December 8, 2021
I continue to watch the birds. From childhood, I have done this. When my mother remarried and moved us into the mountains of Western North Carolina I was five and old enough to begin to love the woods and the creek our house was surrounded by. The home had one official bedroom, and so I moved into the unfinished basement with cement floors, and two windows that faced downslope into a tangle of rhododendron and fifty-foot mountain magnolias. The spiral staircase that I had to ascend each morning was a relic of a time before fire codes and building ordinances became prohibitive of that late style.
The house, then and now, was not defined by this staircase, but by the sounds of fifty or so birds my stepfather kept all throughout the main floor and in the loft. I can still remember the first time I entered my new home. For years, it had been an animal sanctuary, he and his first wife rehabilitating hurt animals in their living room. All over the house were birds in cages large enough to walk into.
The birds were everywhere. A finch with a missing eye, an assortment of macaws, two cockatoos, a nuthatch with a bandaged leg, and on my stepfather’s shoulder, a blue jay he called “Bee”. Looking back, my childhood was made up and surrounded by birds and therefore by flight. When I reflect on those early years, I come to consider the bird as a kind of freedom, and flight as an extension of that freedom for the poet or any phenomenologist occupied with language. This I will return to elsewhere, but I believe the seeds of such thought begin here, in an exploration of language and the world around and inside me.
This morning, the first visitor is a downy woodpecker. Closely followed by the juncos, and then a pair of mated cardinals. I only assume they are mated, of course, it is possible that they have conspired to convince me of this, and it is possible that they are playing a trick on me, that they are bored. Do birds get bored?
Right now, the clock says it is 8:03, the first minutes of a social hour for four goldfinches I spot, two males and two females flitting back and forth from tree to tree. They are bolder than the chickadees—though I haven’t seen them yet today. A red breasted nuthatch descends a sugar maple thirty feet away, headfirst as is her practice—bold and acrobatic. I know from observation that the titmice aren’t far behind, and that it will be another three hours before the solitary song sparrow arrives.
Yesterday, I saw the first blue jay arrive, preferring to stay at the top of the same sugar maple the nuthatch has now left, and where a red-tailed squirrel, a boomer, has taken up a position as to be silhouetted against a pale haze of sunlight behind him. Is this some descendent of Bee? After two years he finally flew out the door one day to follow the migratory path of his cousins and only returned once, months later, following the migration back north.
It is curious how the world rushes past in the blink of an eye over and over and over, and how it can look so still. The sun has climbed above the clouds as I write and the day becomes sharper, louder in the brightness.
I try to name the calls of the birds, to create little similes to remind the brain what has made them. Right now, my favorite is the chickadee which sounds to me like a rusted pully at work, drawing up water from some stone well. The crows remind me of nails being cleaved out of wood. My favorite bird call belongs to the Veery Thrush, one I have not yet found a proper simile for though my Peterson’s Field Guides: Eastern Birds describes its voice as such: “Song, liquid, breezy, ethereal; wheeling downward: vee-ur, vee-ur, veer, veer.” Hearing one singing out in the middle of the woods I once sat down, overcome with confusion and wonder. The Peterson’s Guide offers no sense of the feeling the song creates. Learning a bird’s songs, you also learn the actions of the bird, whether it is looking for something, whether it is warning others or calling them, whether it is at rest or in flight.
When I was in the sixth grade, I memorized my first poem beyond the Mother Goose rhymes I’d grown up with. It is not lost on me that my love of poetry began with rhymes attributed to a waterfowl. I was eleven years old and given an hour to wander through the middle school library and find a poem to record to memory and later recite to the class. I remember running my hands down the spines of the library books, the gloss laminate of the Dewey Decimal peeling and cracked from age. By whatever force or sense of the world ahead my finger landed on Battle Pieces: The Civil War Poems of Herman Melville.
I opened the book, breathing in the damp odor of book mold, and flipped to the poem “Shiloh: A Requiem.” It is my best guess that I chose this poem for the beauty of the title, how even now when I say it I think of some kind of an amen, something we must have sang in the old stone church I went to as a child.
Taking the book to one of the chairs next to the library windows, I began to commit the poem to memory:
Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
The swallows fly low.
Over the field in clouded days
The forest-field of Shiloh—
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
around the church of Shiloh—
The church, so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
And natural prayer
Of dying foeman mingled there—
Foemen at morn but friends at eve—
Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
And all is hushed at Shiloh.
Melville sets off his poem, one long sentence, with an image I first saw as a cyclone of the living swallows descending to the field. There, they flew over battle corpses stretched out after a cold rain that “solaced” them. At eleven, I rolled the word in my mouth, reading it like “so laced” until I decided that I should ask the school librarian for help. I’d thought that the word meant the rain was tying them to the land, foreshadowing Melville’s, “dying foemen mingled there”. “What does it mean?” I asked, placing my pointer finger just below the word. The librarian looked at the word then back at me, nodding her head and led me to the front desk where the blue, Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was kept in a matching blue box, “Let’s look it up.” and she opened a little drawer, pulling out a magnifying glass so that I could read the small script.
