“Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect.”
I couldn’t remember why I was writing a book on loss and the natural world, or why, at the beginning of the year, I’d had such faith in rebuilding my own life after ruin. But on my honeymoon, I decided that the only remedy was to go birdwatching.
Never mind that I’d never formally gone birdwatching, never started a life-list, never selected the best binoculars and harness, or timed my searches for dawn, or dusk, or migration. I’d spent years casually spotting birds on hikes, but they had—until that July morning on the other side of the world—only been noticeable to me via serendipity, accident, and luck.
Never mind that my husband and I were older, newly married after painful divorces, in a city we’d never been to, on a continent we’d never been to, unmoored from our child as he spent summer break with his father, and that back in one of the places that we called home, my mother was dying of cancer.
Never mind that my poet and union organizer husband, a hiker in any place we chose to visit, exhausted from a year of attacks on the United States union movement, would rather have been sleeping in and, once awake, walking to the cafe near us, the one Borges used to visit, to read books for much of the day.
Despite all of that, and every reason to stay in bed on our last morning before flying home, we woke up at 5:00AM in Buenos Aires in the apartment we’d rented for the week, did the complicated dance of getting hot water into the tub, dressed in layers that more accurately fitted our Chicago understanding of the mild temperatures, trundled out into the South American winter morning, stood on the street in front of our door, balancing on the cobbled and tiled, uneven, and decidedly romantic San Telmo sidewalk, and waited for Diego to drive up in his loud Toyota and take us to Costanera Sur, a place reborn from ruin through the grace of unexpected seeds.
The Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve is a huge park on the edge of Buenos Aires that, until we began the half-feral researches for our trip, I’d never heard of before.
We’d married in a February blizzard, only three months after my mom had been diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer, and the honeymoon we’d been daydreaming about since we’d gotten engaged sounded like an insane extravagance in the face of losing her. It seemed crazy to spend the money, to go so far away, to take a break from work right before the biggest court case to target the union movement in the States, to put writing the book on hold, to experience wonder in our suddenly narrowed and grief-fogged time. Every bit of googling I did about Argentina felt like a betrayal—except for the time I spent reading about the park.
The statistics alone are impressive. Costanera Sur is composed of more than 800 acres of land; it is home to more than 300 species of birds. It is a haven on the edge of the city used daily by joggers, cyclists, tour groups, schoolchildren, and, of course, bird watchers. Multiple organizations list ways to see the birds of the park, even offering moonlight walks on the edges of the marshland. Costanera Sur was the first ecological reserve in Buenos Aires, dedicated on Earth Day in 1986.
It is located along the Buenos Aires port on the Rio de la Plata, the enormous body of water that runs out to the Atlantic. What exactly the Rio de la Plata is, that’s open to debate. Some consider it a river—hence the Rio title bestowed upon it—but it is also listed as an estuary or a gulf, and, my favorite, a marginal sea. It is the result of the confluence of the Paraná River and the Uruguay River. The Paraná, which snakes through the pampas to join the de la Plata, is the second longest river in South America, just behind the Amazon. The word Paraná may be a bastardization of its name in the Tupi language, a phrase meaning “like the sea.”
By the time the Paraná and Uruguay rivers meet and merge into the de la Plata, the mouth is very wide. Though seen from above its mouth is silted and muddy, the Spanish colonizers named it river of silver, not for its color, but for the promise of riches at its headwaters.
By the time it separates Buenos Aires from Uruguay, the de le Plata is over 40 kilometers wide, a truly broad estuary. When you stand on its banks, you cannot see the other shore, only the waves, and you can smell the salinity that reveals its connection to the sea. In its waters are haloclines, regions where the differently weighted salt and fresh water fail to mix, and it is silver in color, after all.
These days, to an outsider, the city seems to turn its back on the river. There are no grand beaches, and when its people want salt water, they go farther away, up the Argentine coast, over to Uruguay, or back into the marshes of the Delta del Tigre. The shoreline is flat alongside the de la Plata, the buildings of Buenos Aires far behind. And, when you look at the river from the city proper, you might miss the complex history of the people of Buenos Aires—who call themselves porteños—and their relationship to the water and land, the scars of the place, and the regeneration that no one expected.
