A Matter of the Skies
Jan 26, 2015
21 Min read time
More birds appear. Bending against the cold, I watch, name, and name again.
Photograph: Petri Damstén
Early December, dawn and cold—I sit up, pull on a pair of wool socks and roll out of bed. “Be back this afternoon.” Corrina yanks the covers over her head and slumbers on.
I take my coffee out to the dock and load the boat: binoculars, field guide, gas can, life jacket, couple of candy bars. As I tinker with the choke, Bill Cranston pulls out of the creek in his workboat. He stares at me from his heated cabin, and I stare back at him. No wave, no nod of recognition. We got into it last summer, while I was out in the middle of the river pulling late-season crabs off his pound net. He cruised up behind me and ordered me off the poles. I turned my back to him. He revved up his inboard and almost swamped my boat. I left when he threatened to get his shotgun—the poles were covered with huge jimmies and doublers, but they weren’t worth getting shot for.
“Ah, they’re all eaten up with the image,” Roddy said when I told him about the meeting on the river. “And everyone around here plays into it. The romance of the waterman. Truth is, they’re just regular old rednecks with boats. Nothing they won’t take out of the river for a buck. And they pay them DNR boys to look the other way.” Roddy tossed his beer can into the sink. “I took my skiff out there in the middle of the night once and cut those nets to shreds. They knew it was me.”
Roddy came down to the river after two tours in Vietnam, built his shack on some almost-forgotten family property, and hadn’t left the county in thirty years. He was a stocky guy, all beard, tattoos, and burnt skin. By day he had a little business building wooden skiffs. Nights, he drank beer and drove an ammunition truck through his own wrecked Asian landscape. He made me nervous sometimes, but his company was worth the strain.
He was right about the waterman, too. Saturday nights, we’d watch Bill Cranston strut through the bar at Abel’s Corner, trailing his errant self-regard through the joint like slime dripping from a wandering snail. Cranston seemed to think that netting menhaden for pig food and cosmetics made him a poor man’s Ahab. The truth is that every one of those oily fish he removed brought the river that much closer to choking on its own waste. Menhaden filter the water almost as well as the vanishing oyster, and they’re a lot less temperamental.
Cranston steers his boat through the channel on the far side of the bar, opens the throttle and disappears down the river. I plane off the other way, riding the swells and the current. Over the whine of the outboard I hear, then see, a kingfisher straight-line through the marsh grasses. Blue jays argue in the stand of wild cherry trees that mark the entrance to the river. A thousand yards out, a huge flock of long-tailed ducks—known as oldsquaws in less sensitive times—talk busily among themselves, trading tales about their recent journey from the Arctic. I shut off the motor and watch these compact studies in black and white.
I wait three seasons for these winter ducks, wait mostly for the noise, a constant babble that sounds both pleased and querulous. It is not that a particular bird captivates me. It is, rather, that the ducks are here at all. These creatures—who don’t weigh as much as a box of crackers—routinely circle the better part of the globe to breed, to feast, to simply float and chat. I sit and watch the ducks for long minutes, rocking on the outgoing tide. The wind picks up. I coax the outboard back to life and head upriver to Blake’s Creek.
• • •
From the air, these undulating hills look like crumpled bags pressed against a solid sea. I’m hiking in the folds now, the chaparral and coastal scrub north of San Francisco. The Pacific coast is new to me, and almost every bird is a subtle revelation, a variant on another bird known from the east. Bushtit. Wrentit. Wilson’s warbler and spotted towhee. Acorn woodpecker. Steller’s jay and scrub jay. Chestnut-backed chickadee. Western bluebird. California quail. White-winged dove. I invest each new bird with a name and imagine that they are as glad to see me as I am to see them.
Walking west for hours, up one hill and down another. The stands of Douglas fir and scraggly pine thin out as the ocean nears, give way to coyote brush, coffeeberry, and lupine. I descend onto the beach, another world, another round of naming on the wing. Marbled godwit, long-billed curlew, a magnificent frigatebird cut from the cloth of clouds.
