He watched birds, and shrapnel, fly

May 28, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON

From the time we're little, we've all heard that when life gives you lemons, you're supposed to make lemonade.

Later we learned the same process apparently holds true for chicken byproduct.

When Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Trouern-Trend, an avid birder, was deployed to Iraq with his National Guard unit, he took a heap of lemons and chicken stuff and advanced his hobby.

The result was an online birding journal that earned him a lot of Internet followers, who read his entries and took comfort in the thought that wildlife lived where humans fought and died.

Now back home in his civilian job as an epidemiology researcher for the Red Cross in Connecticut, Trouern-Trend is making new friends. His blog has been turned into a book, Birding Babylon: A Soldier's Journal From Iraq, published by the Sierra Club.

This being Memorial Day weekend, it seemed like the right time to give Trouern-Trend's efforts a plug.

He arrived in Iraq in early March 2004. His home for the year was Camp Anaconda, an immense base near the Tigris River just 40 miles north of Baghdad.

At first, Anaconda seemed a dreary sand pit distinguished only by insurgents' frequent shelling, earning it the nickname, "Mortaritaville."

But Trouern-Trend, 38 and a birder from the age of 12, soon realized that he could add to his life list of species observed if he just kept his eyes open while keeping his head down.

In many ways, his blog (birdingbabylon.blogspot.com) reminds me of the soldiers who have e-mailed from Baghdad with stories and photos of fish caught in the Tigris or Saddam Hussein's palace ponds. Their ability to find and share a little joy is heartwarming.

(At Camp Victory, Navy Lt. Joel Stewart started "The Baghdad School of Fly Fishing," dedicated to "introducing deployed service members to the quiet sport." Trouern-Trend has a link to Stewart's Web site, which has some nice photos.)

Trouern-Trend decided that he, too, could see the war-torn landscape through the eyes of a nature lover.

"There are soldiers in every war who have the naturalist's eye," he wrote. "I knew a World War II veteran who spent time in the Pacific islands catching lizards and insects and sending specimens to the Smithsonian in Washington. Since returning from Iraq, I've found that I was not alone as a birder there. I know of at least a dozen Marines, soldiers, airmen and civilians from several countries who brought their binoculars to war."

For Trouern-Trend, a murky pond that held runoff from the laundry and the base's burning dump became unlikely birding hot spots.

"As sunset approached, the birds got more active. Half a dozen black-winged stilts chased each other all over, calling like terns the whole time," he wrote. "Out in the pond, I had fantastic views of a whiskered tern wheeling around and plucking food out of the water. And I finally picked out a pair of red-rumped swallows, after scrutinizing hundreds of barn swallows since spring."

The father of five began posting his observations, including those when he went out on patrol beyond the barricades and barbed wire.

Trouern-Trend says being able to bird gave him a way to relieve stress and connect with the Iraqi people, who pointed out species. He believes people who read his blog or book will be able to connect, too.

"I hope it shows people that Iraq is not one-dimensional," Trouern-Trend says. "There's a lot of good things that go on. There are even environmental groups starting there. There is good news."

On his last day in Iraq - Jan. 26 last year - he added the last bird on his life list, a moustached warbler, and looked toward the dunes surrounding Anaconda. Overhead, a white dove circled. "I'll take it as a good omen," he wrote.

Trouern-Trend says he's proud of what his medical unit accomplished in Iraq and looks forward to a time when the gunfire ends.

"I hope to go back to Iraq one day armed with only my binoculars and camera. Perhaps an Iraqi friend and I will drive around searching the deserts, the river valleys, the marshes and the mountains for the birds I missed. We will talk about how wonderful it is to be free of the fences and able to go where the birds are instead of hoping they'll fly into our compound. No matter how long it takes to get to that future, I know the birds will be waiting."

Take a hike, get a bite

Saturday is the first of three free fishing days in Maryland and National Trails Day, an opportunity to take a hike and work to preserve favorite paths.

Free fishing - fishing without having first purchased a license - is allowed at a handful of areas year-round. But on the first two Saturdays in June and July 4, an angler without a license can fish anywhere it's legal provided he or she obeys the regulations (no hand grenades, no boarding parties or other anti-social moves).

It's a great time for beginners to test the waters or for a one-time angler to see if a tug on the line still thrills.

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