Memories of Birds
by Jonas David
I often imagine myself as Alfred Wallace during his expedition to Brazil in 1848. For four years he explored and charted the Rio Negro, and described and captured a wide variety of insects, birds, and other animal specimens to sell to museums, and for his own private collection. My thoughts when reading his story years ago, and rereading it now, hover always around what Wallace’s first impressions must have been. I imagine myself in the depths of that forest, surrounded by unfamiliar bird-calls and insect songs and other animal cries, the strange scents and colors, even the shapes and sizes of the leaves would have been unfamiliar. I try to imagine the surrealness of being in a place completely unknown, where not only every plant, insect and animal is new, but even the water itself is a mystery. Wallace writes in an 1853 paper for the Royal Geographical Society:
The most striking characteristic of the Rio Negro is that from which it derives its name–its black waters. And this is no imaginative or fanciful appellation; forasmuch as the waters of the ocean are blue, so are those of this river jet black.
Wallace found endless and fascinating life along the river. He collected thousands of specimens from hundreds of species and made copious notes and drawings. He described some species in detail and some only in passing, but his descriptions always evoke a feeling of the fantastical in me. On a species of monkeys living along the Rio Negro, for example, he writes:
…Their large eyes, cat-like faces, soft woolly hair and nocturnal habits render them a very interesting group. They are called “devil monkeys” by the Indians, and are said to sleep during the day and to roam about only at night. I have had specimens of them alive, but they are very delicate and soon die.
And on the abundant species of butterflies:
They all fly with excessive rapidity, and are exceedingly shy; they settle on trunks of trees or on rocks by the water, where several species are only found. … The Callitheas are another genus of butterflies unsurpassed for exquisite beauty. … [and were] found plentifully on the trunks of trees, where a black sap was exuding.
These are just some of the things he must have seen and documented, which themselves are just a small subset of the possibilities within the entire sprawling forest. Even one side of the river to the next were completely different worlds, as Wallace notes:
During my residence in the Amazon district I took every opportunity of determining the limits of species, and I soon found that the Amazon, the Rio Negro and the Madeira formed the limits beyond which certain species never passed. … the species found on one side very often do not occur on the other. … the same phænomena occur both with birds and insects, as I have observed in many instances.
If two sides of a river are so drastically different, I often think, then even five miles away must also be a different world. A single species might live exclusively in a single five-mile radius of the forest. Perhaps a species of beetle or butterfly or ant could go its entire millions years existence unknown to humanity. Perhaps this hypothetical beetle or ant, never seen by human eyes, went extinct when Wallace himself walked over its nest, crushing the final members of the species. Such scenarios must happen every day, completely unwitnessed, undocumented, and unremembered.
Wallace must have known, in some way, that his task was impossible. But this, I think, only fired his passion to see and describe whatever he could.
The more I see of the country, the more I want to, and I can see no end of the species of butterflies when the whole country is well explored…
Four years later, with his mind packed full of discovery and data, and his ship packed with drawings and samples, Wallace began the journey home.
On the 12th of July I embarked in the “Helen,” 235 tons, for London…
I have a recurring vision of Wallace’s departure that day, of my own imagining, I’m sure. But I see the scene so vividly that sometimes I convince myself it could be a memory, and I play with the idea that I am perhaps some form of a reincarnation of Wallace. In my vision, Wallace stands at the prow of the ship, his hands on the splintered railing, gazing into the horizon. The warm wind ruffles his hair, and he breathes deep as his belongings are loaded onto the ship behind him. All his countless thoughts and discoveries are safely packed up, and soon to be shared with the world. There is a feeling of contentment that resides in his chest. A feeling of satisfaction, of creation. And a feeling of anticipation for what the world will think of the things he is about to show them. He hears the deep flutter and snap of the unfurled sails catching wind, and the ship moves under his feet.
At certain times in my life, I have felt as if on the precipice of disaster. As if I were on an inevitable path to something terrible. This cold feeling of dread and terror is directed nowhere and attached to nothing. Nothing disastrous ever happens during these episodes, and the feeling fades to calmness after, at most, several hours. I have often wondered if these feelings, seemingly unattached to any events happening around me, are an echo of future trauma. Could certain impactful things that will happen in my life send ripples of emotion backward in time? I wonder, too, because just before my vision of Wallace ends, I feel that same cold feeling of anticipation, perhaps an echo from a day 26 days later.
On the 6th of August, … at 9, A.M., smoke was discovered issuing from the hatchways … and soon filled the cabin… By noon the flames had burst into the cabin and on deck, and we were driven to take refuge in the boats, which, being much shrunk by exposure to the sun, required all our exertions to keep them from filling with water. The flames spread most rapidly; and by night the masts had fallen, and the deck and cargo was one fierce mass of flame. We staid near the vessel all night; the next morning we left the ship still burning down at the water’s edge, and steered for Bermuda…
The only things which I saved were my watch, my drawings of fishes, and a portion of my notes and journals. Most of my journals, notes on the habits of animals, and drawings of the transformations of insects, were lost.
My collections were mostly from … the wildest and least known parts of South America, and their loss is therefore the more to be regretted. I had a fine collection of the river tortoises (Chelydidæ) consisting of ten species, many of which I believe were new. Also upwards of a hundred species of the little known fishes of the Rio Negro … My private collection of Lepidoptera … there must have been at least a hundred new and unique species. I had also a number of curious Coleoptera, several species of ants in all their different states, and complete skeletons and skins of an ant-eater and cow-fish, … the whole of which, together with a small collection of living monkeys, parrots, macaws, and other birds, are irrecoverably lost.
I try to imagine Wallace sitting on that crowded little boat, rocking on the waves, watching for hours as four years of work slowly burn and sink into dark waters.
As I write this in 2019 the Amazon rainforest is being burnt to clear way for cattle grazing land, and many of the species Wallace once documented are likely gone. Though he had no way to know it, with the destruction of his specimens and notes those species were lost forever. When Wallace died, the last traces of their existence that resided within his mind
, were erased from reality.
When I think about this I inevitably think about my own knowledge and experiences. If I were to die, they too would be lost forever, for I have written none of them down. We live in a fragile world full of temporary things. Every animal, every insect, every tree, lake, ocean–everything is temporary. It is imperative not to take these things for granted while we do have them. We must also attempt to preserve the memory of the world around us for future generations to learn from and enjoy. The life of the Amazon that Wallace, and others, did manage to describe and research will continue to be learned from and enjoyed long after the Amazon itself is gone from the world.
Our own lives, too, are temporary. I feel, now more than ever, an urge to describe everything around me and inside me, for preservation.