Trying to book a birdwatching excursion in Buenos Aires can be challenging if you don’t speak Spanish. I don’t speak Spanish.
As a first-time visitor to South America, I was also a bit unprepared for the ways in which traveling there would challenge my expectations about how long it takes to organize something. From our morning routine warming up the small water heater to keep from bathing in the cold, to our day-long hunt for a replacement phone charger, to the hour we spent in line for symphony tickets that turned out not to exist, our Buenos Aires honeymoon was educational, and the default we finally arrived at involved spending most of our time walking the romantic streets, eating better than we had a right to, and allowing the unexpected to show up and delight us. Twilights last forever in Buenos Aires in July, periwinkle- and lavender-colored and as singular as Borges ever named them.
But I was determined to find a guide for Costanera Sur; it was the thing I’d held onto every time I shyly described our trip to a friend. My embarrassment over the extravagance of it, the stolen time, the guilt I had about leaving my mother alone with her treatment, all of it bubbled up every time I spoke about the trip to anyone. I’d sputter through the pleasures we were excited about, the food, the World Cup games we might be able to watch in the bars of Buenos Aires, surrounded by porteños, the art museums, the architecture, dance, bookstores—all of those I’d fly by in a rush, waiting to tell them about birdwatching, something I felt I could justify.
All my friends knew I was writing a book on extinctions, the tiny things that teach us how to survive them, my own illness, life under climate crisis. They could understand the research I’d be doing by wandering an ecological refuge, working on an essay, seeing birds I’d never seen before. It sounded like the rest of my job. It was an excellent justification, as if I was choosing to bird watch as a journalist.
They didn’t know that I’d lost my way in writing that book, and my going to Costanera Sur really wasn’t for any of those reasons.
I wanted to see Costanera Sur because I wanted to feel hope again, and know what I was supposed to be saying in the book I was struggling to write as my mom died.
Along the broad coast of the Rio de la Plata, porteños did, in their early days, form a relationship with the riverfront.
The 1800s were a period of huge population increase in Buenos Aires, when Italian, Spanish, and even Irish immigrants swelled the city. Waves of yellow fever had complicated the way porteños thought about the lowland, marshy areas of their city, but they went to higher ground, modernized the city, and thrived. In 1878, the first refrigerated ship arrived in Argentina, and that technological advance allowed it to become the supplier of much of the world’s beef. By 1910, per capita income in Argentina was, according to the New York Times, “50 percent higher than in Italy, 180 percent higher than Japan, and almost five times higher than in neighboring Brazil.” As that article goes on to point out, much like my home city, Chicago, Buenos Aires was a sophisticated mecca on stolen ground, surrounded by prairie, full of immigrant stories, whose riches were dependent on the slaughter of animals.
The period of growth, international power, and economic security led to some of the most memorable and romantic architectural decisions for the city: the construction of promenades, squares, municipal buildings, hotels, and some frankly insane apartment houses. All of them sprung up in the city center, giving birth to the beautiful, Belle Epoch-inspired “Paris of South America” so many tourists still flock to see. Like many places in the world, this mania for gracious living extended to the riverfront, and in 1918 Costanera Sur was opened as a promenade adjacent to the de la Plata and the wealthy Puerto Madero neighborhood.
It was a grand boulevard, the classical walks along it were lined with coffee shops, public fountains and statues, and porteños strolled there regularly, or bathed at the sex-segregated beaches along the pier stretching into the Rio. In 1926, the promenade was the landing place for the Plus Ultra flight, an historic seaplane adventure that was the first flight from Spain to South America. The roads around the shoreline of Costanera Sur were full of spectators capturing the milestone.
But despite the immigration, trade, and grand design, Argentina’s prosperity unraveled in rounds of economic collapse in the later 20th century, fueled by low rates of literacy, dangerously byzantine banking structures, and the tendency to dictatorship. Costanera Sur fell into disrepair, the industrial port gave the area most of its less fancy character, water quality deteriorated, and it was no longer seen as a resort. Various projects were suggested to return the place to its former glory but none stuck, and in the 1970s the fate of the place changed again.
