Lessons I’ve Learned From a Woodpecker:
Save your brain
Get to work
I had a few concussions when I was younger. I feel like we are more concussion literate nowadays, taking their chaotic severity seriously with grave nods and dark rooms. I blame my forgetfulness on my youthful concussion nonchalance. My friends often tease me about my forgetful concussed brain. I lose track of what I was trying to say, or I leave my wallet at home, or I lose track of movie plot points. I am only 25, and so blaming the impact of impacts on my brain seems reasonable to me. I protest I am too young for any other explanation—why else would thoughts fall from my brain like overripe fruit on a thin branch.
Woodpeckers do not really get concussions though, even as they strike over and over into the hard bark of trees, essentially drilling for food. They do this with ten times the force that would render a human brain mildly concussed. Among other anatomical specialities, a woodpecker’s tongue wraps protectively around their walnut-sized brain like a seatbelt-type helmet. This hybrid concussion stopper is called a hyoid. I think this is amazing. I also love woodpeckers because I do not actually have an eye or care for “birding,” although I can appreciate that birding is a “neat” pastime and I know a few amateur, semi-avid friends who used COVID-19 as a reason to get into it. Birds are captivating. But woodpeckers are no zooming hummingbird, no indistinguishable lark. They are loud and repetitive, large and visible on their exposed trunk pecking ground. They are pretty to look at.
My Mum, conspiratorially, empathically, tells me over the phone that she thinks my 78-year-old Nana is “losing it.” I smile graciously at this. I suppose “losing it” is apt enough description for someone aging joyfully some days and very suddenly in others. Either way, “losing it” seems chaotic. But my Nana, who lived bigly through the various national and global crisis of her decades in a small maritime corner of the world, who was born poor, the only daughter after two brothers, and became a beloved critical care nurse for 40 years all because of a scholarship she won in high school, my Nana understands chaos. In her lifetime, my Nana was speared by an angry bull, hit by a train, got divorced, worked hard, raised hell, raised two children. I think my Nana was always digging for true love after her divorce, and when she found it finally, with someone so good, they spent eleven years happy and whole before he died suddenly. I do not blame her for wanting to remember some joyful things with concentration and letting the rest slip away. When we talk on the phone, she is not what I would call forgetful, but she sure is repetitive. Alongside merry gossip, she repeats the stories or memories or life facts she remembers that clearly make her smile into the phone when we chat every few weeks. I listen happily, mhmming at her East Coast pronunciations of things. Smiling into the phone is a through line between my mother, her mother, and now me.
Woodpeckers work hard. I watch them, and they are peaceful and free and they know somehow in the DNA of their small bones the importance of adequate brain protection. But it is fascinating to me that woodpeckers are just as likely to get injured or killed from flying headfirst into a window as other birds, despite the hyoid. Scientists and helmet-makers alike study this and still do not really know why. Not knowing why is par for the course. This year is forcing us to accept that chaos lives without reason, and it lives right next door to joy.
I wish I could choose what got remembered with these concussions of mine. I sometimes stop mid-task and blink and wonder what I was about to do. It slows me down, and my friends chuckle kindly and swoop in to set me back on track. I can’t memorize birthdays, despite believing they are a very important day in a person’s year. I misplace even the lists I use to keep me focused in the grocery store before I get there. But especially anything involving numbers, I am through. I cannot remember numbers. I wish instead I could forget, temporarily, about the heartbreaks of boyfriends past, about the how scary climate change is, or how greed makes people careless, and other sliding-scale sadnesses, so that I can fall asleep with more peace at night. I am abstractly anxious about when I will see my Nana again, and whether or not I will ever be a Nana as well.
But, funnily enough, I will never forget my Nana’s landline phone number, which has been the same ever since I was born. And I haven’t forgotten that woodpecker-helmet fact. Like many people, I can’t forget where I was when certain political events shook feelings of peace and stability we had grown used to. I can’t forget how particular it feels to cry at a protest. I never want to forget how good the sun feels in the summer, the smell of my Nana’s house, the times when my Mom, Nana, and I were together.
I remember my summers spent at my Nana’s house on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. My Nana would play all day with my younger brother, cousin, and I in her small yard. It had a wooden bench swing which she herself painted dark green to match her fence. She would tell us to listen to the peck-peck-peck of “Woody Woodpecker” in the woods behind her house. Later, when we went out with old yogurt containers to pick wild raspberries, we would try to spot him. Every woodpecker is Woody Woodpecker to my Nana, just as every cow is a Moo Cow and every horse is a Horsie. She is loveable.
I see many Woody Woodpeckers in the woods here when I go walking where I live now on Vancouver Island. Woodpeckers are, of course, quite vulnerable to the ecosystem around them, vulnerable to our encroachment, vulnerable to chaos without reason. We ask a lot of nature. We ask a lot of our brains, of our memories. We ask for love and time with loved ones. Woodpeckers ask for bugs and brain protection. I am asking my brain to remember the lessons from a woodpecker, which read to me like a mantra for the times—safety and doing the hard work, love and freedom. And whenever or whatever I forget, however temporarily, I can always chalk it up to a concussion and just call my Nana.
Jennie Long is currently an MA candidate in an environmental politics department on the west coast of Canada. She used to work as an outdoor adventure guide around the world. She has always been writing, and is now learning to call herself a writer. She loves swimming, her dear friends and thinking about love.
featured photo by Tina Nord from Pexels