Memories of Birds
As a young teen walking home one night just after sunset I saw a swirling mass of crows above a lone pine tree. They spun like a black funnel against the purple sky, and every so often their cacophonic mess of caws synchronized like a radio coming briefly into tune, caw! caw! caw! I felt as if they knew a secret, as if their calls had a purpose. That particular tree seemed to have some special meaning to them. I imagined the tree was an altar in some crow religion, or a fortress in a bird war. After that night I noticed every crow that crossed my path, flew overhead, or hopped into the street to peck at a piece of trash. I remember wondering how I never noticed them before.
Some years later I read an article describing crow intelligence as being equal to that of a six- or seven-year-old human child. I watched crows carefully after that, and tried to imagine their intentions and ideas, their memories and friends. Coming across a dead crow, stiff with tattered wings, laying on a sidewalk, as one does now and then, became a memorable experience. I would often think about the scene for hours, unable to avoid the image of a six-year-old child laying ignored on the pavement. I wondered if other crows were missing him or her as they waited at a meeting spot in the trees. I wondered if the others called for the dead crow. I wondered if they mourned. And I wondered if the dead crow had known death was coming, and if he or she had dreaded the end. I wondered if the fear of death was possible for crows, as it is for human children–a kind of primal fear that children experience even if they do not understand the source of the fear.
In 2013 I encountered an unusual group of crows on the edge of a man-made pond outside my office building. I would often walk circles around this pond, which was perhaps twenty feet across, in an effort to relax during stressful days. No fish lived in it, but various birds gathered there. One fall afternoon I saw perhaps a dozen crows standing near the water in a scattering of red and brown leaves beneath a maple tree. I often would see birds in this area searching for insects or inspecting some trash, but in this instance the crows stood in a circle facing each other. I wondered what fascinated them, and approached slowly for a better look. As I did, the crows began to caw in unison. Although they must not have noticed me, because they hadn’t moved, I felt I had somehow caused their caws. A sense that something was impending settled over me and I was overcome, as I sometimes am, with an unfocused dread and coldness. The chill autumn wind seemed to pass through my jacket, my skin, and into my bones. I took a step and crunched a leaf underfoot, and the circle broke apart. The crows took flight hesitantly, not as if scared, but as if unwilling to leave. When the snap and flutter of their wings had faded into the sky I saw, on a bed of brown leaves, a stiff, black-feathered carcass. Spread around and on the body were perhaps a dozen aluminum beer tabs, bottle caps and various coins, which I stared at for some time before understanding what they were. The objects, all shiny, seemed to be placed deliberately on and around the dead crow. One item stood out to me. It was gold in color and looked like a medallion or pendant, rather than a coin. I carefully plucked it from the body and slipped it into my pocket.
Several days later I searched the internet for the meaning of the symbol on the pendant, which I at first had thought was a stylized dragon. I scrolled through several pages of dragon icons before I tried a reverse image search and got a result which I found hard to believe. The symbol, I read, originated in Korean mythology and represented Samjogo, or Samjok-o, a three-legged crow who lived in the sun. This creature appeared in several east Asian mythologies, the oldest of which was Chinese in origin. In the Chinese version of the story, ten sun-crows, called the Yangwu, or Jīnwū, meaning ‘golden crow,’ lived in ten different suns. Each day one of the sun-crows would be chosen to fly around the world in a carriage driven by Xihe, who was the Chinese sun deity, and mother of the suns. As soon as one crow returned, another would set out in its place to circle the world. Folklore says that sometime around 2170 BC all ten sun-crows came out on the same day, causing the world to burn. Complete destruction was averted, however, by the mythological archer Hou Yi, who shot down all but one of the sun-crows.
For several weeks after reading about Samjogo, I thought continuously about the origins of the pendant. I tried to visualize, as I do with many objects, the pendant’s past. These thoughts became more vivid and detailed, until I had crafted a complete story of its history, and what began as a simple curiosity about the pendant’s age had evolved into a fantastic belief that I had found an artifact. I imagined a first century tradesman of the Goguryeo kingdom pouring liquid metal into a mould. I saw the glowing red icon dipped into a barrel of black water with an angry spit, and I saw the icon presented to its commissioner–perhaps a royal, uncomfortably wary of staining his robes in the tradesman’s filthy workshop. Perhaps, I imagined, the pendant was a family seal, created for a new, upstart house. Perhaps the three legs of Samjogo symbolized the three princes that held up this new house. Perhaps the two younger princes, jealous of their older brother’s position and his gift of this new icon and status, conspired against him. I imagined a hunting trip, a contrived reason to leave the view of the servants, and a sudden attack, the prince’s body tumbling into a ravine, splashing blood onto leaves and branches and rocks with every bone-breaking tumble. And the two brothers, climbing carefully down, searching the body, then searching for hours the bloody path of its descent, unable to find the pendant, which hangs tangled in the branches of a young sapling. The brothers leave. Days flicker by, then years. The sapling grows and lifts the pendant toward the sun and the sky. Light glints on the metal, dew settles and evaporates and tarnishes the gleam as the pendant rises on the extending, growing branch. The branch swells and presses against the thin silver until the chain snaps, and the pendant falls from the great height it has risen to, and lands in a wheel rut in what is now a well-beaten path alongside the towering tree…
At this point the desire to know how this pendant came to be resting atop a dead crow in the United States overwhelmed me, and I brought the item to a jeweler to be evaluated. Within several seconds of holding the pendant in his manicured hand, the jeweler informed me that the icon was composed of pewter and paint, and had been manufactured within the past decade. When I pressed him about the possibility of it being much older, he informed me that the certainty of the pendant being made in this century was 100%, due to the kind of mould used. After some further reading I learned that at least two sports teams and several corporations in Korea use the three-legged sun-crow as their logo, including a luxury car manufacturer.
While the details of my vision did not apply to that specific pendant, I was enthralled by the idea that the Samjogo symbol, originating thousands of years ago across the sea, had found its way onto the body of a dead crow in my own city. I have kept the pendant on my nightstand ever since. I often wonder about the crow that found the pendant–perhaps shining in the sunlight in the dirt or grass, or on a busy sidewalk–and after a curious turning of its head, plucked the treasure up in its beak to take to the body of its friend or relative. Samjogo, I have often thought, is a kind of metaphysical monument to crows, crafted by society, and history, and stories, and the mind.