In the middle of the vicious and devastating Argentine junta, the Dirty War that—backed by the United States government as a part of Operation Condor—gouged a bloody wound in the history of the country from 1976 to 1983, the city was tapped to host the 1978 World Cup.
During the frenzy of sports enthusiasm, the government decided that more highways would be needed between the airport and the stadium. A massive public works project was commenced, resulting in the destruction of multiple neighborhoods, and creating a huge amount of debris to remove. The decision was made to use the remnants to make more land in the Costanera Sur area. Eventually, it was proposed, the additional real estate would be suitable for construction of hotels, entertainment complexes, and housing. And so, concrete, building debris, and all manner of garbage was dumped along the shore of the river, pushed into Dutch “polder”-style embankments, and river silt was allowed to fill in the gaps. Costanera Sur was used as a continuous dumping ground until 1984, a year after the end of the Dirty War.
The planned development never happened. But something unpredicted did: from the destruction, the ecosystem grew a park.
Nature has its own way to heal a wound. Time and serendipity conspired to fill in the raw, neglected spaces of the Costanera Sur. Along the Rio de la Plata, among the sidewalk tiles and drywall and bricks, the silt provided a home for seeds. Of course, in any period of new growth, weeds arrive, and they did. But what gardeners call volunteer seeds, those unexpected things in the garden that you want to keep, showed up too. Palm trees and grasses began to arrive, birds deposited berries, forests grew and spread, and slowly, the marsh full of debris and garbage became a garden.
It took a long time to hear back from the three birdwatching tour companies that operated within Costanera Sur. One tour was run every Friday by the City of Buenos Aires; they wrote to me only in Spanish, and I never could properly translate their email. One group was busy leading a weeklong tour in the pampas. But one email landed on the third day before we were to head home. Diego was free, his English was far superior to my Spanish, and he was willing to take just the two of us for a full tour on our last day in Argentina.
When he pulled up to meet us that morning in San Telmo, he was dressed for cold. It was Argentine midwinter, where temperatures are in the low 60s to mid 50s in the daytime, 40s at night, something like winter in the part of the Southern United States where my husband was born. Diego appeared to be in his 50s, tall and slender, with a prominent nose and the mixed Spanish, Italian, and native features that characterize most porteños. He was soft-spoken, almost shy, and took us through the dark streets in his Toyota. He was a lifelong porteño, and so we asked him about the park. He told us about the destruction that had led to it, the familiar story of housing remnants dumped along the riverbank.
“They took all the…” he paused, searching for the right English word, maybe trying to remember how to translate debris, and finally said, “crap, is that what you say? From the city and put it all there. You walk on it now, the crap along with the dirt.”
We didn’t correct him. Crap seemed a better fit than debris.
“And it is used a lot? By porteños?” I asked.
“Yes, people go for their walks, they run there. Kids go. It won’t be open until the sun comes up, but we can see the road to it and wait for the gates to be unlocked.”
Diego drove down the steep road at the edge of San Telmo, and turned onto a street we’d walked on our first day in Argentina, driving past the terrible site of the Club Atlético.
Club Atlético is one of the two most famous torture sites of the Dirty War that still exist in Buenos Aires. My husband and I wanted to see the place we’d both read about in our years of curiosity about los desaparecidos. The site was close to our apartment, and we made sure to find our way there before dinner. In the middle of the evening commute, we managed to find the spot, hard to recognize without the help of a guidebook.
The Club Atlético was just that before the Dirty War: an athletic club for the wealthy. But as the junta began to empty the city of radicals, organizers, communists, unionists, writers, artists, and other people resisting the totalitarian regime, the building was pressed into service first as a detention center, then as a torture center, and finally as an abattoir, the basement rooms the site of unspeakable crimes. Sometimes the cells above were home to pregnant women, whose children were stolen after birth and gifted to childless military families. After their children were gone, the mothers were murdered in the basement.
In the late 1970s the building itself was demolished during the creation of the 25 de Mayo highway overpass, part of the public works campaign that created the Costanera Sur. The rooms below the level of the street, including the torture chambers and graves of the dead, were paved over, buried under concrete, and hidden from view. Public outcry has meant that the city is now allowing excavation of the site, the search for the bones of the dead, the seeds of their stories, evidence of the existence of those the government disappeared. If you go there now, you must stand in the shadow of the overpass, in the dark, staring through a chain-link fence at the archeological site the place has become, surrounded by pictures and the names of the dead, just as we stood there, sheltered from the cold rain of our first night in Buenos Aires.
