The spring here in New York City has been a seriously odd one: Odd because it was so cold, too dry, and then too wet, for so long; then the winds shifted and I went, quite literally, from wearing flannel pajamas to bed one night to wearing a tee shirt and turning on a fan the next night. And it’s been hot and humid ever since.
It’s been “seriously” odd because on sidewalks in Queens I’ve been seeing small blobs of what looks like flesh, and it wasn’t until I came home a few weeks ago to see such a blob on my own stoop, a curve of flesh with a bright yellow point on it, that I inspected closely enough to see the shape of a bird embryo. My friend Ryan remarked the other day that he’d never seen so many dead baby birds in New York in the 20 years he’s lived here. Neither have I.
Birds are consuming the attention of lots of my friends this spring. My super, Hasan, was hauling up the trash last week, and I saw him trying to catch something—which turned out to be a mostly-flightless baby bird. He’d been keeping an eye on two of them, trapped down there, and he was torn: He realized they were probably safer down there in the trash alley than out in the open, but also they needed water and food, and he grinned because they are so cute, but he also didn’t want to step on them. (And you might think: “It’s a couple of birds. Who cares?” If you thought that, why are you reading this? Go vote for Trump and watch the whole human story go up in YU-uuge showgirl plumes. You disgust me. I say that with love.) Hasan put out water and and I contributed crumbs, but in the end they didn’t make it. He told me yesterday he found both of them dead. “I think it’s pesticides,” he said; Rachel Carson’s “silent spring” 2016.
Signs of life: In a lump of an excuse for a spruce tree in front of my co-op, a Hispanic woman on my block pointed out the “bird that always sits in that tree”. I was out watering the flowers I’ve begun planting in an earnest garden attempt, for the second year, and she complimented my colors (it’s wildly life-affirming to see even the toughest looking New Yorker, and anyone of every imaginable background, have his eye caught by blooms in dirt). I realized this was the same mourning dove, or partner (because they mate for life), I’d seen pecking among the marigolds the week before. “There must be a nest,” I said, and maybe it’s a trend; a co-worker had recently posted her own mourning dove colony from her Long Island porch. I hope they make it, these babies. Hasan hopes no one smacks the tree—easy reach from the sidewalk; and you wonder why the doves landed here rather than behind the tree—I guess to face the sunshine. I put out a planter base and keep it filled with water. I hope I’m helping. Poor things—they’ve probably been breeding here for years and my expanded garden has encroached on their peaceable kingdom; or else mourning doves prefer to breed around people who tend gardens so they feel safe—perhaps human activity keeps squirrels and other birds at bay. (In my youth, we had a pair near my parents’ side garden for years; I suppose I could research these birds’ habits. I probably won’t. It’s the American in me.)
As a hopeful contrast to the bird deaths or worrying about their survival, I like to check on my friend David’s Facebook page, where he shares his daily photographs of his Vermont aviary—the wild visitors to his garden, a habitat complete with heated birdbath. I have the rather unimaginative habit of anthropomorphizing the portraits. It’s the actress and mime in me. I told David I’d like to do a series of essays called “Man Kinds: An Aviary,” and he gave me his kind consent. I haven’t gotten around to it, dwelling as I have been on birds dying no doubt because of human poisons. The birds seem to deserve better than to be compared to human types, better than to be labeled by my own limited worldview, to say nothing of limited talent.
Not to be a narcissistic asshole, but in former years I thought of myself as imaginative; creative; even, on occasion, artistic. I seemed to have unlimited faculties, deep memory, living equally, powerfully, in the present, past, and into the future. My mind, like the birds in fountain frolic, seemed to be in continuous motion, or majestic pause, or profound repose. Present. But lately my brain feels less like a marvelous engine of the gods and more akin to the dead embryos splayed on the sidewalks of Queens.
Kiss me, I’m poisoned.
Silent Spring Redux
What dominates your memory? Yards, food, couches, jobs, relatives, relationships, clothes, games, birds? Is it jagged? Spotty? Light like a balloon? Weighted by cement blocks of regret? A long line of losses? A fabulous ride with a Bond-style soundtrack in the background? Up until around my 52nd birthday, my life felt like a steady continuum, a nice little chug, you know, interrupted by mental breakdowns. Like everyone. This continuum/eruption pattern has ever been centered on, as for anyone, the places I’ve lived and the things I created there, jobs I’ve had, and the people I knew and cared about there. I used to could (I love that expression) remember with equal vividness living in my childhood home, my college dwellings, my first-job apartment, houses in rural Virginia, and my New York City apartments. I also remembered with equal vividness my friends’ homes around the country, from childhood and adulthood visits; relatives’ homes in extended visits to Virginia, Iowa, Nebraska, Ohio, North Carolina, and California; hotel rooms and campsites from various vacations. Schools, applications, interviews, degrees, theaters, deadlines, papers, rehearsals, votes, getting my truck inspected over 17 years—all tossed in the bowl of my brain like a delicious crisp salad, dressed lightly but with tang.