Three years later I moved to a new city, and the presence of another crow monument refreshed my memories of Samjogo and renewed my interest in birds. This new monument was constructed not of ideas and culture, but of powder-coated aluminum and concrete, and stood outside my local library. The sculpture was 12 feet high and 18 feet long, and depicted a common black crow standing next to a familiar, orange colored box of French fries. The crow held one fry in its beak with its head tilted slightly to the side, as if ready to take flight at any sign of danger. At night, the crow was lit from below with a subtle blue light and its eyes glowed yellow. This sculpture’s commonness, its reflection of such an everyday sight on a grand scale, struck at my heart. Other bird monuments came to mind, such as the Seagull Monument in Salt Lake City, or the monument to the passenger pigeon in Wisconsin. But this aluminum crow seemed, despite its size, much humbler than those. I passed this piece, entitled Crow With Fries, every day as I drove to my office, and was constantly reminded of all my experiences, visions and interests associated with crows and birds in general. Each time I passed it I felt as if a million tiny black eyes looked out from its face. As if a million scaled talons and beating wings pulled me toward it.
I first met Lisa Ong in Singapore in 2015 while waiting for a taxi outside the crowded Geylang market. I was watching a little hovering bird peck at the frayed edge of a large canvas banner advertising some event. The brown and yellow bird would dart back and forth and pluck until a strand came loose, then speed away in a blink, only to return moments later for more. The bird had flown off and returned multiple times as I waited. I imagined it was using the strands to build a nest somewhere. The bird was small enough to perch between the anti-roosting devices, or ‘bird spikes’ that had been installed on nearly every surface in the rafters and roof of the market. I was holding my camera toward the little bird, which had a dull greenish brown back and a yellow belly, when Lisa, standing next to me, spoke. That’s not a hummingbird, you know, she said. I lowered my camera, at first annoyed at the interruption, but I had in fact assumed it to be a hummingbird. No? I asked. She shook her head, smiling. She had short, black hair and large, round glasses that made her head look small. She was perhaps 40, near my age. It’s an olive-backed sunbird, she said. Westerners think they are hummingbirds, she said, but there are no hummingbirds in Singapore. She extended a slim hand. I’m Lisa, she said. We held a brief conversation while we waited at the taxi stand. The olive-backed sunbird, she told me, is common even in densely populated areas due to its incredible adaptation to humans. Despite all the bird spikes and loud noises in cities, the birds manage to make nests here. I learned, as we waited, that Lisa was an ornithologist who studied intelligence in various bird species. As we talked, every time she mentioned the olive-backed sunbird, the word ‘sun’ fell into my mind like a pebble into a dark lake. The ripples compounded and splashed, and I remembered the three-legged sun-crow, and then the funnel of birds above the lone tree I had seen as a teenager. I asked Lisa about this persistent memory from my youth, and her eyes sparkled with the rare passion possessed only by those asked about a thing they are desperate to talk about. The birds circling above that tree, she told me, were preparing to roost. Crows roosted, she said, in groups of thousands or more. The largest such roosts had been documented at over 200,000 birds. The crows were known to return to the same locations over and over, often for many years, and the exact reasons for this are unknown. Our talk was cut short when her taxi arrived. We exchanged contact information and parted ways. Her description of the crows’ habitual behaviors made me realize I had never gone back to look at that pine tree in the twilight, despite knowing its exact location and having thought about that memory most of my life. I decided in that moment that I would visit the tree, and I did, shortly before I began writing this. The tree, however, had long since been cut down and the area paved over.
I thought of Lisa rarely in the intervening years, and neither of us ever contacted the other. When I decided to write about birds, however, I immediately remembered our spontaneous conversation and sought out her info. She answered my email within the hour, and we soon were chatting by phone. I was startled to learn that she was staying on Bainbridge Island, a mere ferry ride from my own city. She was there, she told me, to study the behavior of certain crows who had been observed bringing gifts to a local girl who had fed them for several weeks. I remembered reading the story, which had gained brief national attention. The gifts consisted of shining objects such as coins or bottle caps. The fact that Lisa was studying crows in my own area, and the remarkable similarity of the crow’s gifts to the objects at the scene I had witnessed by the pond, combined to create a strong sense of surreality in me. I felt as if I were having one of my detailed visions, but instead of some trinket or historical figure, this vision was about my own future. We arranged to meet two weeks later. I spent several hours preparing questions, and I purchased a new notebook and pen to document our conversation. I felt certain it would be a long and detailed talk. During the nights leading up to our meeting I had several dreams featuring the Crow With Fries sculpture. In the most memorable of these dreams the city had been erased, as well as all trees, grass and any signs of life. The crow stood alone on an endless, sandy plain, and was pelted by dust in waves that built until I could see nothing.
It was raining on the morning of our meeting and I stayed below deck during the ferry ride across the Puget Sound. Later, as I drove off the ferry, I saw a group of children in brightly colored raincoats holding bright yellow bags and picking trash out of the dark morning waters on the foggy shore.
I entered, with some trepidation, the coffee shop where we had agreed to meet. I had visualized our possible conversations so vividly and repeatedly that I worried I would, as I sometimes do in these cases, get confused about what had actually been said and what I’d imagined her saying in the days leading up to our meeting. As I entered the little cafe, which had a small stage and microphone in one corner and was decorated with various colorful paintings, those fears vanished. Lisa’s appearance had changed much in four years. Her hair was now shoulder length and had accumulated several grey streaks. She no longer wore glasses, and her eyebrows seemed to have all but disappeared. I would have no trouble differentiating this Lisa from the imagined Lisa I had already spent hours talking with.
Despite these changes to her appearance, I recognized her immediately when she stood up and greeted me with an extended hand. Her voice contained the same passionate excitement as in our first conversation, though now it seemed tinged with a kind of weariness. I sat across from her. We were alone, seemingly in the world. The barista had yet to make an appearance and the parking lot and roads were empty in this early hour. We smiled at one another, but with nothing beside our one previous conversation to go on, small talk was impossible. I took out my notebook, which was leather and embossed with two wrens in flight on the cover. I asked her if she minded, and when she shrugged I placed the notebook on the table and opened to the first page. I wanted to continue, I told her, our conversation about the crows. She seemed to be thinking of what to say, then hesitated. She folded and unfolded her hands, cleared her throat, all the while watching the tip of my pen. I set down the pen and told her I would not write anything that she didn’t want me to write. She insisted that she wasn’t bothered, and that she only hadn’t expected to feel as if she were being interviewed. The oppressive silence of the coffee shop struck me suddenly. There was no music, no other people, no splash and clatter of dishes being washed in a back room. The lights were not on and we sat in the dim grey of early morning filtered through low clouds. I saw that Lisa had no drink in front of her and I wondered for a moment if any employees were here at all. The sense that we were alone in the world rose like a cold wave. I imagined outside there were empty roads and empty houses slowly being grown over with ivy, walls and floors pushed through by vines and trees that swelled and burst through the roofs, crumbling everything into dirt to feed their roots. In this new world birds would black the sky with their wings and roost on every surface. A moment later the lights blinked on, and the speakers popped to life, spilling out the nostalgic piano and echoing vocal opening of ABBA’s The Winner Takes It All. A door slammed, the barista appeared–a tall, thin man with a small beard—and he brought us the two black coffees we asked for. Cars droned outside. The cafe door opened and closed with a jingle and two grey-haired women entered and took a table near the stage. The world moved around us again. Lisa smiled, and seemed to blink away the same fog I had been experiencing. I sensed that I had been going about the meeting the wrong way. I closed my notebook. Why did you come to be an ornithologist? I asked her. Her eyes sparkled with the same passion I had seen in our first conversation years ago, and she began to talk. When I opened my notebook again, she did not notice.
