* * *
“He is the mountain streams’ own darling, the humming-bird of blooming waters, loving rocky ripple-slopes and sheets of foam as a bee loves flowers, as a lark loves sunshine and meadows. Among all the mountain birds, none has cheered me so much in my lonely wanderings—none so unfailingly.”
—John Muir, The Water-Ouzel. From The Mountains of California, 1894.
* * *
It is decidedly summer now in Montana, that time of year again when the meadowlarks and vesper sparrows sing loudly from the hillsides, when the wildflowers are blooming—bright scarlet paintbrush and pale pink bitterroot and wispy white prairie smoke—when winter’s heavy snowpack begins melting, frozen water transformed, what was once solid rushing towards the ocean in new form.
One late afternoon, I head to Kootenai Creek in the Bitterroot Valley, just south of where I live in Missoula, for a hike. The trail runs along the creek through a narrow drainage, hemmed in by rock walls and pines. The closeness makes me feel like I’m burrowing back to my Midwestern roots, to the thick deciduous forests of dappled sunlight and a horizon that never seemed far away. I walk through the trees, hidden from the vast views of the mountain summits and valley plains. After a few miles I find a boulder on the bank and sit to watch the water. As I set down my pack, I see a dark blur fly to a rock on the far side of the creek. A bird, slightly smaller than a robin. Plump little body with skinny toothpick legs, squat neck, short tail cocked up like a wren, or a chicken. Gray. An American Dipper. John Muir called them water ouzels, a name I’ve always liked. “Find a fall, or cascade, or rushing rapid, anywhere upon a clear stream,” he wrote, “and there you will surely find its complementary Ouzel, flitting about in the spray, diving in foaming eddies, whirling like a leaf among beaten foam-bells; ever vigorous and enthusiastic, yet self-contained, and neither seeking nor shunning your company.” The dipper and I sit and stare at each other.
Dippers are gray, but it’s more complex than that. Their heads are a chocolate gray-brown, their backs dark slate, and their breasts a lighter, almost pearly-gray with a soft light-brown wash. In the creek’s afternoon shadows, they sometimes disappear against the water. They are subtle, the color of wet stone. Dippers are gray like the space between what you want and what you need, gray like the choices you sometimes have to make that leave you questioning, seeking resolution in rushing mountain streams and small dark-wet birds.
* * *
He’s a red-tailed hawk, I wrote in my journal. Not a peregrine, like the one before him. That one was a speeding bullet, a blurred dive that left me awed and stunned, ultimately unable to keep pace. He and I are more steady—we glide together at the same speed.
When he said “it’s not you, it’s me,” I pretended that my heartbreak didn’t feel like holding a hummingbird that had died in my hand. That it wasn’t the heaviest thing in the world.
I don’t know how to stop wanting to tell you everything, I didn’t say to him on the phone later, when he called. I don’t know how to let you be gone, like a grebe diving underwater. I don’t know how to stop holding my breath, watching for where you’ll resurface.
* * *
The dipper blinks at me. Dipper eyelids are startlingly white, the tiny pale feathers bright against the rest of their dark plumage. No one knows why—it could be for communication, signaling. Or perhaps something else, as yet unknown to ornithologists. As we sat on our respective sides of the stream, the dipper blinked steadily at me, little flashes of silver-white, like slow Morse code. I imagine each blink makes the sound of the warning lights flashing at a deserted railroad crossing, not that I could hear anything over the rush of the water.
After an appropriate number of blinks, the dipper pulls one leg up into its breast feathers, a tiny gray Montana flamingo. Feathers fluffed out to maximize their downy insulating properties, it looks much fatter than it did only moments ago, now almost round. I feel that if it fell into the water it would bob on the surface like a Ping-Pong ball or a rubber duck. I imagine a bathtub full of bobbing dippers, and then a stream of them, gray balls in the blue glacial runoff, being swept tumultuously downriver. Balanced on one leg, the dipper uses its bill to ruffle at its back feathers vigorously, straightening and cleaning and putting everything back to sorts. Flash, flash, each blink comes clearly across the stream. We watch each other, water splashing off rocks to hit our bodies. The water is swift and strong, meltwater from snowpack high in the mountains. I hear nothing over the water’s din, which makes it easy to let my thoughts slip away down the stream. What would it be like to live in and on this stream like a dipper, to never be out of earshot of rushing water?
Dippers are songbirds, amphibious creatures that live on the clear mountain streams of the West. To catch the aquatic insects they feed on, they will wade, dive, and “fly” underwater, sometimes walking along gravelly stream bottoms. Above water, they frequently “dip,” or bob up and down on their thin gray legs, like tiny gray ballet dancers doing compulsive pliés. Why they exhibit this behavior is open to interpretation. It could help them better focus on their underwater prey, or it could help hide them from their own predators by making them harder to spot. Or, along with their flashing white eyelids, dipping could be a way to communicate with other dippers, visual cues when auditory ones would be overpowered by the stream. Or, perhaps, they bob in time with an internal rhythm, moving to the music of melting glaciers flowing through their veins.
* * *
Maybe we had been like that too, like a dipper diving underwater, caught for a brief heady moment in the current, glimpsing what could be a juicy meal, a thick mayfly larvae, before running out of air and being forced to pop back up to the surface. Once you leave the current, there’s no telling if your morsel will be there after you catch your breath. They say you never step in the same river twice. But how many times can you dive?
* * *
“Phones work both ways, you know,” he said during an hour-long phone call as he was driving back from a day of rafting. He’d called me, just had he had every other time in the last two months. Since that night in his truck, when my heart felt like a dead hummingbird. “I know,” I said quietly. But you’re not coming back, I wanted to say. But you still left me.
* * *
Blink, blink, blink. I pretend the flash of white eyelids is a message sent my way, though I’m not sure how to interpret it. A pause, and the dipper calls, a short, clear zeet-zeet-zeet, barely audible over the water. After one last feather ruffle, it flies away upstream. I stare at the water for a minute’s worth of heartbeats more, then slowly stand to start the hike back to my car.
Lauren Smith (she/her) earned a M.S. in environmental studies from the University of Montana in 2016. She is a knowledge translator, a former field biologist, and someone who spends a great deal of time thinking about birds. Her writing has appeared in Alpinist, Bird’s Thumb, and Entropy, among others. She lives in Missoula, Montana, where she spends as much time as possible outside, mainly climbing on rocks and sharing unsolicited bird information. She doesn’t have a single favorite bird, but lately she’s been into waved albatrosses. And American dippers. And red-breasted nuthatches. Her writing can be found at TalesFromAWanderingAlbatross.com.
featured photo by Jenah Mead