What has happened since turning 52 (this past month—I know, monumental reflection attends this writing) is that my memory has begun to slant and obscure—not from a disease, but from aging out of the past. I mean the past has begun to feel far away for the first time, veiled in sepia tulle in parts, the way I picture my parents’ childhoods during the Depression. The moment of the turning, or my awareness of it: Yesterday my old friend Rick wrote me that “it’s finally happening,” and his mother “is moving out of her home.” This news hit hard for a number of reasons—partly to do with circumstances and partly to do with the wording, and it’s in words that I really live. The circumstances: The reason for the move is that Rick’s father and a true friend to me died quite unexpectedly last August, and ever since, the question has been what his mother, Jane, would do, or rather what Rick and his sister would do with their mom, as we say now of the aged. And I don’t mean to sound flip—it was the first thing I thought of, and my wording, and she isn’t my mother. I and my friends are of the age that, if our parents are still living and not yet infirm, we have to think about this. Nearly all of my friends, come to think of it, are way past the thinking stage.
And not to turn this into a linguistic exercise, for my feelings about this are anything but a game, but I’m trying to trace my thinking about how the wording of Rick’s quite simple message seemed to melt my brain:
- “it’s finally happening”: “it”= what? Everything we dread: The eventual death of his mother on the heels of his father, the end of childhood, the abandonment of him and his sister to the winds; “finally happening”= inevitably, the thing that can no longer be put off or denied, the movement toward eternity, is coming to pass.
- “is moving out of her home” = “her home” is what hit me—“her”—the land where Jane’s house is that used to be the Family Farm; and it was a farm for three generations; but piece by piece by piece, by cousins and the kids, the farm was sold to developers, with some pieces taken by eminent domain for a road-widening project (for eleven years I rented a beloved little sharecropper’s house on this parcel); it was a farm where Rick and his sister Susan used to invite all their suburban friends for popcorn parties in the basement and jeep rides out to the cemetery in the woods on Halloween nights; where for all of Rick’s childhood was a goat pen and for the last 25 years a Christmas tree farm; and it hit me that since their marriages and children, it hasn’t been “their” home—the home of my friends Rick and Susan—not for a long time; and since the death of their father it hasn’t been “their” home, meaning the home of Jane and her husband Jerry, my friends’ father. It’s been Jane’s alone.
- And I felt that awful sting behind my eyes as my mind’s eye photograph of the farm and our youthful times there went slant, viewed as through a funnel. It freaked me out: In that moment, this part of my life became, officially “the past.” This is the first time in my life I was conscious of a huge swath of my life losing its presence in my mind. A boundary shifted.
Have you experienced that? Weird, isn’t it?
Blue Birds Return to Virginia
A few years before I left the house on Spriggs Road, my corner of the old farm, the blue bird house on the edge of the woods, across the fallow field that was my back yard, was finally occupied. Blue birds had become nearly extinct in Virginia, as invasive bird body snatchers threatened their survival. But one spring, I saw them—a pair—using the house. And it filled a girl with hope.
More hope: Each fall, the great migration brought the biggest murder of crows you ever saw, a veritable slaughter of wings, landing on the land all around the house to feed and rest before heading off again. It was thrilling.
And always the geese, the same flight, the same pattern, until one fall, when I saw geese flying around and around, crying out in calls that began to sound desperate. I went outside, and it seemed the arrow of geese was becoming tired, even frantic, and it hit me: I knew geese flew by topographical map, and not far down the road a swath of trees had been cut down that summer for a drainage project and new sewer line. I knew the pond they wanted, and they were about 200 yards away: I found myself waving like mad, pointing to the farm across the road. “Go! Go! You are so CLOSE!!!” Eventually they landed, and I’m sure I had not a goddamned thing to do with it.
And now the farms all around that place are nothing but housing developments. God knows where the geese have gone, or the crows, or the blue birds.
I moved to New York.
But birds keep following me. Because it’s all about me. What I mean is—wherever you are, the birds got there first, and whenever you’re feeling lonely or in need of perspective, you can go watch birds. They just don’t get dull. It’s a mystery. For instance, I’ve got two whatever-the-hell-they’re-called sparrow-type things who fight most every morning around 8 AM by my air conditioner; I hope that’s a good thing. There’s a regular conclave atop the 15’ chain-link fence that separates our co-op (very like a coop) from the playground.
It’s the aviary of actual birds that matters. I’ve lost interest in comparing human types to the birds in David’s gorgeous photos. There are too many of us, anyway. Childless and in peri-menopause, I often think the very best gift I’ve given to humanity is no more of me. (Whatever ills the humans do, the birds show the symptoms if not at first, then at near-last, it seems, and either way it’s bad.) And if I’m lucky, no one will have to figure out what to do with me when my time comes. I just need a working rocker under a tree, a warm blanket, and a box of wine, until I turn into a tree myself. A wobbly tree.
In the meantime, I’ll keep up the bird watch. Much love to all those who are losing links in their chains of life. Look up, though. I see a bird.
All photos by Miss O’, 2016