There is something about your hands, the gentle attentiveness with which they allow the beetle to crawl over them, crossing the same space over and over again as you move your hands one in front of the other so that it always has somewhere to go. Your hands are speckled with dirt the color of coffee grounds, and they handle the insect with a soft professionalism. I wonder if all biologists are like this.
It’s a lovely creature, the beetle, with a diamond-shaped body in a soft, luminescent shade of aubergine. “Look at the iridescence around the carapace,” you say, and I notice the shimmer along the edges of the beetle’s exoskeleton. The shiny black of its extremities offsets the sleek purple shell of its back. When you put it down, it scuttles away into the dead leaves and damp earth at the edge of the trail.
We keep walking. A crow squawks overhead. There is a rustle of wings, but I can’t see the bird, only the leaves shaking where it’s been. It’s vaguely unsettling to hear the sound of the crow’s dark wings without being able to see the bird itself. The sky is equal parts cloudy and bright, but it’s dark enough under the canopy of evergreen trees that I push my sunglasses from my eyes and let them rest on the top of my head. Anywhere else, I would be overdressed for the forest—the low heel on my boots, my long black coat and burgundy scarf, a jangle of bracelets at my wrists—but here in Seattle, the city and the forest are so thoroughly intertwined that we pass other people dressed in much the same way: long, elegant coats in practical fabrics, hiking boots with a heel on them. You’re in a pea coat, but you’ve put a baseball cap on and that, I think, is what transforms you from your artist self, the musician and writer and sketcher of lovely figure drawings, into your biologist self.
I stop walking to look at something by the side of the trail.
“The flowers?” you ask.
“No, this spider,” I say. “It’s gorgeous.” I peer into its web, a work of fantastic geometry with this elegant creature in the middle styled in shades of brown and white. Fungi in a decadent yellow-orange hue grow in the crack of the stump the web is pinned to. It occurs to me that on the other side of the country right now it is Fashion Week, that elaborate September event where models and fashion writers vie for the attention of photographers on the streets, wearing the same earthy tones of the beetle and the fungi, layered patterns like the spider’s stripes against the net of its web.
We walk again. My eyes are flicking over the edges of the trail, looking for the other things this damp wooded ecosystem has to offer. There is a constant rattle of water against rocks from a stream running parallel to the trail, leading us down toward the edge of Puget Sound.
“So,” I say, “this is a stupid question, but—how does one do biology? I mean, when you go out on a research project, like when you were in California or Peru—what is it that you do?”
“Well,” you say. “This is what my friend—one of my professors—does, when she takes a new group of students out into the woods. The class is set up to have a field research component over a weekend early in the quarter. So she’ll take everyone into the woods and tell them where to sit. She spaces them out so that anywhere you are, you can’t see another person. And she’ll tell them to turn off their phones, no electronics, no books, no distractions, for two hours. They just have to sit and look.”
“That sounds nice,” I say. I look into the green layers of the woods, imagining two silent hours of perfect stillness here.
“Yeah,” you say. “At first, you’ll feel like you’re going crazy, your mind is wandering, looking for something to do, you know, for a distraction. But after you’ve made it through the first forty minutes or so, you start to notice things. There’s a reason”—you point to the star-shaped leaves of a plant—“a very specific reason why those leaves are shaped like that, why that is beneficial for that particular plant and not, say, a fern,” as you point to the fern next to the star-shaped plant. “My professor has them write down every question that comes up, everything that they start wondering.”
You pause, looking into the depths of the underbrush. “And another great thing that happens is that when you first walk into the forest you’re a disruption, and all the animals make themselves disappear. But after you’ve been sitting in one place for an hour or so, you’re part of the environment. And the animals start to come back.”
“Yeah?” I say. I want that. I want to sit in the forest and ask questions. I want to let the animals come to me.
“Yeah,” you say. “Except for lizards.”
You tell me that this is the way it starts, the work of biology, with going into nature and observing. As a professional, though, you go in with a question, a theory: what is this creature doing, and why? Take the interactions of certain birds, for example. Some birds lay their eggs in the nest of a different species, tricking the other bird mothers into raising the young as their own. The bird parents don’t seem to notice, though they may be raising chicks that are twice the size of their own progeny, perhaps even bigger than the parents themselves.
You tell me that there is one species of bird that sings to its eggs before they hatch. A group of biologists wondered why, so they observed these birds raising their young. What they found was that when a chick hatched, the young bird would have to sing back the song that its mother sang while it was in the egg. If it didn’t get the song right—if it came from an egg that had been laid in the nest by another species—then the mother bird would reject the chick.
