychological or emotional discomfort and that could be anything from mild anxiety to massive depression and you said,

‘Okay great, what are my options?’ Well, you could go to therapy, you could take medications, you could do yoga or meditation. I don’t know that people would necessarily say why don’t you get a pair of binoculars and go out to the park, walk around and look for birds. This kind of grounding or meditative activity can be very therapeutic. Otherwise from a true barrier standpoint, I see a tremendous number of birds in my backyard or neighborhood. Even if you were to see only 6-10 of the local species that are endemic in any place in America or Canada, it’s accessible. You can put up a backyard feeder or simply go walk around. I would hope that there aren’t too many real barriers other than not knowing.

Do you believe there is something specific the birds have to teach us?

If you look at the ancient Chinese, you’ll see that one of their symbols is a snake with wings, they call it a dragon. If you look at the Aztecs, same thing, if you look at the Greeks, Icarus has wings. If you look at the cover of the Holy Ark in the Temple for the Ancient Israelites the little angels, the cherubs, have wings. There is something about flight that resonates with human beings across cultures and across times. It is baked into our brains at some fundamental level that makes us feel good. There’s something about birds, whether it’s the song, the color or the variety or the proximity, flight or all the above, there is so much in so many traditions that equate or ties birds together with souls. I think it must be more than coincidental. We listen, we look, and we think and in my own case I find enough that I can teach, and it resonates with people. There is something aspirational about a bird. You see a bird flying and you smile.

Does birding ever effect your mental health in a negative way and how do you deal with it?

In a sense it has, the birding, no. There’s a park that I go to regularly with a lake and the waters have receded a great deal in this current drought and consequently a large amount of trash is now visible that used to not be visible. But for birding, I would not be at that park, and I wouldn’t have seen all that trash, all that neglect, indifference and that insult that’s done to the world. It’s painful to go see that.

I receive beautiful photos and I write about it angrily and exasperatedly to help me process it.

A lot of people see a Vulture and think it’s death and it’s ugly, but I think they’re beautiful and I appreciate the role they play in the ecosystem. They are a vital and necessary bird. I saw way too many of them there that day because there was so much death and garbage. I try to write about there is a place for what the Vulture does and there’s a place for us to act responsibly. And when we fail, as we had, the Vultures are too prevalent and that’s a bust. That bothers me. It's not that birding has negatively impacted me, but it exposes some of the things that people do. Same thing when I’m out on the trails and people have their dogs off the leash. I don’t blame the dog; I blame the person whose dog is off the leash.

Is there a birding story that instantly makes you smile?

My favorite book is called Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The question of the book is, what is good? The answer is that we really don’t need anyone to tell us what’s good, we know intuitively what’s good. All the time when I’m out on the trail I’ll bump into someone, and they will say, 'Have you seen anything good?' The answer to me depending on who it is the answer is always yes. Sometimes if it’s a birder they're asking, have you seen anything rare or exceptional and if it’s someone who is not a birder maybe they are just being interested or friendly. The answer to me is always yes, every single time, every time I go out, I see something good because I’m out on the trail and I’m having an experience of the Divine. It makes me smile each time that happens. Do we really need to confuse or conflate good with exceptional or rare or something out of the ordinary when teachings tell us what is ordinary is what is best.

What bird song immediately lifts you up and why?

There are two. Where I live there are two birds that wake up first, the northern cardinal and the Carolina wren, both loud and both greet the day. They are both special to me, I hear those first when the sun is coming up and to be out on the trail and to experience the sunrise is a very special thing for me. Those two songs form the harmony that starts my day so it’s very meaningful to me.

What recommendation would you give to someone who is just getting started using birding as a skill to improve their mental wellness?

Go more often. Go every day, make it a routine, make it a part of your morning that you carve out. And go early, find the sunrise, you’ll never regret watching a sunrise. It starts your day well.

If you could give a message to mental health workers about birding and why they should recommend it to clients what would that be?

I would say that it’s not invasive, it has no side effects, it’s cheap, it’s universally available to people. It’s holistic and heals mentally, physically and spiritually. There is no reason not to recommend it. Patient compliance would likely be higher than other types of treatment.

If you could convey one message to the birds, what would it be?

I don’t have a desire to tell them anything. I respect the differences enough between what they are and what I am to just let them be. Part of the joy of observation is that mystery. There are birds now whose behaviors I can anticipate and that creates its own joy. I like to maintain that separation.

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