featured photo by Amy Bowers
In Medieval times a bower meant a woman’s private chamber. Later its meaning broadened to suggest a cozy space, either indoors or under the leafy shade of a tree. Ornithologists use the word bower to describe the birds of the Ptolonorhynchidae family from Oceana.
Bowerbirds construct elaborate public spaces to attract mates. While some male birds dance or sing, bowerbirds collect, curate, and build. In small clearings, their structures, magnificent archways, rise. Built of twigs and grass stalks, they measure from a foot tall to up to five feet high. Before much was known about the birds, walkers would stumble upon bowers in the woods and think they were the curious handy work of another human. I wonder if someone ever tried to crawl in one?
The garden or avenue in front of the bowerbird’s structure is paved and decorated with stones, feathers, colorful bits of plastic, beetle shells, seed pods, moss, straws, flowers, leaves, anything really that the bowerbird can find in the wrack of life. He collects and arranges and rearranges while fighting off other bowerbirds who try to steal his scavenged baubles. Some species are particularly fond of the blue of their own eyes, so the trail leading to the ceremonial arch is a path strewn in Yves Klein blue. The birds pluck their own blue feathers for this, but now the ubiquity of manmade disposable plastic has added bottle tops, ballpoint pen caps, and fast food toys to the list of possible building materials.
The precision and placement of the building material looks unlike anything one might imagine a bird could create. And there is a reason for this specificity in placement; bowerbirds create forced perspective architecture. That means that the building materials’ sizes are graduated in such a way that the viewers’ eyes are drawn to particular spots and “forced ” to see the scene in a particular way. The focus is predetermined. Rhetorical. An iris shot in a Buster Keaton film. His construction whispers Look upon the stage I have built to attract you. Come closer.
It is a little trick if you ask me. Focus is the Latin word for fireplace, and this focal point, this forced promise of a hearth is only for procreation, a moment’s pleasure. After copulation, the female must leave the collaged wonderland and build her own nest—her private bower to raise her chicks. A nest, not as striking, just a tangle of twigs on a branch—it is functional and doesn’t try to attract anything. Bird enthusiasts don’t hunt her down to photograph her work for glossy coffee table books. But hers is strong and lasts long enough to protect the chicks until they fledge.
I am seduced by the male bowerbird’s work; it feels like my own. I scan, pick, and collect the motes of my days. From plastic miniature animals, parking lot rocks, found grocery lists, and sprigs of rosemary in my pocket, to early morning nightmares and wavering beats of joy. My life feels akin to his. Like I am building an altar, an offering, a banquet, that will draw all the people and animals. I will care for, feed, and on occasion, dazzle them at this junket. They will all be okay, even better than okay, stellar. But, as I turn around, wiping my hands on my apron, to look at my preparations, to wonder at my construction, what I see are loose pages and the bumped corners of old cardboard. Hairbands on the floor and a sink of dirty dishes. Fallen trees left to rot in place, a leaky roof and dripping faucet. And paper rainbows on the window, and quilts on the couch, and plants and bird feeders and artwork taped to the cabinet and jars on the window sill, and stacks of books, a chess set in constant play, a puzzle with pieces to snap in. The bokeh sharpens into an unflinchingly clear light revealing what I have been building all along—the females’ nest. I settle and sigh in relief.
Amy Bowers is a Florida native currently living in Connecticut with her family. Her writing explores domestic culture, the insect and natural worlds, and manufactured places and spaces. She is currently working on an essay collection about growing up in central Florida among amusement parks, alligators, and hurricanes. She holds an MFA in CNF from Bennington and has work published or forthcoming in [PANK], Washington Square Review, West Trade Review, Farm-ish, Assay, and LA Review of Books. Her essay Manual is forthcoming (Fall 2021) in A Harp in the Stars: An Anthology of Lyric Essays, edited by Randon Billings Noble and published by the University of Nebraska Press.