Later, after we’d walked the city for two more days, after we’d seen a socialist bookshop window lined with graphic novels for children featuring the heroes of Argentina—Borges, Violetta, Cortázar, Alfonsina Storni, Juan Gelman, Evita—we walked under banyan trees near the Japanese Garden and I had my first bird sighting: the monk parakeet who pooped on my face.
This was probably, as the sayings go, good luck, but it made us stop in a Venezuelan expat bar so I could wash up in a bathroom decorated in light-up plastic oranges and lemons.
My mind wandered to all of that as Diego drove us past the site of the Club Atlético under the 25 de Mayo overpass, out of San Telmo and toward the port. I thought of the torture site, the parakeets, the good luck and hope and disaster all bound up in the stories we sought out on our honeymoon—the birds and the seeds and the crap.
As he drove, silent now, the dawn began to color the sky the same way twilights did, filling the air with deep blue, then lightening it toward purple and lavender and shading in subtle pink well before the sun crested the horizon line. In that light, Diego pulled the Toyota up to an empty stretch of street, parking behind a shuttered food truck. From my seat on the passenger side, I could see a flat mirror of water reflecting the soft sky, a line of trees at the edge of the water, marsh weed at its borders. We got out. Diego handed us binoculars, pulled on his winter coat, and walked through the chilly air to the side of the broad sidewalk and a parapet composed of low classical columns. We followed his brisk pace, and from there I could see the remnants of that faded boulevard, lined now with food trucks like the one behind which we’d parked. The water revealed itself to be not the Rio, but a long lagoon between the boulevard and the Costanera Sur, laced with water plants and plastic garbage and studded with birds. A black iron fence stood to the right of the spot we occupied, and it snaked toward a large locked gate and a sign that said Costanera Sur Reserva Ecologico.
Diego put his binoculars up to his eyes, as he did, he said quietly, “Do you hear the parakeets?” pointing over his shoulder behind us to a large plane tree, as he looked the opposite way, out into the marsh. “Silver teal,” he said, indicating a group of birds on the water, ducks with black heads, silver shimmering feathers, some with turquoise beaks. Silver teals are a common South American puddle duck, which, I later learned, lay creamy pink eggs.
I had been working on my book for some time before I got to that lagoon overlook. My book—the book about extinctions, the deep dark mysteries of the natural world under climate change, about how loss, like illness, never comes at an ecosystem or a person straight on, about how disaster produces unexpected results, and not all of them negative—was alive in every thought I had just then. Writing it has made me think a great deal about seeds, and eggs, and other metaphors for the strange nature of rebirth, the way in which we can’t see the end ahead of us, not even the end of the worst stories, the ones that we think we can be sure will go very badly, all the way through to the finish.
That morning at the Costanera Sur, I was flagging in the face of the project. I’d started writing it off and on seven years before, then written a novel, then come back the previous spring to the project, only to have it take off.
It suddenly felt like the right thing to say at the right time, and I’d worked on it with Naomi Klein, written a book proposal, gotten residencies and advance blurbs and an agent, had part of the material made into a short film—more success than I’d ever had as a writer. I had felt that I was onto something, something important that I could contribute to the larger conversation about loss of our natural world, a way to look at things that would make people want to work for change again, after feeling like the movement for conservation was flagging as well.
But the winter had brought—along with the good news of my successes, my marriage, my feeling that at last I was in the right place at the right time—the complicated gut punch of my mother’s cancer.
By the day I stood next to Diego and my husband looking at a bird that lays creamy pink eggs, I was wondering whether I could presume to write anything that could help anyone fall back in love with the natural world and take up the fight with renewed hope. I was tired, and fearful, and feeling the weight of ghosts, my own family’s ghosts, the larger global ghost population of lost animals, and los desaparecidos.
How do you ask people to read about your love of the world if you aren’t sure you know how to be in love with it, how to keep the flame of hope alive for another generation to take up to save what can be saved?
It seemed like I was supposed to give my readers hope, but I have a complicated relationship with hope.
