I have never been a birdwatcher, never a disciplined user of binoculars or field guide. I know that “bird” is an expansive and inaccurate classification for the flying things of my history – that sometimes “raptor” or even “mammal” is more correct – but I find it hard to draw the lines between. Categories confuse, and I have learned that naming dismisses what is named, identification taking the place of attention. “Meadowlark” noticed, ticked off the list, ignores that the bird with the deep V on his throat is an individual, like me. When I consider a bird simply as a representative of its species, I stop seeing. The virtuoso song becomes routine instead of a gorgeous watery melody so clear in the body of the little animal that it burbles through the barely open window of the car kicking up dust down a country road. I keep a life list anyway, a secret mental tally of those who flew into and out of my life, singular individuals that stand apart from robins on the redwood fence of my childhood, backyard sparrows, cardinals, blue jays, and the little black-capped juncos my mother called “snowbirds” because she said their presence foretold flurries. These are mostly window birds, like the pair of mourning doves on the wide sill of my second childhood home, daily courting and cooing. I watched birds from air conditioned summer rooms or shady porches, shivered empathetically with them in winters that wracked my toes and fingers, worried about them in the dark of my bed on stormy nights.
I first learned the shapes of their flight out of books. On childhood afternoons I consulted the illustrated guide, each creature’s shape and color painted to facilitate identification, each kind separate from another and the world represented by only a hint of brown line meaning branch or green smudge meaning leaf. My more familiar children’s books gave them happy faces, curvy eyelashes and beaks that smile. Lately I prop a discarded library copy of Audubon’s birds on the shelf, open to favorite pages of stilled wings and flat-ink eyes, some of the luster of looking worn off, knowing they were dead before the paintings began.
But when they happen to me – birds happen – I am unprepared, startled, transported.
I was just becoming, maybe, 14 when one evening I came up the hall and passed the front door of my family’s house, walked into the room and heard as if amplified my first hoo-hoot of an owl. The 1950s brick rancher my parents built a dozen years after their marriage as they were getting ready for children had white painted eaves hanging over all the roof edges, flat and broad to shade Kansas summers and hold back its winters. Inside that house where my new parents brought me home from St. Rose Hospital, I was read to, and demanded reading. I picked out stacks of books for naptime and bedtime, danced on the bed when my dad got to the parts that required singing: Four and twenty black birds, baked in a pie. So, I knew what owls sounded like. I had turned the pages of Little Golden Books and noticed the perfectly round yellow eyes and cat-pointed ear feathers. I remembered the word, often printed in wiggly orange type, indicating that owls ask one question: Who?
Hoo-hoot resonated into the living room of my awkward adolescence – greasy bangs and clothes my mother picked out that suited her taste instead of mine. Hoo-hoot drew me closer, dark and 9 o’clock, to try to spot the hooter. I opened the hollow, windowless front door, flipped on the porch light, peered into the night through the glass storm door.
Closer, more resonant.
Then, the face of an owl, upside down, dropped over the eave’s edge almost directly in my face.
We looked at each other. My eyes took in the owl’s round ones surrounded by the fine patterns of browns and beiges. Who? Who?
One brief revelation before it flew out and away into the dark. I laughed. I smiled. I had been seen by something rare, inspected and farewelled in the night.
Identification also singles out. This sensation that I had been selected, picked out for special is the gift of the winged I carry still.
I pardon myself for feeling designated, deemed unique and recognized by the birds. How else was I to read what must have seemed like repeating magic? Maybe I even expected each encounter in some hidden part of my adolescent self, steeped as I was in fairy tale and old novel, late-night black-and-white movies and long afternoons of solitude and fantasy. It seems almost a storybook tale that the next bird starts with a dark blue bandana and my mother’s sewing things (needles, threads, a jumble of old buttons, a length of her great-aunt’s tatting in a roll, straight pins – my mother was more a mender than a seamstress). I was stitching round silver sequins to the printed pattern on a bandana I had taken to wearing gypsy style over my long hair the summer I was 17, probably to hide the roots that needed a shampoo I put off night after night in a house of five of us, one bathtub. I enjoyed carefully matching each white spot on the bandana with a spangle, pulling the needle through the central hole of the sequin, taking the needle back down twice, learning about tension and geometry through my fingertips and often getting the stitches so tight the fabric puckered or the sequins folded or stood on edge.