I turn back at four o’clock. The sun begins to set, and fog rolls in off the ocean. The path splits; I cannot remember which branch I entered on, and then I am lost. The fog is so thick that I cannot orient myself—at times I am not sure I am headed even roughly east. I walk this way for several hours, guessing and hoping, tripping over deadfall that I would have skipped over earlier in the day, trying to ignore the ghostly sensation of walking through clouds. And then, dim light on the next rise. Fog-muffled voices, faint tinkle of glass. The cottage is fifty yards in front of me.
I look through the glass doors into the main room. Dinner is over and everyone is arranged on the couches, listening to Katy pluck a stringed instrument that I do not recognize. She’s singing, too, and the song is familiar:
O, the cuckoo she’s a pretty birdShe warbles as she fliesShe’ll never cause no troubleShe’ll tell you no more liesThere’s one thing been a puzzleSince the day that time beganA man’s love for his womanAnd her love for her man
Katy concludes, to applause. I enter through the sliding glass and apologize for my lateness. “Well,” Randy says. “We were beginning to worry a little. After it got dark.”
“She wasn’t feeling well. Said she felt a migraine coming on.”
Downstairs, listening through another closed door. Corrina isn’t singing though. It sounds as if she is crying, barely audible sobs muffled by a pillow. That’s what it sounds like. I don’t know, really, because I don’t open the door but turn around and go back up the steps.
• • •
Jagged rocks, submerged at high tide, line the entrance to Blake’s Creek. I cut the engine, raise the prop, and float onto the beach. Corrina grew up on the river. On an August day ten years ago, she brought me to this place for the first time.
The brackish, tidal creek is a chaos of fecundity and predation at summer’s end. Soft-shell crabs hide in the grasses, sluggish and defenseless until they harden. Elvers, hogchokers, and silversides dart through the shallows and ripples, here and there and gone again. Killdeers, done breeding inland, flock together on the baking beach and wait for the angle of the sun to send them on their way. Swallowtails and admirals, more light then form, balance on puffs of milkweed. Lurch and dip of ravenous gulls. Nutria tracks, raccoon shit, mound of feathers, a crushed heron skull. This is last call, the run on the bank, the panicked pastorale of the seasons. Feast, escape, or come to grief.
Corrina and I slumbered on the sand that day, ate oranges, cast for stripers in the drop-off. We talked about starting a family. We were pretending to create our own cycles, as if lives transpired in ways that were foretold.
I wonder now if I did not love Corrina for her name. She was the song come to life for me, and I sang to her as we climbed back into the boat that day:
Got a bird that whistles, baby got a bird that singsGot a bird that whistles, baby got a bird that singsWithout Corrina, life don’t mean a daggone thing
The passage into the creek is transformed in December. The wind—a gentle, humid southwesterly all summer—comes from the north now, tears at the brown grasses, hums and howls through the bending loblollies in the woods. The still turns of the creek are covered with skim ice, and a solitary heron waits morosely for a meal.
I pull the boat onto the beach and head into the woods. On the sandy trail, I bend down to look at the tiny lichens that I know only as British soldiers—red caps perched on gray-green stems. Sand, salt, wind, and water do not trouble them, and they bloom in the days before the solstice.
In the woods, the understory is all bramble, American holly, and stubborn, dwarfish copper beeches that will not surrender their paper-dry leaves. I stand still, and the birds emerge: ruby-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warblers, titmice, and chickadees. Brown creepers spiraling up the rough bark, nuthatches down. A downy woodpecker taps lightly on a tulip tree; a thrasher scuttles in the rotting leaves. Deep in the woods, a hawk screams. The winter birds answer with a long moment of silence and then begin to flit and fly and feed again. More birds appear. Bending against the cold, I watch, name, and name again.
• • •
Jamie and I sit on opposite ends of the table rock and stare at the blue, noonday sky. There are hawks soaring above us, impossible to identify any further at that height. After weeks of talking about it, we finally drove out of the Badlands this morning, leaving that clay-colored moonscape for the sudden green of the Black Hills. We left the truck off-road, under a stand of cottonwoods. Before climbing the modest hill, we each ingested a dozen peyote buttons. I vomited while Jamie laughed. Then Jamie vomited, and when he was finished we worked our way up the hill.
I had set out, months ago, to drive to the Bitterroot mountains on Montana’s western border. Corrina had filed for divorce, and I moved out in early spring, to a small apartment that I could not learn to live in. I decided that a trip out west might improve my outlook and set off in my ancient truck.