As someone who writes and thinks about ecosystemic collapse, hope is both what I want to offer people, what I want to be offered myself, and also a potential toxin; when given in the wrong doses it can be a sedative, removing people from active participation in the work of healing capitalism’s wounds to the global ecosystem, or an intoxicant, allowing people to feel jubilant about a healing only partially completed. As the daughter of a Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection hydrogeologist, I was programed by my mother to think that ecological problems could be identified and solved. There is no one more hopeful than a water quality advocate. But in the winter of her cancer, my mother saw her work overturned again and again by legislation enacted by the new presidential administration, undoing the successes of her entire career.
As someone who grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, hope is almost a regional delicacy, first made poetic by our local patron saint, Emily Dickinson, and forever served up to tourists as they make their pilgrimage to our optimistic corner of the world. I made out with my first boyfriend in the graveyard where Emily was buried. My mother was getting chemo only miles from her home. Hope might be a thing with feathers perched in my soul, but I wasn’t sure that metaphor could be pure for me, or even relevant.
I’d come to Costanera Sur wondering about the point of hope, needing to see how it played out in a place that had been built on the bones of a city.
Diego took us along the route of the Plus Ultra flight, past the statues and fountains, through the black iron gate and into the park. The sun was just beginning to rise over the lagoon, the palm trees shimmered in the blue light, two old men passed us in a cozy pair, taking their morning walk, heads down in conversation, coats buttoned at their throats. Joggers passed us, bikes.
Diego moved quickly, and the list of birds began to grow: bay-winged cowbirds, orioles, mockingbirds, great egrets, black-and-rufous warbling finches, blue-and-yellow tanagers, thrushes, a checkered woodpecker.
He pointed out wasps’ nests studded with paper spikes, perched in tree branches like dun-colored landmines, tunnels plowed by cavies through the bases of the pampas grass.
“I understand that people plant pampas in the north,” he said, wondering at the fad for the ornamental grasses, which looked at home here in a way I had never seen them do in a suburban lawn in the States.
“Yes,” I said, “people think invasives are pretty.” Diego laughed.
My husband and I got excited about a large group of birds we could spot easily.
Diego smiled at us, “Pigeons,” he said. “Picazuro pigeons. Not so rare.” Then he paused, “That, though,” he tipped his binoculars up, “crested caracara.”
I looked and at the top of a bare tree and saw it, my first South American falcon. The northern crested caracara, once called Audubon’s caracara, is black and white, with a pile of head feathers resembling a pompadour that has slipped down over its eyes. According to the Cornell Ornithology bird labs’ description, it looks like a hawk, but behaves like a vulture. I was stunned by its muscular elegance, and its remarkable hairstyle.
We watched it for a while, then walked on, past the palo borrachos or drunken trees, which put out seeds in silk floss so fine and abundant, Diego told us, it was once used to fill pillows for colonizers.
The list continued to fill up: masked gnatcatchers, white-crested tyrannulets, hooded siskins—playful little yellow birds wearing black hoods, chittering at us from the trees—chimango caracaras, great grebes, golden-billed saltators, rufous-collared sparrows, Brazilian teals, and narrow-billed woodcreepers.
Diego pointed out a group of iridescent blue shiny cowbirds, parasites that puncture the eggs of other birds, take over their nests, and lay their own eggs, and leave them behind for other birds to raise, the new-hatched cowbirds growing rapidly until they leave the nest after less than two weeks. We walked past them down the wide dirt path that wound almost 10 kilometers through the reserve. I looked down at my feet as we went and saw remnants of the same tiles that lined the sidewalk in front of our honeymoon rental. And I wondered if, as my husband and I had discussed the night before over dinner, the foundations of Costanera Sur had partly come from the destruction of Club Atlético.
At last we rounded a turn and came to a small, shallow beach, rocky and dull—our first view of the Rio de la Plata.
A cold wind came off the river, and I wrapped my scarf tighter around my neck. Diego put on a hat, and my husband walked to the edge to look out, he alone among us wearing shorts like a good Southerner, enjoying the cool air. The water was calm, peaked with little rills of wave, silent, not revealing its history.