“Wild,” I say.
“So,” you say, “that’s how you do biology.” The trail we’re on starts to descend, as we draw closer to where the forest meets the waters of Puget Sound. “So how does one do writing?” you ask.
“Oh,” I say, “well. You know. You write stories, too.” I’m being deliberately evasive. I don’t like talking about myself.
I could tell you more, of course—about the journalistic process of research following an open-ended question or an idea. It’s not all that unlike what you do. I could tell you about the creative writer in me, the intensity of my memory, the ability to recreate scenes and reconstruct conversations. I wonder if I can capture the exact cadence of your voice, the soft authority with which you speak. The calming nature of your presence, the gentle way you interact with the world. I could tell you that these exact moments, this exact conversation, is probably going to be recorded in an essay at some point where I’ll reveal all I’m thinking and not telling you right now.
I could tell you that the attentiveness with which I observe you is born not only out of affection, but also out of my nature as a writer. I am an observer, as are you. I watch. I listen. But the nature of my work is one of observing humans. The natural world is a backdrop for the things that are paramount in my eyes—people. Us. You.
I could tell you these things, but I don’t.
* * *
I have a journalist’s memory, and I remember things that would terrify him, the biologist, with their specificity. I remember, for example, the brief exchange we had at that weird party in our freshman year of college when I almost left with him, even though I didn’t really know him, because I could tell he was feeling out of place too and he asked if I wanted a ride. Or the first time we actually sat down and had a conversation, which was the same night we fucked for the first time. There was no hope for me then: I was nineteen, it was the best sex I’d ever had, and I woke up the next day in love. He didn’t.
In the years between then and now, there was a weird intensity with which I thought of him sometimes. I wondered where he was and who he was with and what he was doing. I found other lovers, moved across the country to Philadelphia with someone I thought I might spend the rest of my life with, went out and got a master’s degree. I didn’t speak with the biologist for two or three years. And then I found him at a bar in Olympia, where we’d gone to college, on a bright spring day when I was visiting the West Coast, a year before I moved back from Philly to live in Seattle. When I ran into him there, it wasn’t because I had picked that bar at random. I’d remembered how much time he used to spend there and I thought it was my best chance of running into him again.
There is a bird, the zebra finch, which chooses its mate based not just on the preference for physical characteristics that indicate healthy genes, but on the behavior of another specific bird—its compatibility as a mate. This is according to research out of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, anyway. The zebra finches are very particular about this process of choosing a partner. One bird’s ideal mate may be far different from another’s. They tend to be monogamous, once the decision has been reached, and raise their young as a pair.
When I finally moved back to the Pacific Northwest, the intense desire I’d had for him, my friend who had grown up to become a biologist, since I was nineteen hadn’t dissipated at all. I found myself in his bed again. It was the first time we really did it right, the first time in seven years of sporadic coupling that we weren’t too young or too drunk or too nervous to finish or at least come close. When I finally felt him come inside me, I whispered, “Oooh, biology.” It’s evolution that makes the warm decadence of another person’s pleasure feel so good. It’s in the best interest of the species.
Later—maybe it was the next day, or the next week—I watched him from his porch as he moved things around in his garden. I’d come down to Olympia to see him a few times since moving back to the West Coast. It was only an hour south of Seattle. His roommate’s dog, a blue-eyed merle mutt, was playing fetch with apples, looking like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
The sun that day made me squint until a thick gray cloud moved over to cover half the sky. As it darkened, a crow flew over and landed at the peak of the house next door. I watched it from the porch and wished it would fly away faster. Crows are known to be bad omens, a presence that portends death and ill fortune. The crow cried out and flapped its wings, a silhouette against the gray cloud moving in.
Then I looked at him, the biologist, and thought that to him no bird is a bad omen. To him, the crow is just another interesting specimen with its own story, its own reasons for certain behaviors that portend nothing, but tell us about the way crows are and how they interact with the world differently from us. I tried to see it that way, to look at the bird with the interest of a biologist and none of my writer’s superstition. But it cawed again, ominously.
* * *
The sharp creak of a tree above us snaps me out of this recollection. We’re still walking through the forest. I can see open space through the trees now: we are nearing the beach where the woods meet Puget Sound. As the trail passes by a marsh, we spot an art installation in the forest. Someone has built a whimsical animal painted in garish pink and yellow and hung vivid fake fruit from the trees. A human musing on our interactions with the natural world. Imagine what it would be like if nature looked like this. I wonder about the effect of this installment on the natural world itself—if there’s any danger to an animal that tries to eat the fake fruit, if any creatures attempt to interact with the whimsical painted animal.