A week later, I stopped for lunch in the desolate South Dakota town of Kadoka—couple of streets, water tower, bar and grill, motel. Eating a sandwich at the bar, I fell into a conversation with Jamie and Ellen, a young Lakota couple from the Pine Ridge reservation. After several beers, they invited me to come out to the reservation for a few days. I followed them for ten miles along the rutted, dusty road to their tiny modular home.
The dead call me on the phone. They reminisce about the old days, trade recipes, complain.
The short visit turned into many months. Ellen got up at dawn every day and drove sixty miles to her cashier’s job near Rapid City. Jamie and I woke up considerably later, drank beer, and cruised around the Badlands. One afternoon we drove the few miles to the modest memorial at Wounded Knee. I lamented my European ancestors as I gazed at the scene of the massacre.
“Well,” Jamie said, “you guys were assholes. Still are, for that matter. But Sitting Bull was killed by one of our own, man. That’s the part that really fucks me up.”
The Badlands, postcard beautiful, wear you out after a while. The paralyzed waves of sand and ash, the endless wind, the weight of geologic and human history come to a parched and empty end. Stare at this landscape too long and it begins to speak only of drought and futility. Nothing has concluded well here, not even in the Oligocene days, when the lesser ungulates hid in terror from marauding titanotheres. Start with a scarp to carve the hills, end with a massacre—and pay on your way out the door.
The rock we sit on is surrounded by a dense ring of cedar, obscuring any view but the one above us. Hawks soar in long circles, searching for thermals. It is the sky that is flying, I decide. Those distant birds are stationary cutouts, avian-shaped glimpses into the emptiness beyond the bowl of atmospheres. My distress at not being able to attach any name beyond “hawk” disappears.
“‘A bird to overhear,’ I mumble. ‘Delight without a cause—Arrestless as invisible—A matter of the skies.’”
“What does that mean?” Jamie asks.
“Not exactly sure. I didn’t write it.”
“A woman named Emily Dickinson.”
“Do you know her?”
“No. she’s long gone.”
Jamie closes his eyes. “Never heard of her.”
“Well, she didn’t get out much.”
The breeze shifts, and then there is music in the needles of the trees. Each needled note a color, but I can no more name the color than I can name the hawk. The colors spark into a thousand particles and disappear.
“Let’s go to Rapid City,” Jamie says. “I’m bored.”
Just before dawn, we are both cuffed and waiting to be placed in the cruiser. The cop says we’ll be released as soon as we sober up. I think about explaining to the cop that he is only arresting the visible, drunken me—that the self underneath the self, still afloat in a blue-strobed peyote dream, is entirely innocent. I do not speak but take a deep breath and exhale. A patchwork-colored bird with an evanescent tail flies out of my mouth, flies over the bar’s neon sign, the low warehouses, the shuttered pawnshop. The bird might fly past Ellen that morning, as she drives to work and wonders where her man is.
• • •
Smoke drifts from Roddy’s chimney. I hadn’t planned on visiting, but the wind was picking up again and the cold was beginning to bite.
“Hell of a day to be floating around in that little tub,” Roddy says. “Well, come in. I’d just as soon keep the weather outside.”
Roddy’s tarpaper cottage looks always to be on the verge of collapse. The weathered walls are covered with ivy and wild tangles of bittersweet. The porch sags, and the front yard is a jumble of wood scraps, busted rototillers, and rotting bales of snow fencing.
“Worse it looks, less I pay. Takes ten grand off the appraisal every year. The assessor doesn’t even peek in through the windows.”
If the assessor had looked inside, he would have been surprised. Roddy sleeps in a loft he’s fashioned out of finished cedar poles. Bookshelves made of birch—and filled with books—line the walls of the main room. Framed black and white photographs of the river in its various seasons hang over the couch. Next to the wood stove, a military map is perched on a rusted tripod. The map is entitled “Ia Drang, Opening Moves, 1965.”
I follow Roddy into the room and sit down on the couch next to his drowsing retriever.
“Got any coffee?”
“Yeah. Bourbon, if you want one.” He raises his glass and points at the bottle on the coffee table.