During the Argentine junta, the de la Plata became the site of the mass murder of political dissidents. Vuelos de la Muerte, or Death Flights, took place in Argentina during the Dirty War. Though the long war resulted in more than 14,000 disappearances, most of those ending in extrajudicial killings, the years 1977 and 1978 held the greatest number of documented Death Flights. Based on the confession of a Navy officer who participated in the flights, every Wednesday during those years saw planes leave Buenos Aires with political prisoners onboard. They were often told they were being released to freedom in the south of the country, and asked to dance to celebratory music that was played as they boarded. Once in the air, a Navy medical officer sedated them, and when they reached the center of the river, their unconscious but still living bodies were dropped into the water. It is estimated that at least 1,500 and as many as 4,000 people lost their lives in these flights, most over the de la Plata. The river in Buenos Aires became a place where bodies routinely washed ashore, bloated and ruined.
Diego and my husband and I were standing within sight of the coordinates where human beings were sent alive and helpless into the water.
“Brown-hooded gulls,” Diego said, and pointed to the de la Plata.
In her glorious poem, You Want Me White, Alfonsina Storni, Argentine modernist poet and feminist from the early 20th century, has this stanza:
Flee towards the forest
Go to the mountains
Clean your mouth
Live in a hut
Touch with your hands
The damp earth
With bitter roots
Drink from the rocks
Sleep on the frost
Clean your clothes
With saltpeter and water
Talk with the birds
And set sail at dawn
And when your flesh
Has returned to you
And when you have put
Into it the soul
That through the bedrooms
Then, good man,
Ask that I be white
Ask that I be like snow
Ask that I be chaste
There are days when I think that about myself, that I should go to the forests and talk with the birds, and drink from the rocks before I hope to tell anyone else what to do with their life, with their feelings about loss, their relationship to the environment, the planet, consumption, future, or hope. I would like to wait until my flesh has returned to me before I try to make anything clear for anyone else. I would like to put my soul back into my flesh.
Standing at the de la Plata, I felt that more than I ever had.
How, in the face of the layered story of that view of the marginal sea, could I hope to say anything to anyone?
Storni had drowned herself in the de la Plata just up the coast from that view. My husband had read her words to me on our couch in Chicago before we ever boarded the plane to South America. With those words echoing in my head, I remembered, Storni—though broken by patriarchy, poverty, tyranny, and illness—had made something that rang in my mind over 70 years after she’d written it. She’d made a seed.
By the beach there was a restroom operated by the city, and we all took a break from the sight of the Rio to pee and wash our hands, adjust our clothing to meet the rising temperatures away from the water. While we waited for my husband, Diego pointed out blue-and-white swallows and a great kiskadee. When he joined us again, we walked on through the forest.
“How did you start doing this,” I asked, “leading birdwatching tours?”
“I was fourteen when I became a naturalist,” Diego said. “I have done this ever since. Now I have more time, my children are grown, and I lead tours when the company has them, taking people to see this place.”
We walked a little farther; he showed us a sooty-fronted spinetail, a golden-crowned warbler, a Harris’ hawk, a house wren.
“What happened when you were fourteen?” I asked.
“I grew up in a town outside the city, on the edge, what’s the word?”
“Suburbs?” I offered.
Diego nodded, “Yes. I was always outside and one day I found a book, Far Away and Long Ago.”
“By William Henry Hudson?” I asked, “the British naturalist? I just bought his book on the pampas at a used bookstore in San Telmo this week. I haven’t read him yet.”
Diego nodded, “You should read Far Away. I think it is better. And he was talking about all the animals and they were the same as those in my yard, and then I learned, he was living in my same area, the same place, which was wild when he lived there, but is now part of Buenos Aires.”
“And that changed your life?”
Diego nodded. “And then I watched the birds, and then studied biology.” He shrugged and made a gesture at his binoculars, the trees around us, the sky, as if all of it had come to him from that one book. “That was the change.”
William Henry Hudson was an immigrant to Argentina along with his North American parents. He lived his childhood outside Buenos Aires; he later moved to Britain, became a naturalized citizen, was sick, then poor, then began publishing novels, and finally, at the end of his career, he started writing about his childhood in Argentina. He said, in Far Away and Long Ago, “It was never my intention to write an autobiography.”
