An Ornithologist’s Response

I wish I could write only about birds.

view through a rainy window of pines, larches, and trees that had been burned in a forest fire.

That I could go back to how it was, when my dreams held shards of words and images of flitting sparrows, dreams of opening eyes to the wonder of the natural world through birds. Dreams of articulating connections with the earth so deep I feel the words but cannot speak them. These dreams are skies filled with murmurations of starlings, clouds of thousands of birds, so thick that all I can do is stand and watch as they swarm around me in mesmerizingly complex shapes. A cohesive flock responding as one but with no leader, sinuously pulsating and shifting, no bird touching another, close enough that I can feel the air from their wings as they pass inches from my face.

I want to write about the dipper, the water ouzel, the small dark bird the color of wet slate, a bird that lives the streams of my heart-country here in the West. The dipper pliés along the stream’s edge, barely visible against the slick-black rocks. Waiting, dancing a ballet in time to the music of the stream, bended legs and wings suddenly propel the bird into the water where it dives, plucking insects from under rocks to feed its growing young. I watch dippers when I need assurance that the world is not as harsh as it appears to be. The truths of the individuals are the truths of the species, we tell ourselves. I cannot watch all dippers to know what they do, as much as I might wish to. My sample size is only a tiny fraction of the whole. It’s accepted that what we see in these few means something about them all. As an ornithologist I accept this to be true, but as a human I sometimes refuse the evidence.

What he—there are so many he’s —what he says about them, about us, about me, is not truth. The truth of the few, the loud ones, the ones in power, that is not the truth of the many. Theirs is not the truth of our country. Theirs is not the truth of birds. Bobbing on the edge of the river, staring at the swift current, the dipper waits for the moment to slide between waterdrops and merge into the spirit of the water.

Listen. Listen.

I want you to hear the sound of wingbeats. I want you to hear empathy, empathy in the shape of a heart in the shape of a fist. Listen to the dipper’s song, to the stream, to the sound of our voices. Listen, no matter how much it hurts no matter how much you cry no matter because their song is my song is your song is our song. Hear our wingbeats, and sometimes hear them stop, and sometimes all the time every time that’s the worst sound of all. My tears join the tears of the river, and we vow that from this water new lives will be born and spared of this anguish. We vow, even as our tears flow more freely. Even as more wingbeats still. Denied the chance to live safe and well. Denied the dignity of a death surrounded by loved ones. I don’t know how to say goodbye over the phone or from time zones away because I’ve never had the chance, because every time was like the first time, and every time my heart stopped, like a fingerling trout dead in my hand. Because every time all I could hear was the sound of the creek of my breath of my tears rolling over stones over memories over denial over grief.          

I make my hands into fists, and make them into a heart. Then I open them, like a dam released.

When I watch dippers, when I count wingbeats, when I listen to bird song mingling with river song, it’s there, underneath it all. I will not let you take away this music. I will not let you force silence upon us. You will hear us. We are pebbles smoothed by the running water, at our most beautiful, most cohesive when we are in the river. We watch as the dipper dives above us, dark eyes like dark stones searching for the food we shelter. We are the gravel, the nooks and crannies which harbor the stoneflies and mayflies that feed the dipper and the trout. We are the foundation and the world layers on top of our geology, the stones of us once part of long-ago mountains, no longer reaching the skies but not inconsequential. We feel the power in our selves.

Without us—all of us, every pebble every rock every color every size all of us—the sound of the flowing water changes. The stoneflies-minnows-trout-osprey change, and the branching lines connecting willows-warblers-moose-frogs change, and then we all change and none of it is as it was. The diversity of life disappears. The insects are gone, the songbirds are gone, and the air is silent, the spring is silent, and the world begins to die slowly in that silence, and I cannot will not shall not be silent. I will yell my words will leap garbled and true from the stream, and the fisherman, wading the river, will hear. And if he listens hard enough, long enough, with his true ears and eyes and heart enough, he will understand.

This is my new dream, the one the starlings murmur to me in the night, when I can’t sleep because my heart-stream flows too wildly but can’t escape my fingers, when my words are too well-hidden under submerged boulders, when the dipper dives but finds nothing to feed its starving young. When there are too many he’s that need to understand.

Rivers don’t forget their dams. The pebbles and stoneflies and willows-warblers-moose-frogs don’t forget. But we like water move forward into the newly flowing future with sunlight and hope.

A person in a canoe floats down the river toward the sun. Mountains can be seen in the distance.


Video: Swooping Starlings In Murmuration [‘remarkable ability to maintain cohesion as a group in highly uncertain environments and with limited, noisy information’]

American Dipper [A chunky bird of western streams, the American Dipper is North America’s only truly aquatic songbird]

Jeremy Collins [Offering empathy allows strength in unity / influences the impact of solidarity / increases the power of love]

Freeflow Institute [eliminates the barrier between artist and environment]

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