Sixteen years later, my feet scuff the waxed floors of a long, wide hallway, passing offices and lab spaces toward a hive of eggshell-white lockers. It is mostly silent, a contrast to the busy entryway I’d waited in for twenty minutes with three of my friends, while security called our host, gave us guest badges, and lead us through aside door away from the crowds entering the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
Four of us, a poet, a dendrologist, a botanist, and an ornithologist pass through the door. The air is suddenly sweeter, not sterile, not musky, but sweet. We are greeted by Dr. Helen James, one of the museum’s curators. Dr. James is an expert in tropical birds, and as we will learn she has built a career on a small species of bird from the Hawaiian Islands. She’ll tell us about lowering herself into lava tubes to understand the life and death of these birds. She’s done this for decades.
We learn this later. In the moment she holds out her hand to greet us and suddenly it is as if we have known her for years. She guides us down a brightly lit hallway, past more offices and into a large room filled with row after row of locked cabinets. Each cabinet, polished, seemingly unblemished, opens to reveal drawers containing the skins of birds—the museums library of specimens stretched row by row across the room. Dr. James asks, “Would you like to see some of Darwin’s specimens? Audubon’s? Or maybe Teddy Roosevelt’s, to begin?”
Words roost in the mind. Memory serving as a store for the poetic image resonating, as Bachelard details in his Poetics of Space, inward. I used to think of the image as an outward spiral, the stone cast into the still water, where the force of the energy sent rings outward from a center through metaphor to create meaning. Now, I see it the same but the image beginning not at the center of the spiral but at its outer terminus. It is the past self and the conscious awareness in the unremarkable that becomes the stone at the center, manifesting image. In this way the image works inward, toward the writer’s and reader’s subconscious and the realm of destroyed time we carry within. The wheeling swallows do more than fly through the air—they transform it, they reconstruct it—here the past can be reentered and reimagined.
The love of words has continued to sustain me. In the third grade I was gifted a Roget’s International Thesaurus. This catalogue of synonyms did no less than astound me—here was a way to see out into the world anew. Without knowing it, I began to train myself toward an expansion of not just vocabulary but reality. I can still picture the book’s deep green cover, and the ridges that rose up on the spine like the collision of tectonic plates casting up mountains. I carried the worn Roget’s Thesaurus with me, in my backpack, every day for the rest of the school year, and then kept it on a desk in my house ever since—always close by. Less and less I need to return to those pages. It is not because I have lost a curiosity, only that this early training has worked its way to the forefront of my life. I have delighted at the appearance of an unrecognizable word, pausing on countless pages to look up and write down a definition. This is standard practice in the love of words, and the results have been extraordinary. Over time I have transformed this compulsion from an investigation of the page to an investigation of the world around. To learn the name of a bird has given me the same joy as to define a new word.
We follow Dr. James midway down one of the aisles, each locker looking unassuming, all the same. Dr. James holds up a key and unlocks the panel facing of one of the lockers, removing it like I once imagined one would remove the lid of a sarcophagus.
Behind the panel were drawers of bird skins. Some of the smaller birds you could imagine holding a magnifying glass up to in order to see the details beyond wing and tail feather, but most were large enough to make out even the intricate patterns of lines carved into their beaks. It would be four years later, sitting with my daughter one morning as she played with the alphabet that I wondered what the longest word I could spell using only the twenty-six letters in front of me. The word, subdermatoglyphic, gives me a close answer to a question I hadn’t thought to ask there amongst the rows of birds: “What determines the patterns on the birds bill? My fingerprint?” Of course, the patterns on a bird’s bill, a bird’s wing, are not determined by ridges below the skin.
One by one the drawers are slid out for viewing. A preserved bird is called a “skin”, the body lightly puffed up, the eye sockets stuffed with cotton. Each bird is tagged, as a wine bottle in a cellar might be. Some of the tags are bleach white. I recognize at once this to be an indicator of time, and these first birds must have recently joined the collection. These birds were collected by Dr. James the Himatione sanguinea, a Hawaiian Honeycreeper. They rest alongside one another, the incarnadine feathers look wet, as if they’d just come in from a rainstorm.