But here was Diego. Hudson had written that autobiography, and Diego had read it. One person saw the world around him, loved a place fiercely, learned it, did his best to recount what he remembered, and left a record for other people to follow. That book began Diego’s path, allowed him to stay in love with the world, love the new shape of the city, with the new places for birds and animals, and the humans who came to look at them.
We emerged onto a boardwalk that pointed our view back toward the city. We saw huge office towers reflecting the weak winter sun, their own reflections lighting up the water of the lagoon where we’d started our day. There we watched white-winged coots—black birds swimming in the water, their foreheads capped with a shocking yellow fascinator. We saw nanday parakeets, and rosy-billed pochards.
Nutria stood in the shallow marshes on the edge of the lagoon, looking exactly like the wumps from Bill Peet’s environmentalist kids’ book Wump World, those little grazing oversized rodents, unaware that planet-destroying aliens will soon be descending to chase them underground, pollute the sky and soil and water, then take off for another planet to spoil.
We wandered along the edge of the lagoon in the trees, spotting golden-billed saltators, green-and-topaz hummingbirds, a roadside hawk. We talked about Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard, who Diego had read in translation, about science education and E. O. Wilson, about the biography of Alexander von Humboldt that I adored. Looking through a break in the trees we saw the creatures whose voices nearly drowned out our talk: white-faced whistling ducks, a huge mass of them, singing shrilly to each other in the sunshine, then spotted white-winged coots, moorhens, and vines of orange flowers.
The day warmed, the sun felt amazing on my skin, my husband talked labor politics and poetry with Diego, talked about the disaster in our government back home, the threats to unions, about the resistance language of Cortázar, and about the slow return of animals to Costanera Sur.
I remembered being at a union meeting with my husband the year before, getting seed packets as a gift for our family, and the words of the union organizer, explaining why he’d given them to us, “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know that we were seeds.”
This phrase came to prominence when used by the protest movement for the Mexican students who were disappeared by their government in 2014—the Ayotzinapa 43. It was then used again at the protests against the current US presidential administration’s separation of immigrant children from their families, which often sent them to homes of childless couples. But the language was first used by the gay Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos in 1978, during a period when his sexuality was used as a justification for his ostracization from Greek intellectual and artistic life, “what didn’t you do to bury me/but you forgot that I was a seed.”
As the talk between my husband and Diego spilled out, I remembered the words of Juan Gelman, the Argentine poet who lost his son and daughter-in-law to the disappearances of the Dirty War, who lost his newborn granddaughter to a military family, who fled the country, who published poems, who found his granddaughter at last and won prizes and still died far from home:
“with this poem you won’t take power” he says
“with these verses you won’t make the Revolution” he says
“nor with thousands of verses will you make the Revolution” he says
he sits down at the table and writes
My mind was racing with the pleasure of knowing it was books that had given Diego the life he lived, the love of the park. Costanera Sur was giving me back what I had wanted: the reason why I wrote.
Steps from the exit Diego called to us and we huddled next to him under tall bushes and looked into the tall grasses surrounding a marsh on the left side of the trail where he pointed to a huge bird walking through the wetland. It had orange legs, a bright orange mark surrounding its eye, two wide brushstrokes of black coloring the pure white of its feathers, a red-dipped bill, and a haunting yellow eye. It was so large and shocking that I caught my breath. Huge, non-migratory, these birds spend their lives moving through the wetlands, eating toads and rodents and snakes, the only species of its family on the entire continent, and lucky enough to be in the extinction category of “least concern.” It looked as prehistoric and impressive as the sandhill cranes we’d spotted earlier that summer in a Wisconsin farm field, alien and so much older than anything humans had ever done to that place on the edge of the de la Plata.
“Maguari stork,” Diego said. “The symbol of this ecological reserve.”
When, not quite two months after our walk through the Costanera Sur, my mother was in hospice, actively dying from her cancer, her meditation teacher came to sit at her bedside. He was a Tibetan monk, and she’d studied with him for years. He held her hands and touched her forehead with his and reminded her that this transition was just a new phase, “You’ll have a new body! A brand new body!” he said.