Before I was ever interested in birds, my greatest passion was art, Lisa began. From ages nine to thirteen I wanted nothing more than to be a great painter. I read everything about art and artists, and their ways of living–all kinds of art, not just painting. I considered musicians and actors and dancers all to be artists as well, and I studied them and their creations, searching for what elements would grab my heart. It all felt so important then. I often imagine what I might be doing today if I’d kept my focus on painting. Sometimes, when I lay unsleeping in the dark, I feel the presence of an alternate self living alongside me, on the other side of a thin, yet indestructible membrane. She, this other me, is dreaming of colors and canvas instead of beaks and flight patterns, and I feel that if I could only turn at just the right angle, I could slip over to that other life and be her without skipping a heartbeat.
On my thirteenth birthday, Lisa said, my father gave me a book on the 19th century Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyosai. Kyosai’s colorful, active, and often ridiculous paintings appealed to my childish humor and tastes, and his personality was a paradigm shift in my young mind. His multiple arrests, his drinking and general reckless behavior were completely at odds with my notions of what an artist should be. Such confusion and danger made him more real and identifiable. It made important art seem possible for normal, flawed people like me. One particular sentence in this book, a very short sentence lacking details, mentioned almost offhandedly that Kyosai had picked up a severed human head out of the Kanda river as a boy of nine, and that this event had affected his aesthetics. I tried to imagine, Lisa said, what I would do if I found a head in the Singapore River. Would I pick it up? I could not decide if I would. I read the sentence over and over, as if my eyes could scrub away the vague words to find more detail beneath. The way the sentence was phrased did not make it clear whether the head was alone, or if the rest of the body was there as well. The sentence could even be read as though Kyosai had removed the head from the body himself.
I thought about Kyosai and the head in the river for days, Lisa told me. In my mind, she said, it is early morning and raining when Kyosai finds the head. A light rain, almost a mist, sends ripples across the muddy water on the riverbank. I see Kyosai thrashing at grass with a long stick and squelching mud between his bare toes, stomping as young boys do. Taking up space. At the river’s edge he lets the running water rinse his feet and thrusts his stick at imaginary fish. Then, there to his right, tangled in reeds or pinned against rocks, is the body. In my vision, Lisa told me, the head is above water and facing away from Kyosai. Short, tangled black hair sways with the lapping water, back and forth, like seaweed. It is human nature, isn’t it, Lisa said, to need to see a face? It is the most natural thing in the world. And if you asked me to name something unnatural, the most unnatural thing to me, Lisa said, would be a person with no face. A person whose back is always to me, ever turning away as I try to circle him. Kyosai knew, I think, Lisa told me, that if he did not see this dead person’s face, the unknown visage would haunt him. The body in the river would be forever with its back to him, and whenever he recalled it he would see only the wet, limp hair on the back of the head and always wonder about the unseen face. Perhaps he also knew, subconsciously, that the unseen is always more terrifying than the seen. So he wades carefully into the black, chilled river water on that cloudy morning, and he picks up the head, which comes loose from the body as he tries to move it. He turns the head, cold and wet with hair tangling in his child’s fingers, and looks on the face.
Lisa paused at this point and took several sips of her coffee in silence while staring at some point behind me. Of course I have no real details about Kosai’s experience at the river, Lisa continued, folding her hands in front of her. This is only what I imagined as a child. For several weeks I scoured the library–this was before the internet was widely available–for any books about Kyosai, and found none. Then I borrowed, one by one, any books on Japanese art, which I scanned line by line for any mentions of Kyosai. All this was in an effort to find the slightest detail on Kyosai’s experience with the head. I was never able to find anything beyond those few sentences about his aesthetic shock at the Kanda river. Sometimes I am certain that this story must be written of somewhere, and now and then I spend a few minutes or hours searching for references. But a part of me also wonders if that experience died with Kyosai, and if the small fragment of hearsay I read in the book my father gave me as a child is the only evidence that remains of that day.
During my weeks in the library looking at page after page of Japanese art, I was attracted to several Kyosai drawings which I recognized from the book my father had given me. Two of these drawings, Crow on a Withered Branch and Crow on a Plum Branch, at first appeared to be the same drawing, though upon closer examination I found subtle differences in the feathers. The third, Two Ravens on a Plum Tree, also featured similarly drawn black birds. The stark, cool style of these three bird drawings, in which the birds stared calmly ahead at some unknown feature off-canvas, stood out from Kyosai’s wildly colorful, elaborate paintings. Each time I came across one of these three bird drawings I looked at it longer. Then one day, instead of finding a new art book to scour, I opened a book about birds and searched for an entry on crows. I learned, among other things that day, that crows are monogamous, can live up to forty years, can use tools, are incredibly intelligent and can be trained to speak. At that time there were an abundance of crows in Singapore. They roosted everywhere, were always in the sky, and were such a common sight to me that they had become invisible. As I read about crows, they reentered my world. It seemed that each fact I learned brought more crows into existence around me, until the city was crowded with them. I found myself staring at them on the walk home from school as they flapped out from a tree or pecked at something on the ground. I felt on the verge of being able to communicate to them, and understand them.
Only a few days after I started reading about birds I learned that my father, as a member of the Singapore Gun Club, had been enlisted by the government to help reduce the crow population, which at that point had climbed to near 150,000. Every day my father and several other men from the club would go out into the city and hunt crows. They drove up and down the streets looking for the black birds, and when sighting one or more they would stop, hop out of their van, and shoot. Sometimes they would gather over 100 birds in a single outing. I learned my father was doing this not from him or my mother, but from other children at my school who’d seen my father carrying a gun on the street–very unusual in Singapore–and spread the story around.
That day when I returned home, I confronted my father about the stories I’d heard. I felt convinced it all must be a cruel joke orchestrated by my schoolmates. When my father not only confirmed what I’d heard but did so with a shameless smile and a pat on my shoulder, I burst into tears and fled to my room. After some time crying into my pillow, I decided that my father must not know anything about crows. They must be invisible to him as they had been to me only a few days earlier. All it would take, I thought, Lisa told me, would be for him to learn what I had learned, and he would no longer want to shoot crows.
