Down Time is a Jezebel series in which we ask our favorite artists and authors what art, books, and activities they’re turning to in this moment of isolation and uncertainty. First up is Jenny Odell, artist and author of the book How to Do Nothing, who tells us how she finds space for her avid bird-watching on the web.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I have been spending a lot of time looking at nature webcams. There’s one that I spent a lot of time looking at last year, it’s these ospreys that nest. There are certain species of birds that always nest in the same place or commonly return to their nest, which isn’t like most birds, but ospreys do that. So there’s an osprey cam in Richmond, which is just north of here, and they have known to nest in industrial areas because they make these really big, hardcore nests out of debris and stuff. So there’s this osprey nest that’s on, I think it looks like an old, like, military ship or something, and there’s been a cam. This is actually the perfect time to look at it because it’s when they’re nesting and I find that comforting because it’s here and it’s sort of nearby.
But then my friend told me about this eagle one from Decorah, Iowa on Explore.org, which I’m actually looking at right now. It’s a nesting eagle. Oh my god, it’s so peaceful. It’s just sitting on some eggs, which will eventually hatch. A lot of the cams that I’ve seen they will have little announcements, like here’s the day that we expect the eggs to hatch. Then you get to watch baby birds which is really exciting. I actually hadn’t been to this site Explore.org but they have cams for everything, there’s a walrus cam, there’s a bee cam.
It’s also kind of funny that I’ve been looking at those two because ospreys and eagles really hate each other. If there’s an increase in ospreys, it’s because there’s been a decrease in eagles. That’s because, and I find this scandalous, eagles steal the fish from ospreys. Ospreys are basically like these giant hawks and if you ever see them catch a fish, it’s this amazing acrobatic feat. They’ll do all that work and then the eagle just comes and steals it. I’m like, oh, that’s so American.
We still can go outside right now [in Oakland], [but] I feel really apprehensive when I go outside right now. The truth is, I’m just spending a lot more time in this apartment. And looking at something that’s outside, that isn’t recorded so you can see time passing, I think that’s really comforting. I was looking at this eagle in the morning the other day and then I looked at it later and there was a time difference. You could see that the sun was setting because the light on the eagle’s face was pink. It’s a different being that’s having its own life, it has its own world, that’s continuous in a way with yours. Time is passing for them too and I think just being able to grasp on to that feeling of time is helpful.
I think there’s this thing that happens when you’re working a lot and you’re just constantly refreshing Twitter, there’s this weird mix of urgency but also time seems like it’s stopped. Now one of the tabs in my browser is always a bird cam. If you’re a person who compulsively checks things too, it’s something else to check, and it’s something that’s actually worth checking. It’s an example of a form of technology that’s actually really amazing and magical.