Then he told her that in the next life all the things she’d done and learned and studied would be in that new body like seeds. “I had the seed for Buddhism,” he joked, “but not the seed for English! In your next life, when you hear Buddhism, geology, environment, water, then the seed, it will wake up! Your conscious mind will begin to remember, and you’ll go faster toward what you want to know, with the things you already learned in the seed, growing!”
My mother’s face softened when he said that, evened out, and she looked calm for the first time in days, knowing that all the work she’d done wouldn’t have been in vain. All she understood, and loved, and had sweated over—the water protections, the meditation, the compassion mind, the stewardship—all of it would wake up and come alive again, in that new way, in that new body.
I am not a good Buddhist like my mother was, and I’m not sure I feel the same clarity she did about what awaits us in the next life. I’m also still not sure I know what to tell people about what they should do in the face of all we’re losing.
But after that walk in Costanera Sur, I’m not sure I have to know, any more than Rachel Carson knew, or E. O. Wilson did, or William Henry Hudson, or Alfonsina Storni or Juan Gelman. I do know that Costanera Sur is a place that reminds me that we can’t tell how a story will play out when it first begins.
My friend wrote a remarkable essay about Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and she quoted Thomas Merton, the line used as an epigraph for this essay, and I think a lot about what Merton said, “Do not depend on the hope of results.” And I think about what Storni said, “And when your flesh/Has returned to you/And when you have put/Into it the soul.” And I think about what Dickinson said about hope, “I heard it in the strangest land/and in the chillest sea.”
We stood on the street for a while with Diego as he finally took off his winter coat, looking back at the reserve as the sun marched up to midday, looking out at the now open food trucks, bustling with customers buying strong coffee; we drove with him in his Toyota back to San Telmo. He got lost in the new construction along the port, the high-rises that are coming along to fill in the gaps between the city and Costanera Sur, and finally he dropped us back at our door where we promptly went back into our apartment and back to sleep, only to wake later in the day to walk the sunset, so like the sunrise, and eat well again, and toast the last day in South America.
For the first time in months I knew why I was writing again. I wasn’t afraid to feel optimistic about seeds, or time, or the risk of finding hope somewhere and trusting in it. I might never be able to see results from anything I wrote or anything conservationists were creating. I was seven years old when the crap was dumped into the water at Costanera Sur, when los desaparecidos were thrown into the marginal sea. I was forty-seven when I walked the land that the crap made and looked out to where they died. I don’t know the fate of the place as sea levels rise, or the city changes. Hope doesn’t lie in knowing the end. Hope lies in a fourteen-year-old boy finding a book by a long-dead naturalist that changed his life, in Gelman embracing the granddaughter once stolen from him—it lies in the seeds waking up.
Costanera Sur had shown me hope in such a different way than I thought it would when I sat reading about it in my bed in Chicago. I expected to find animals, the story only of their lives, the places they had made for themselves, in defiance of our human story. But instead I found a place where the stories of the animals and the people were so connected that one cannot be told without the other. Together they create a place fallen from glory, witness to horror, neglected and abused, and yet still capable of taking destruction and rejection and overwhelm, and creating something stunning, unexpected, and alive.
It was grand evidence of the ability of a place not to return to what it had been before ecological collapse and human tyranny, but to heal itself into something entirely new, and that’s where I think I will find the thing with feathers, that sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.
Eiren Caffall is a writer and musician based in Chicago, born in New York, and raised in New England. She has been the recipient of a Social Justice News Nexus fellowship in environmental journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a Frontline: Environmental Reportage residency at The Banff Centre for the Arts, studying with Naomi Klein. She taught creative writing for The Chicago Humanities Festival and has also been awarded residencies at Millay Colony for the Arts, Hedgebrook, and Ragdale. Her work on loss and nature, glaciers and extinction has appeared in The Rumpus, The Chicago Reader, Tikkun Daily, The Nervous Breakdown, The Manifest Station, Punk Planet, and the book The Time After. She has also released three albums of original music, Prairie Music, Civil Twilight, and Slipping the Holdfast. Her work has been adapted into the short film Becoming Ocean, which screened at the Sidewalk Film Festival, the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, the Sedona Film Festival, and the DC Environmental Film Festival. She lives in the Logan Square neighborhood with her husband and son.
Featured Photo Credit: Eiren Caffall