As I began what I now think of as my first research project, Lisa said, certain unwelcome thoughts repeatedly interrupted me. These intrusive thoughts told me that my father had somehow discovered my interest in crows and was purposefully trying to remove them from view so that I would refocus on art. Most of me acknowledged the absurdity of this, but part of me kept returning to the question: why now? Why had my father begun to kill crows the moment I took an interest in them? During the next week I spent hours every day in the library collecting crow facts like bits of treasure and arranging them in the most provocative order. I felt, then, an absolute certainty that if I communicated my knowledge in a clear and simple way, my father would stop killing crows.
The day came when I was ready, and I sat my mother and father on the couch in our living room and set up my diorama: a folded piece of cardboard with various pictures and text attached. I described to my parents the evidence I’d found for the emotional and mental capabilities of crows. I highlighted the crows’ monogamy and strong social relationships with other crows, and their massive roosts that lasted for years or decades, full of crows that all knew each other. I described their ability to learn and remember, the capability to recognize human faces, and their understanding of mortality as evidenced by the gatherings of crows that form around the dead, which I described as funerals. I went on to outline in detail the various tools crows had been known to use, and tools they themselves had made. As I spoke, the postures of my parents changed in opposite directions. My mother leaned forward with interest, while my father leaned back and folded his arms. My mother’s eyes widened, my father’s narrowed. When I was finished, my mother complimented my speaking voice and organization and asked what class the project was for. My father stood and went to look out the kitchen window. After a moment I followed him and waited silently a few steps away, Lisa said. My father gripped the edge of the countertop tightly for several seconds, then said: Lisa, you think I want to kill all those birds? I don’t want to do it, it’s not a hobby. But someone has to do it. It’s for the good of our city, and someone has to do it. You have just made my job harder, he told me, Lisa said.
As a child I did not consider the differences between Singapore and the rest of the world, and I assumed, Lisa continued, that people everywhere must be killing crows. I thought, said Lisa, that if my father was not convinced by his own daughter to stop shooting them, then no one else on Earth would be. I really believed then that nothing would stop the killing, and crows would be wiped out. So my goal became to learn and document everything I could about crows before they were gone. Within a few years the crow population in Singapore was down to a manageable 35,000 and my father and the gun club were no longer needed. By then, though, my focus had been forever changed. I still have not forgotten that desperate feeling, like a burning fuse, as I rushed to gather what I thought would be the final photos and information on crows available to the world. I feel hints of that desperation today, sometimes, but I know much more about how the world works now.
At this point Lisa caught my eye and seemed to sense a question I hadn’t asked. These kinds of bird cullings, Lisa told me, are normal, and happen frequently. Only a few years ago, Lisa said, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore removed several hundred Javanese Myna birds from a large sea apple tree using a ‘roost net’ which officers lowered over the tree. Myna birds are pervasive in Singapore and are considered an invasive species. These particular birds were removed because their raucous chirping was upsetting people in the surrounding area. The net was hung over the tree during the night to prevent the sleeping birds from escaping, and the captured birds were then euthanized by AVA officers using carbon dioxide. It must sound to you like Singapore has a particular distaste for birds, Lisa said, but this is only because I lived there and am more aware of what goes on there than other places. Bird culling happens everywhere, even right here in Bainbridge. Only several days ago at the pier, USDA specialists were collecting seagulls to be euthanized. They carried carbon dioxide chambers, about the size of a microwave, with canisters of gas attached. The gulls are placed inside the chamber and the gas turned on, for a quick and easy death. This kind of thing is common practice to keep populations under control. It is not new historically speaking, either. Mao Zedong’s 1958 attempt to exterminate sparrows being one example.
Here I felt an impulse to interject and mention what were, in my opinion, some major differences between Zedong’s war on sparrows and the other bird cullings she had described. From my first sentence, though, I could see her face harden, and the fire in her eyes began to smolder and cool. I sensed that, to keep the conversation going, it was important that I change the subject. I asked her again about crow roosts and described my memory of the crows above the pine tree.
Little is known about how crows choose their roosts, Lisa told me, but once chosen, they tend to stay there for years, sometimes generations. Even when they are forced to move, such as when a tree is cleared for agricultural purposes, or for logging, the crows will choose a new roost in the same area. Some crow roosts have been known to form in the same areas for over 100 years. Most crows you see in cities, pecking at trash in the streets or standing on rooftops, commute into the city from roosts in the country dozens of miles away. They make this trip each morning and evening, forming long, loud convoys across the sky. When I see one of these so-called murders passing overhead, I often find myself stopping to watch. As I stare at the sky, Lisa said, I try to imagine where each crow might be heading, and I wonder if any of them are birds that I have encountered before. The same crows, usually in mated pairs, visit the same parts of their chosen cities every day, and encountering the same crows repeatedly is more likely than one might think. I remember distinctly the first time I noticed this. In the parking lot of a supermarket I would frequent, many years ago, I caught sight of a crow hopping on one foot and holding the other, presumably injured, leg up in its feathers. Its neck also appeared injured, with a section of bare skin exposed. It hopped agilely despite its injury, and pecked the pavement, scanning left and right for anything that might be food. Two more times that week I saw the same injured crow hopping about the same area of that parking lot. The third time, I felt somehow that it looked at me with recognition it its black eyes. I began to keep sunflower seeds in my car with the plan of giving some to the bird, but in the following weeks I could not find him, and did not see him again. All that is to say that crows are adept at remembering their chosen areas and the individual humans that they share the space with. I expect that in the coming years certain research projects will show that crows are sentient in a similar way to humans; that they are aware they exist and are able to think about their own thoughts.
Although it is most likely, Lisa continued, that the crows you see in cities have flown in from the country, city roosts are becoming increasingly common. Our own University of Washington is host to 150,000 crows each winter, at the Bothell campus. Campus goers have described the trees in the area as ‘slouching’ under their weight, and the crows themselves as a deafening cloud that blocks the sun. The crows’ reasons for moving into the city are not certain, but some possibilities include the ‘heat island’ effect caused by urban areas radiating more heat into the atmosphere than country areas, or the abundance of artificial lighting, which allows the crows to more easily watch for predators at night. Whatever the reasons, crows are more often choosing to roost in city trees, or even on rooftops. While rooftops can be covered with anti-roosting spikes to deter crows, residents are generally not as eager to remove trees from their neighborhoods. As a result, in order to quiet the crows, the USDA’s Wildlife Services has been using an avicide, DRC-1399, a slow-acting poison that targets the kidneys and heart. Birds poisoned in this way usually take several days to die, and there is no evidence that poisoning encourages the crows to change roosts. No matter how effective alternative methods, such as the repeated use of pyrotechnics or lasers in the area, are known to be at encouraging crows to change roosting locations, they require more effort and attention, and money, while poisoning is easy and cheap.