“No thanks. I’m laying off for a while.”
“Huh. Well, more power to you. I know you aren’t fishing out there today.”
“No, just roaming around. Checking out the birds.”
“You remember Leslie? That girl from the college?”
“Yeah. She didn’t stick around very long, did she? I mean, even for you?”
“She had major character flaws.”
“For one, she was a goddamned birdwatcher.”
“Damn, Roddy. I had no idea.”
“She’d go out tramping in the woods with her birdwatcher friends. Come home, tell me all about it, record everything on what she called her ‘life list.’
“One night her friends came over and they gabbled about birds for fucking hours. ‘Saw this bird here, that bird there . . .’ Like it was a contest, right?”
“There are worse ways to spend your time.”
Roddy stares at his glass. “I guess. It just freaked me out. I split up with her the next day. It was the bird thing that did me in. Well, that and she quit drinking.” He stares at me like I might have had something to do with that, too. Then he laughs and goes into the kitchen to get my coffee—comes back, hands me a steaming mug with the instant granules still floating on the surface.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “I wouldn’t mind being a bird. I was just reading about bird brains, matter of fact. They got these little slivers of something called magnetite in their heads, keeps them oriented toward the poles. That’s how they migrate.”
“I read something about that.”
“Tell me you wouldn’t like to have a little piece of metal in your brain to keep you on track. Never worry about getting lost, so you can concentrate on the flying and fucking part.”
“There’s a downside, Roddy. Most birds don’t live very long—they get attacked by other birds. Eaten by cats. Shot for food and feathers. Sucked into airplanes, wiped out by viruses. Their homes get chopped down, they get drunk on fermented berries, crash into brick walls. And I don’t think they get to feel or experience anything. It’s all just automatic.”
“Sounds good to me.” Roddy drains his glass and lights a cigarette.
We talk for another half-hour, while I finish my coffee. Roddy shows me his blueprint for a new skiff design, which he already has three orders for. He walks me back out to the pier, and agrees to come for dinner soon.
That spring, Roddy found a slightly larger piece of metal to guide him home. It was a .45 with one empty chamber, retrieved when the Coast Guard found his body in his sailboat. The boat was drifting toward Smith Point, less than a mile from the bay. I don’t know what ailed him, but I suppose it was some combination of those things that humans get instead of a magnet—remorse, memory, dread, super-ego lacunae, ambivalence, loneliness, loathing, erratic distributions of serotonin and dopamine, the floating mirror of consciousness, a deep and abiding weariness buried in the bone at birth.
And even if all those things don’t actually exist—if they can’t be located like a sliver of iron oxide—we possess these minds that conjure them up anyway. The corpse adrift would have said that this complexity, this infinitely fragmenting, improving, creative psychology, speaks only to bad engineering and untimely departures.
• • •
In the aviary, now—an apartment on the fifteenth floor, the two rooms in which I cannot learn to live. The one window looks out on a drained swimming pool and a stand of white pines. “And if you are not a bird,” Nietzche said, “beware of coming to rest above an abyss.”
The pines serve as a staging area for a large roost of crows. Every morning, the crows fly into the thick, coniferous screen, where they spend an hour or so squabbling, shitting, discussing the day’s forage routes. And then they stream out of the grove, hundreds of them, inky black symbols, a typography of crows limned against the gray dawn paper sky. At times, the fleeing birds cohere into lines of text. I copy the transmissions down in a notebook, but I do not know who to send them to.
The dead call me on the phone, and you would think they would be interested in what I have to say. The dead, though, are remarkably like the living: they want to reminisce about the old days, trade recipes, complain about the absence of a reliable bullpen. The dead are not curious, and why should they be?
• • •
Corrina bought a wind chime—a metal blue jay, burdened with clapper, weight and hanging assembly. The jay clanged so loudly in a strong breeze that real birds kept their distance from the porch. I would periodically take the chime down and lay it on a wicker chair. Within hours, she would have put it back up again. This went on for an entire month one summer—I would take it down, and she would put it back up. We never once discussed it.
Corrina walks into the house one afternoon and announces that she has just filed for a legal separation. I turn off the television.
“Does this have anything to do with the wind chime?”