Though the bandana sequinning was not perfect or complete, I wore it anyway for a trial run out into the world on a sunny late spring day when I couldn’t stand the house another minute and had to manufacture a reason to escape. I was given to brief passions, all of them as powerfully absorbing as they were accompanied by deep self-doubt, and though I have never been athletic, I was convinced that day that I was going to become a person who took long and significant walks. I headed out across the city park in my neighborhood, edged the fishy sandpit at the park’s center, stepped over the railroad tracks, through a fence, and into the city cemetery. I liked its quiet and interesting paths – not roads, but rather two tire tracks in grass between big expanses studded with gravestones – and I sensed there the nostalgia of childhood Memorial Days and some deep regretful sadness mixed with sharp curiosity about who those buried people had been, intoxicating elixirs for the romantic, book-fed, naïve late-bloomer I was. I knew, too, that the cemetery was one of the best spots for high school beer and make-out sessions because it closed at dark, offering the transgressions of singing blood in spite of the invisible dead. No one would ever take me there, but its nighttime reputation gave me a special daylight privacy and ownership of a different cemetery for my own purposes.
I was feeling some of this, trying to step with energy and purpose, distracted by words and dates on monuments.
Wild screeching off to my right. Repeated loud blasts, getting louder. In my peripheral vision, something bulleting toward me.
I looked up to see its glittering eyes focused on me, its separate outstretched talons aimed at my face.
I ducked, screamed, ran, threw my arms up to cover my head, ran and ran, looking over my shoulder, ran even when I reached the street and the bird was long gone, ran out of the cemetery, flat sandal-footed, almost all the way home the long way, past the new Catholic church, the Dominican convent’s side lawn, the front edge of the park, until I had to slow in order to breathe.
Only my dad and brother were home when I got there and spilled the story between gasps, showing them with my right hand how close the bird had been to my head. They listened with interest through the golf on the television, laughed a bit. I was not sure they believed me (given as I was to exaggeration and drama), so I caught my breath, drank a glass of water at the kitchen sink, and asked them to come back with me to the cemetery.
My dad drove the green sedan, his work car we rarely rode in, the long way into the cemetery. I pointed out the small group of pines, probably older than the graves that surrounded them, and my dad steered to a spot some distance away. I planned my approach, hoping the bird would re-enact our earlier meeting. Nothing stirred in the afternoon heat except some high-pitched insect sawing. With witnesses, I feigned courage. Curiosity and excitement, maybe, won over the fear, and I must have relished the chance to perform the dramatic encounter, knowing I could dive into the car if attacked despite my adolescent body’s usual hesitation. As I opened the car door, Dad handed me his thick wooden cane, the one he had recently taken to using. “Swing it over your head if it comes at you,” he instructed.
What if it won’t, I thought as I stepped onto the cemetery road I had sped over only a few minutes before, my sandal soles slapping the hard gray surface as I ran. What if claws and shriek don’t reappear, I wondered. What if they do?
So, I started down the road away from the car, carrying the cane. In only a few steps and from what seemed like nowhere came the piercing panic sound, the arrow pointed flight. I lifted the cane and swung early – inept playground batter – careful not to hit the bird. Before I ran, I looked back at the car where Dad and Rick watched, open-mouthed, heads craned and eyes up, watching the bird’s wide circle away from me. “Make another pass,” Dad called from the car. Out of the pines for the third time came the screecher, less perturbed or more careful this time, flapping a pro forma arc over me. I didn’t use the cane and the bird flew back into the trees. On the way home, Dad asked Rick where to find the bird book and we traded descriptions, each of us adding a piece to the color, size, and wing shape until we could agree on a profile. Back home, we paged through the soft-covered manual. Our memories matched the prairie falcon, male: “Flight is strong, rapid, and usually low. Call, a series of short loud notes.” He must, we deduced, have been protecting a nest in the pines from me in my shiny-headed bandana sequins glancing light all around.
All of this happened long before the Internet, long before I had even seen a computer other than fake boxes with slots and lighted buttons in bad sci-fi movies. A few clicks today and I listen to the call of the prairie falcon. I read about its nesting places in the American West – cliffs and rocks but never trees. I catch a sentence as I scroll with one finger through birders’ websites, a sentence that says the prairie falcon and Swainson’s hawk are often confused, the latter a hawk of the Great Plains that nests in trees. A few more clicks and a piercing screech blasts from the Mac’s speakers, a sound I haven’t heard since that day in the 1970s.
So, Swainson had a hawk and named it his? Like Halley’s comet, the name signifies arrogance of ownership, as if the discoverer gets to possess. Do we domesticate, classify and file because small things seem so mighty? Or is it that we can’t bear to be owned by them, claimed as I was? I see our error, faced with the evidence now, in trying to label the wild, to make it handy and pocket-sized. We seek in books and screens something true to carry into conversation so we don’t seem so stupid speaking about our lives if we’ve ever been drawn a bead on by the frightful beauty of beak and talon.