I again had the impulse to interrupt Lisa and say that while poisoning is distasteful to us as outsiders, it would be disingenuous to assume the Wildlife Services were using it solely due to a lack of funds, or a lack of will. But again, I had barely finished that statement when I saw that her desire to speak had shrunk, and she was looking at her watch.
At this point the coffee shop had become loud with chatter. I’ve been rambling, Lisa said, glancing around like she’d just woken from a dream into disappointing reality. I realize, she said, that I never answered your original question about why I became an ornithologist. I will answer it directly, then I must be off. I first wanted to be an ornithologist because I feared the extinction of my favorite bird. In the end, I survived all the study and hard work to reach my goal because I let go of certain hopes and accepted that change is inevitable. That acceptance has enabled me to focus on preserving the memory and knowledge of everything around me, without fear, anger, or sadness clouding my mind. She paused for a moment and her eyes seemed pointed at distant things beyond the walls of the cafe. As I get older, though, she said, I find again and again that there is always more hope for me to let go of.
I wanted to ask Lisa more about this, but she was standing, and we were shaking hands, and then I was alone.
I stayed in the coffee shop for some time after Lisa left. I went over my notes and began to reconstruct the conversation, but I felt distracted and uneasy. My mind repeatedly returned to Lisa’s mention of Mao Zedong’s war on sparrows. I felt then, as I do now, that Zedong’s attempted extermination was far different from other examples of bird culling, and it bothered me that Lisa had equated his extreme actions with the moderate culling of crows and myna birds that she had witnessed.
In the 1950’s Chinese scientists determined that each Eurasian Tree Sparrow consumed over 4 kg of grain per year. Using these numbers, they calculated that for every one-million sparrows killed they could save enough grain to feed over fifty thousand people. In 1958 Mao began his Great Sparrow Campaign. Millions of Chinese citizens took part in the effort and filled the streets, banging pots and pans or drums to scare the birds and prevent them from landing, forcing them to fly until they dropped from exhaustion. Out of civic duty the people destroyed nests and eggs, killed chicks, and shot at birds in flight. In the Xincheng district alone the people produced more than 80,000 scarecrows overnight, and over 100 free-fire zones were set up for citizens to shoot at the sparrows.
Whenever I read or think about this campaign, vivid imaginings intrude on me. In these visions I am a sparrow piercing the night wind above the twinkling lights of houses and farms and factories. I dip toward the ground, hoping to land, as I have attempted to many times in the past hour. An alien roar of clangs and explosions spikes my heart with adrenaline and my aching wings flap, raising me up, up, of their own accord. Everywhere I turn noise and moving shapes trigger my flight reflex. Danger is below. My muscles burn and my heart vibrates against my tiny ribs. I dip, and rise again at the shocking sounds. Down again, feathers fluttering, eyes darting. I can’t land, but I must, but I can’t, but I must–It is estimated that hundreds of millions of sparrows were killed in Mao’s campaign, before an influx of locusts destroyed even more grain, and the effort was called off. This concentrated effort to eliminate sparrows with the intent of extermination cannot, in my opinion, be honestly placed alongside Lisa’s other examples, in which the killings were for preservation and balance. Mao’s attempt to remove a species in this unnatural way was a major contributing factor to the Great Chinese Famine, in which thirty million people died of starvation.
Being unable to express these thoughts directly to Lisa frustrated me, and I decided to walk up the street from the coffee shop to clear my head. I often walk aimlessly for this reason. I find, in many ways, that the mind functions as a machine in which gears must be turned by physical force. I often imagine that each time I swing my leg forward a lever is pulled which turns a gear and moves my thoughts along as if on a conveyor. This production line of thoughts moves through my awareness, transporting ideas out of a jumbled heap into a long, organized line for me to observe at my leisure. The sun had burned away some of the low clouds, and I felt its gentle heat on my neck as I walked. Only several blocks later a sense of calm had come over me.
After some time walking, I encountered an antique shop, or what some may call a curiosity shop. On display behind a window were dozens of painted animal figurines between one and two inches in height. I cupped my hand against the smudged glass. The figurines appeared worn by years of handling. I saw many dogs, cats, horses, bears and dolphins. Also among them were four black birds, which drew my interest. Black birds such as crows and ravens are rarely chosen by figurine makers due to their lack of bright color and their common association with death. These figurines appeared hand carved and painted, and the positioning of the black birds reminded me of the Crow With Fries sculpture near my home. I wanted to hold one and feel the weight and hard edges against my palm. A bell clacked weakly as I entered the shop. I saw no one, and heard nothing but the whirring and clicking of an air conditioner. I maneuvered my way between leaning mirrors which reflected me from all sides and shelves stacked with dusty clocks, over to the figurine display. When seen closely, the figurines seemed thinner and somehow airy, like ghosts. I plucked a black bird perching on a stick up from the group of animals, and found that the figurine was light, hollow, and plastic. I rubbed away a sheen of dust which had led me to believe the plastic was worn paint on wood, and my thumb scuffed against a ridge where two halves of the figure had been pressed together in a factory.
Though not hand made as I had originally thought, these kinds of figurines held their own charm and interest. I often wondered, when seeing these kinds of mass-produced items, how many were out in the world. These particular figurines appeared old, perhaps older than me, and were likely discontinued. Even so, there could be hundreds or even thousands spread throughout the world, sitting in shops like this one, or on bookshelves in homes, or in drawers or toy boxes, in basements or attics or stowed under stairs, or outside being grown over by moss or weathered by sun, or buried deep in the earth. Many of them would remain exactly where they were long after I was dead.
And what of the bird who this figurine had been modeled on? Designers often used a photo for reference, or a sketch based on a real bird seen by the artist. The individual bird, surely dead by now in this case, would never know the progeny it left, the resilient replicas scattered across the continent, many more, certainly, than its biological descendants. Sometimes when I come across simple toy birds in a discount store or supermarket, formed in the familiar ‘v’ shape that gives the barest impression of a bird, I imagine the factory that is, perhaps, still producing them at that moment. I imagine the injection molding machine pumping the molten polyethylene beads into the mould, which then opens with a hiss to birth the hardened replica. The toys tumble out, one after the other, as if the goal were to produce one for each individual bird on Earth. In some cases, such as Peacock or Bald Eagle figurines, the number in existence without doubt outnumber all living members of the species.
After some time an elderly woman wearing a green knit coat appeared to sell me two of the bird figurines for three dollars each. Next to the register a taxidermied grey squirrel on a plinth held down a stack of crumpled receipts. On the side that faced me, the glass bead eye that such creations usually possessed was missing.