We move on, and here Dr. James turns quick, a smile cut across her face. She opens the next drawer and before I notice the birds I see that the tags are browned and curled like the print of an old photograph. These skins were collected by Teddy Roosevelt in Africa a century earlier. Nearby are the skins Darwin collected. Dr. James begins detailing the process of collecting the birds, the characteristics of the birds collected, and with a storyteller’s cadence weaves together a larger narrative that encompasses the science with the aesthetics and the history of the birds. Does this kind of narrative exist still in the textbooks and papers published today? No longer is it language that is used to persuade, no longer is it necessary to describe—the tools of language now replaced by the figures of math. I want to think about this limitation, this ideal of “objectivity”. What does it leave out? And yet, in the moment with Dr. James to guide us, it is easy to look at those birds and say, “Here is where an idea took flight, where it left and reentered the mind, and here looking at the smooth, bright feathers it is easy to feel the excitement Darwin must have, sitting on a shore one afternoon with the Beagle anchored just a little ways off—the birds singing in the late day sun.” Certainly Darwin turned to the powers of description, something passed down from Von Humboldt and Goethe, to the power of language not only to describe but to brighten the imagination?
Another drawer is opened. On the front surface, in the bottom left corner a white tag reads, “Extinct Birds / Splendor’s of Nature / Audubon”. The drawer is removed to reveal the skins of birds that once flew the skies of the North American continent next to extant species which still do. The skin of a Mourning Dove rests beside two Passenger Pigeons, hunted into memory by the second decade of the 20th century. I stand in silence, as we all do as our eyes glide over the lifeless bodies before us. I think of Leopold, “For one species to mourn the death of another is a new thing under the sun. The Cro-Magnon who slew the last mammoth thought only of steaks. The sportsman who shot the last pigeon thought only of his prowess. The sailor who clubbed the last auk thought of nothing at all. But we, who have lost our pigeons, mourn the loss.”
Beside the doves rests a solitary Carolina Parakeet. I try to imagine a world where this bird sang from the trees in the Southern United States until its feathers became so fashionable for hats and the desire to own such an accessory outweighed a desire to hear the bird’s song, or watch it fly as if the stained glass of a church window had the ability to cross the sky. Hats, it turns out, only replicate as long as they are in style.
Above the Parakeet and the Doves is the bird I was most excited to see. Stretched beside its closest living example, the Pileated Woodpecker, rests the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. Once the largest of American Woodpeckers, now what remains is this skin, the black feathers of the body dark an unfaded by time, not like an old painting but something you could mistake for alive. The legs are crossed, the zygodactyl talons resting like eight quarter moons in a sky you’ve never seen. It is believed that the bird has gone extinct, as the label on the box in front of me notes. Yet, the unknown compels us. As recently as 2017 a supposed sighting of an Ivory Billed Woodpecker was reporter, and there are rumors of the Carolina Parakeet still darting, swift and vibrant, into the canopies of Eastern Cuba. When I think of these birds now, I also think of Lorca writing, “Only mystery permits us to live.”
When a species of bird is gone for good, we lose more than bright plumage and song. In front of me, even the dullest of these specimens looks extraordinary. We look on in silence and I again am thinking of Leopold, writing, “There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardship and to all delights.” The birds before me are motionless, having flown every mile they would ever know.
A few months later, I am working at my desk reading Larry Levis’s “Slow Child With a Book of Birds” when I find I am not looking out on the rows of trees through my window but am back to that moment at the Smithsonian looking down on the skins of extinct birds. As if riffing on Leopold, Levis writes:
When a species dims, what is the last
One left of it worth?
Is it priceless then as a snow comes on?
A bird that afterward is just
Illustrations in a book,
A thing that would be worthless
Except for all the wealth within its
Name, & a plumage lost in the reproductions
Of it, the color on the pages always wrong,
The slightly off, off-white of its wings?
I go back to my Peterson’s Field Guide and flip to pages 188-189. The inscription below the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker reads, “near extinct” and the description on the preceding page ends, “very close to extinction, if, indeed, it still exists.” I trace my finger over the glossed image, the color of the bill not quite it.
Three times I’ve stood alone in the room with a dead body. Each prepared, rendered into what is supposed to be a final peaceful image. The preparation is not at the benefit of the body but for those who have come to bear final witness to a life. In this way, memory swells all at once to a final, recognizable point.
Looking down at the skins of these extinct birds, I think for a moment about learning to identify the world around me. How I’ve worked and am working to be able to name the birds I see and hear, as I work to identify trees and wildflowers, the names of mountain ridges. There is a certain gravity to this work because in front of me I see how it could end.
Languages grow and blossom, they are resilient, they are elastic and adaptable. At the same time, they are vulnerable to outside forces. Much like the evolution of birds the evolution of language is certain. But I am struck that this gift of language is not immortal. Languages die out each day, and what is lost with that death is a way into the world around us that will never be again. Once lost, the powers of resurrection are made painfully clear.
What I have tried to capture here is not a love of language or a love of all things wild but how the love of language led me to a love of the wild and how a love of the wild led to a love of language. To my mind, there is no separation. I began in childhood and then to the memory of a poem. Sometimes, I am still in that library room, the magnifying glass held over the page. I read the first definition aloud: Solace. 1. Comfort, consolation; alleviation of sorrow, distress, or discomfort. The fields Melville wrote of are quiet, only the swallows move as they have, for me, for twenty years.