It’s much too late now to correct the identification with my dad. I wonder what he would make of my wired life and whether, as I hope, he would remain stubbornly on the side of experience, memory, the way a repeated story or often-visited reminiscence becomes feathered with the truth. When I look up and to my right, I am still being seen by the intensity of those eyes and the air is stirred by an onrush of wings.
My pattern is not that of a hunter who selects and stalks the specific target. My mother taught me, or maybe my particular pattern of DNA, to wait for what arrives, as she had been without knowing it when my father’s disability windfall came to them early in the 1960s, twenty years after the accident that crushed his spine. Suddenly she could pick out a bigger house for her young family of three children and install us there in rooms she decorated and remodeled over the six years we inhabited it. To her, houses should be a little showy on the outside, with a big lawn and all the bicycles and wagons put away from common sight. The house she chose taught me a more secret ethic:
Houses for children should be tall treed and ivy deep. The sills should be wide. Alleys should crunch with footsteps but be rarely driven. Children’s cats should live outside and in, bringing wild smells of pine along with muddy paws and bloodied ears inside for naps. In the leaves, one child should find a small bat, breathing face down and furry black, fallen from the pine-shaggy eaves, and remember not to touch it. She should look for a twig the width of her finger and gently turn the bat with it, watch its tiny eyes focus on her – not blind at all despite her mother’s favorite phrase when she can’t find her glasses. She will hold the twig to its feet, smile as the little bat latches on with curled claws, and then lift the little animal, hanging upside down, to carry through the latched gate. A child carrying a baby bat on a stick should be fearless, should not have read deep enough into the children’s dictionary to get to R: “rabies” or V: “vampire,” should have a mother who warns but does not confiscate.
A bat should make a ticking sound from somewhere behind its tiny face, so black that the child must peer closer as it stretches, and so discover the fine fabric of the bat’s flesh wings can be extended by pinching and pulling outward, careful fingertips and whispers of concentration.
A bat on a stick, wings fully exercised, should hang courageously as the child props the stick in the crook of a tree. The child should worry about the notice of cats, the height of their leaps and look for a private place in shade where the next morning, even the stick will have disappeared. Decades of summers later, the child will be grown, a broken finger the only brush with her own fragility, will be the kind of adult whose memory of trees and wings goes blurry, sitting inside with her crooked grip on a pen.
Like all paradises, this one also was lost to me. The two-story house with finished basement soon was too big for the deterioration of my father’s health. Climbing the steep stairs to bed every night – he went up just once a day– or descending into the basement workshop pained him more and more. We moved back to the first house, all 1950s efficiency: no interesting cubbyholes, no fireplace in the bedroom. No stone fence at the back of the yard separating us from the widow’s gazing ball amid a tangle of garden. No tall trees, no brick garden shed, no profusion of four-o-clocks under the spreading dark evergreen shrubs.
We moved back to the first house, the one I started out in, the house where the owl called to me, the house I was half running away from when I entered the cemetery where my dad is buried now in a new section that forty years ago was an open field.
Since then, other birds – fallen nestlings, an injured snow goose – caught my eye, but I have not taken out the inherited bird book with my historical checkmarks in the index to add another one. Though if I could, I would open a book where I might find again Forest Avenue, still leafy and deep. Or knock on a door that would reveal a whole wing in me where I could peep into the lives of every airborne thing, all the tree dwellers I have loved. What an aviary of rustle and flap, those imagined rooms where I must guard my head in the air thick with flying. I would have a chair there made of branches, half hidden in vines and grass, and a ceiling of clouds and blue.
But I guess we grow up, and private childhood Edens are not replaced by hard facts pulsing from a flat panel monitor. The past becomes not points on a timeline but a whole misplaced world parallel to this one, where I sometimes stumble over a plant I used to know or catch the odor of blossoming so familiar I inhale its elusive fragrance to unlock who I was when I discovered it. Or when it discovered me. Maybe paradise is made to be lost, custom fit for disappointment packed in every cardboard box shipped to the next address. But yesterday as I left through the back door of my rented house, up in a sliver of space between the wall and wooden porch roof higher than I can reach, a small, upside-down face turned in my direction, its ears twitching as I passed.
Lori Brack manages a new project in Kansas focusing on the professional development of artists in all genres. Her poems and essays have appeared in journals and anthologies including Rooted: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction, Another Chicago Magazine, The Fourth River, Superstition Review and its blog, and Mid-American Review.