I returned to my car and placed the plastic bag containing the two figurines on the passenger seat. I was immediately aware of the whining buzz of a fly in the car with me. The fly passed near my face and pattered repeatedly against the window making a sound like raindrops. I watched the insect for a moment and imagined that it must be perceiving the window as some invisible, impenetrable force. Despite all its senses telling it there were clear skies ahead, the fly was blocked by some unnatural presence beyond its understanding. I rolled down the window to let the creature escape into the sunlight where it would, perhaps, end up dead on the outside of a windshield instead. The fly reminded me of a morning in my office three years prior. At that time I was experiencing severe anxiety and would employ a certain strategy for relaxation. I would take regular breaks from my work to stand at the window and stare at the trees and sky across the parking lot, which were in the same area as the man-made pond I have already described. I would stare at the towering pine trees, black against the pale morning sky, the grey, puffball clouds, the birds. These things, I would tell myself, are all that exists. I focused on the tops of the trees in order to keep the parking lot and cars out of my field of vision. This was an alternate version of a form of meditation I had created, which normally involved the ocean and a seagull, but required prolonged focus and quiet not available when at the office. On that particular morning I had watched as several birds, one by one, fluttered down to land on the tip of the tallest pine tree. The thin top of the tree swayed under their weight, and at once the birds burst into the sky in all directions. One flew directly toward me, and its flight was so straight that it seemed to be hovering in place and growing, as if being slowly zoomed in on by a telescope. In a moment I could see its brown head and black eyes, its tiny yellow beak. I was so mesmerized by the sight that the hollow thud! when the bird hit the window, mere feet from my face, made me jump and spill coffee over my hand and forearm. I couldn’t have spent more than a few seconds setting down my mug and hurrying to the window, but when I looked down, a maintenance employee who had been cleaning the lot was already sweeping the body into a black plastic trash bag, as if he’d been waiting for it to fall.
For the rest of that day I was occupied with thoughts of the bird. I imagined its rippling feathers as it gracefully pierced the morning, gliding toward what it surely thought was cool, sunlit air. I wondered if the bird had any sense of unease or foreboding before it hit. I thought of my own life, and all our lives, which could end at any moment due to things completely outside our understanding or control. Any one of us might be taking actions similar to an insect racing toward the light of an electric bug trap, or a dog bounding playfully into traffic, or a bird rushing toward glass. I wondered if I would feel a hint of danger before the end, or if I would be smiling, oblivious, certain that what lay before me was the wide, open air of tomorrow.
The maintenance man I had seen that day likely was quite familiar with sweeping up dead birds. Hundreds of millions of birds die from colliding with windows each morning, and most are cleaned up by custodians before the early crowd on their way into the offices and restaurants and other places of work around the world can be upset by them. In New York City alone between 100,000 and 250,000 birds die this way every year. I sometimes imagine that our towering skylines are like hands reaching up into a storm of birds. Like fingers out the window of a moving car being spattered by rain, a constant barrage strikes the windows like some gruesome hail. I often wonder how long it will take for birds to adapt to the phenomenon of glass. Even 150 years ago, birds died by the thousands from crashing into the panels of the Statue of Liberty’s torch or circling the bright light like confused moths until dropping to their deaths from exhaustion. In all the time that cities have existed, most birds have not adjusted to their new environment. Some, such as mynah birds or crows can easily make their homes in our cities. But most species simply die. It is because these birds have failed to adapt, to glass among other things, that in North America the bird population has dropped by nearly 30% in the past 50 years.
After my walk and sitting in my car for a moment I felt at peace, and I called Lisa to set up another meeting. I had some hopes we could talk again that evening, and wanted to find out if so before I left. The phone rang quite a long time before she answered, and her hello sounded hesitant. For some reason I imagined a group of people behind her being waved to silence as she held a hand over the mouthpiece. I thanked her for her time and elaborated on how interesting our conversation had been. As I talked, I sensed ice melting. She apologized for her abrupt departure from the coffee shop. There are certain memories and certain subjects, she said, that I am wary to talk about because of how people tend to react. I asked her about the possibility of meeting once more that evening and she hesitated again, but this time I felt it was the pause at the peak of a parabola right before descent, and that she would accept. I gave what I thought would be a helpful nudge, and mentioned my interest in discussing the passenger pigeon. I imagined the glint in her eye that I had seen previously, and her eager gush of words. But instead, I immediately felt the wall of ice return. After some moments of silence she said that someone had just arrived at her house, and that she would have to talk later. The call ended.
The weather had cleared up by the time I was on the ferry back to Seattle and I spent some time on deck enjoying the crisp wind and clear sky. As the ferry pushed away from the pier a long line of birds flew far overhead. They stretched from one horizon to the other in a continuous trickle of black spots. If I were living in some other year in the past, or perhaps in the future, instead of a trickle I might have seen a thick, undulating stream that cast rippling shadows over the blue waters. When I think of the ebb and flow of animal populations, I cannot help but to visualize a thundering mass of passenger pigeons blacking the sky. No flock of birds has or will ever compare to the passenger pigeon, which I had hoped to speak about with Lisa. The passenger pigeon first fascinated me when I read an 1895 article describing them, written by Simon Pokagon, a Pottawatomi Indian author and Native American advocate. I encountered his article purely by luck during a visit to the Ernst Mayr Library at the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology.
At the time, I had been enamored with old texts of all kinds. I would take great pleasure from holding the oldest books I could find and imagining the scores of long dead people who read them before me. I would carefully note each tear or stain on each page and envision the ways these marks may have come to be. I would often sit for minutes or longer before I began to read, visualizing the ghosts who’d turned the pages and contemplating what ideas had been implanted in their minds, and what changes they had spread through the world as a result of those ideas. Because of this habit of mine, the Ernst Mayr Library’s collection of over 300,000 rare books and manuscripts and personal papers was like a magnet to me, especially the Special Collections within the library, a room containing nearly 15,000 of the most rare and valuable books and papers, as well as art, microforms, and some audio and video recordings. I imagined this priceless room must be a whirlwind of ghosts, and I thought that perhaps my imaginings would be even more detailed and vivid were I to sit in the exact center, surrounded by such a thick distillation of the past. After several years of considering a trip, an opportunity presented itself when I was called to attend my grandfather’s funeral in Hartford Connecticut, only a two hours’ drive from Harvard University. Even though I had only a few days’ notice, I was fortunate enough to secure two hours of private access to the Special Collections room for research purposes on the day after the funeral.