“Unbelievable.” Corrina stares out the window at the river. “You are really unbelievable.”
“Because if it does, I won’t fight you for it. That’s one thing we can take off the table.”
• • •
A couple of sentences, the only war story Roddy ever told me. “It was strange as shit. One day I’m goofing around in shop class. And then, it seemed like five minutes later, I’m all gassed up in a Saigon bar and this little bar girl is sitting on my lap singing ‘Stop in the Name of Love.’ Her name was Nhung.”
So many springs ago, now.
• • •
I walk through the line of scrub that separates the river from the marsh. Twenty yards ahead, what appears to be a mockingbird lands on the very top of a crooked juniper. I raise my binoculars, more from habit than curiosity. It is not a mockingbird—too chunky, black mask, thick tail. I consult my field guide. It is a northern gray shrike and it has no business being here at any time of year. This bird breeds in the taiga and winters in southern Canada and the northern tier of the United States. Its presence is a pleasant mystery, and I spend half an hour watching it through the glasses. Finally, it flies off into the marsh.
I do some research on the shrike that evening. The Latin binomial for this bird is Lanius excubitor. In 1758 Karl Linnaeus—known to his peers as “the second Adam”—offered the first scientific description: “a shrike with a wedge-shaped, white-bordered tail, back grey, wings black with white spot.” Earlier, in his Fauna Svecica, Linnaeus had described it as a different species altogether: a “light-blue waxwing, wings and tail blackish.”
Johann Leonhard Frisch—a naturalist and namer with the requisite theological training—went two directions at once, calling it “ash-grey magpie, or greater shrike.”
The great grey shrike is a songbird with a twist; in between arias, the bird spends its days looking for meat, on the ground or in the air. Shrikes are almost exclusively carnivores, and they are not particular. They devour other songbirds, mice, voles, insects, and fish. The term “sentinel butcher” derives from the shrike’s predatory behavior. It perches, still and watchful, on the tops of trees and then attacks with a downward swoop, killing with a thrust of the beak into the cranium. The prey is then taken to a thorny tree or barbed wire fence and impaled on the sharp points to be eaten at the shrike’s leisure.
The shrike’s gruesome prowess is responsible for the colorful names it has been given throughout its range in Europe: choking angel, killer of nine, killer magpie, murdering pie, shrieker, and great butcher bird.
I have been sitting for hours now, poring over these texts. I am no ornithologist, but something akin to an Etruscan haruspex, a reader of entrails. No guts, though, no blood, no viscera. The bird vanishes into the idea of the bird while I read, becomes simply an airborne portal into the real organism—an endlessly branching and viral language, a curling and infected labyrinth of words that has erased the thing itself in the service of divination.
Snowflakes begin to fall, and I follow the curves out of Roddy’s creek and head home. The snow intensifies, muffling what sounds there are. I can barely hear the ducks when I cut the motor and tie up at the dock. This is the last trip of the year. Tomorrow I will pull the boat out of the water and hang the outboard on its wooden stand in the shed.
There are lights on in the house. Corrina hasn’t gone to work yet.
“Hey.” She is standing at the sink washing dishes, and does not turn to face me.
“How was your day?”
“Quiet. Weren’t you cold out there?”
“Yeah, the last hour or so. I went up to Blake’s Creek earlier.”
“It must look different up there this time of year.”
“It was beautiful in the woods. Kinglets scampering around everywhere.”
“Okay, I gotta go. You know how they are if I’m so much as two minutes late. There’s plenty to eat. You’ll just have to look around.”
“I’ll figure something out.”
Corrina walks past me, both of us turning slightly sideways in the narrow kitchen. “Don’t forget to feed the cat, alright?”
• • •
We know Adam for his errors. His greatest transgression, though, was intended as an act of obedience.
God assigned the wandering, timeless man a task: name the beasts, boy. Hoof, fish, and the birds of the air. And so he did, and so the tyranny of nomenclature entered the garden. No one was ever vanquished from Paradise. It was Paradise itself that disappeared in the growing darkness of names, distinctions, and enumerations.
And we became the idiots of lists, laying our markers on the unstoried landscape, every marker a consolation for what we see but cannot hope to apprehend.
January 26, 2015
21 Min read time