We walk to the edge of the woods and cross the train tracks to the beach, where it is cool and windy and expansive. A ferry crosses the water in the distance; across the way, I can see land, although I don’t know which island it is.
“Want to watch some crows bathe?” you ask.
“I do,” I say. We walk over to a place where a pool of water has collected in the sand. In it, a group of black birds stretch and flick their bodies clean.
“Don’t piss them off. They’ll remember what you look like,” you say. I’ve heard that before—that they are intelligent birds with impressive facial recognition. We watch them bathe for a while; nearby, an older woman and a young girl are throwing bits of bread to a gathering crowd of crows and one large white seagull. The girl tries to get one to eat out of her hand, and squeals when it flaps close to her.
You shake your head at that. “They won’t be so nice for long,” you say. Already the crows are gathering closer to the people with the bread, becoming bolder.
I nod. “Crows are so creepy.” I think of the associations between crows and death, misfortune, misery.
“They can also be very sweet. My friend had one as a pet, once.”
It was a crow your friend had rescued and raised from a young age. You tell me about how the bird would change the nature of her vocalizations when her owner came in the room, how she would chirp and fly to her owner’s shoulder with the same loyalty and recognition of any beloved pet.
“Does she still have it?”
“No. It finally flew off one day—to chase a boy, or at least that’s how my friend likes to justify it.”
A train comes lazily down the tracks then, winding its way along the edge of the trees next to the water. Its mechanical clatter is loud enough that we stop talking to watch it pass. In the silence that follows, we listen to the flap of restless wings around us and the soft scuffle of bird feet on sand.
After some time, you say, “It’s probably about time we start heading back.”
You’ve got to catch a bus back down to Olympia soon.
“Yeah,” I say, but I don’t move just yet. I’m watching a crow that has landed on a large rock nearby. It seems to be looking at me with something like intellectualism in its eyes—I know anthropomorphizing is silly, but it feels like I can see something I recognize in its expression. Then I notice a thin strip of yellow around its leg. “Is that a band on its leg?”
“Yeah,” you say, with sudden interest. “Good eye. That totally is. I’m surprised they didn’t use color banding on it.”
“What’s color banding?”
As we start to walk back toward the woods, you explain to me the way birds are banded. For this bird you would need binoculars to see the number on its leg, but many researchers use strips of different colors instead of numbers to make the marked birds easier to spot and identify. There is a large research program out of the University of Washington, you tell me, which does a lot of interesting work with crows. I decide to look for bands on the legs of birds in Seattle from now on.
We walk back through the dim shade of the forest until we emerge on the other side of Carkeek Park, in the city once more. It’s early in the afternoon, but the cloud cover has thickened and night seems to be falling early, threatening rain. We catch a bus back to my apartment so you can get your things before you leave. You fall asleep with your head on my shoulder.
* * *
A few weeks later, the weather has officially turned. I’m walking briskly back home from a bar in my neighborhood at dusk, wrapping my leather coat tight around me, still chilled in spite of the scarf I’m wearing. Fall has already laid its hands on the city. The clouds vie for attention with the yellow of sunset and the light over the neighborhood is fading.
It’s been a while since I’ve heard from you.
When researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology separated pairs of the monogamous zebra finches they were studying and forced them to interact in different pairings, the birds would still couple and procreate with their less-ideal mates. But the young did not fare as well: the eggs would be misplaced or stay unfertilized, the sex drives of the females would be lower, more chicks would die after hatching and the males would wander to other mates more often. These problems, the researchers thought, weren’t because the offspring were genetically inferior—the chicks did not suffer from more genetic defects—but because the parents’ compatibility issues interfered with their ability to raise young. It is in the nature of these birds to choose their mates, a biological imperative for the success of the species.
If we must choose our mates like finches, then I have finally made my choice. But summer’s warmth faded and suddenly you became colder, more distant. Perhaps it is easier to be a finch. Things like distance or the past do not complicate their biological imperatives the way they do for humans.
A crow flies over me from behind, startling me with its harsh, mournful squawk. It flaps its black wings over my head and disappears behind a house. I think about the animal, about the way it sees the world, why it behaves the way it does. I think about the intelligence in its small eyes. But I cannot shake the thought that its dark wings hold negative portents.
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. Her work has been published by Electric Literature, Racked, Vine Leaves Press, and others. Visit elysehauser.com for more.
featured photo by Janelle Francoeur of Janelle Lee Photography