The funeral took place on a bright and hot July morning and I had great difficulty paying attention to anything. I had few strong memories of my grandfather, the clearest one being of a fishing trip we took together, perhaps ten years earlier. But instead of reminiscing I found myself imagining what books he must have read. His hands–I had a vague image of extraordinarily thick fingers, which I imagined were now folded on his chest in the darkness of the closed coffin–would never turn another page. What, I wondered, was the last book he read? The last sentence? One rarely had the luxury of being aware of their lasts as they happened. This, I thought, could be the last funeral I attended, and I would never know it. As the ceremony proceeded, I became increasingly fixated on the idea of My Grandfather’s Last Book. I decided it must have been a used book, perhaps one he discovered tucked into the wrong section at a bargain bookstore. An old and tatted printing of something widely read, perhaps a Dostoyevsky. I settled, for some reason, on Notes From Underground. I imagined the volume as a soft, pocket sized, leatherbound version, the kind commonly published in the early 1900’s, scuffed and frayed at the edges and stained on the cover. I imagined my grandfather’s large hands carefully turning the brittle, yellowed pages, his thumbs touching the corners exactly where unknown others had a hundred years before. If I could somehow discover everyone across time who had read that volume, I wondered, for how many would it also be their Last Book? Perhaps my grandfather was unique in that way. Perhaps he would even be the last person ever to read that particular stack of paper and ink. Books, as all things, must also eventually die, whether they are destroyed by fire or water, or eaten by insects. I realized then that some person in the future would be the last person to ever read Notes From Underground at all. Not just a particular printing of the book, but the novel as a whole must too eventually be lost to decay.
When the priest finished speaking and the other family members had their say, the casket was lowered ponderously into the ground. We then lined up to take handfuls of dirt from a bucket that had been set aside for this purpose. I heard repeated mumbles of ‘ashes to ashes’ and the clatter of pebbles on the coffin as the line moved forward. When my turn came, I tossed the dirt onto the lacquered wood lid, then brushed away an ant that was crawling up my wrist. The ant fell into the grave, and for a moment I had a sickening vision of it crawling across my grandfather’s face, seeking a soft place to bite. But of course, that was only my imagination. That ant would be dead, as would, possibly, some of the people at this funeral, before any insect drew sustenance from my grandfather’s body. The chemicals that now filled his veins, the treated wood of the coffin, the cement enclosure around the grave–all these would ensure that my grandfather took as long as possible to decompose. As I left the cemetery a few minutes later I could not help but imagine, beneath my feet and all across America, the hundreds of thousands of gallons of formaldehyde, the tens of thousands of tons of steel and cement, and the tens of thousands of trees-worth of wood, all silently working for the cause of preservation.
During the two hours’ drive to Harvard University I thought continuously about the gravesite, which was surely clear of onlookers by then. Even with no one observing it, the gravesite, and my grandfather in his coffin, would continue to move forward in time, silent, dry, and motionless.
When I arrived at the library I signed in at the Circulation Desk with my photo ID, and was directed to the Special Collections. Several rules were explained to me before I was allowed to access any of the materials. Only items for the use of note taking were allowed inside, this included laptop computers. I had brought only a notebook and five freshly sharpened pencils, as no pens were allowed. All materials were to be kept in their original order. No marks or annotations should be added or erased. No tracings or rubbings were allowed. All materials in the Special Collections were to be handled with extreme care. Nothing should be placed on top of a book or manuscript. Materials should only be laid flat on the table or placed in a provided book cradle. No material should ever be placed on the table’s edge, on top of another book, or in one’s lap. Notes should never be made on top of the material being consulted. I had of course already researched these requirements many months ago and agreed to them wholeheartedly. This process of explaining the rules only took a few minutes, and I was then allowed into the room and left to the books.
My first impression was of very thick, dry air, and dampened sound. The shelves seemed impossibly strong to be holding up such weight. The stillness and silence made my ears ring. I sat at the large, empty table where materials were to be placed, and spent several minutes enjoying the aura of age the books around me emitted. I imagined all the people who had sat silently reading in this room before me, 150 years’ worth of researchers whose fingers had touched these books, whose eyes had absorbed their information. After some minutes of these kinds of thoughts, I began pulling books at random from the shelves, taking care to note the locations I should return them to. Many of the texts were not in English, but I did not take them out to read. I wanted only to hold them, to become connected with them. Now, I thought, I was one of the few through history to touch each of these specific books. I imagined the threads tying me to the previous researchers and found the image to be extremely satisfying. Each book I chose I opened and turned idly through a few pages. I sought out smudges more than words, my greatest desire would be to find a fingerprint, or handwritten observation in the margins. Though most of the notes I made on these books were relating to the feelings and ideas that were triggered in me by this experience, I did record several entries that I found particularly memorable or interesting.
One such entry describes what I found in a catalog of Japanese wild birds, dated 1893, which contained brief descriptions of 70 different birds. This volume was quite tattered, and I remember my pulse raced as I set it gingerly on the table. I experienced equal parts worry and hope at the idea of tearing one of the fragile pages. On one hand my stomach twisted at the thought of damaging an artifact, but on the other hand, to leave such a mark would cement me in the book’s history for the rest of its existence. I turned to several entries at random:
(1) ALANDA JAPONICA, T. & S.
(HIBARI.) (SMALL JAPANESE SKY LARK.)
It is a native of Japan and lives in plains.
Both sexes are alike in the color of the plumage. It sings loudly and can be heard at a great distance. It builds the nest among bushes and does not form in flocks. The flight is powerful. It ascends high in the air, flying round and round; and when it is tired, it darts down and gets in to bushes. Though it is omnivorous, it feeds mostly on insects.
It is kept in the cage and its flesh can be used for food.
(22) ZOSTEROPS JAPONICA, T. & S.
(MEJIRO.) (JAPANESE WHITE-EYE.)
It is a native of Japan. It lives in mountains and comes down to plains from the autumn.
The male and female differ in the color of the plumage. The voice is high in tone. It is a most sociable bird and loves to live in company with others of its own species. It is very skillful in making its nest. It feeds mostly upon fruits, though it is omnivorous.
It is of no use but as a cage bird.
(50) RHYNCHAEA CAPENSIS, L.
(TAMASHIGI.) (PAINTED SNIPE.)
It is a native of Japan and inhabits mountains.
The male and female differ in the color of the plumage. In all birds, it is only with this species that the female is more brilliantly colored than the male. It feeds always upon insects and mollusks in the neighborhood of lakes, marshes, and small streams. It is weak in the wings and cannot fly to any great distance.
It is an important species among the birds used for food and its flesh is delicious.
As I carefully transcribed these descriptions into my notebook, I imagined being in the Japanese plains of a century past, crouching in the brush with my binoculars and journal, carefully recording each bird’s appearance and behavior. I never would have suspected that someone four generations later and on the opposite end of the planet would be reading my translated words.
In another book, entitled Save the sage grouse from extinction; a demand from civilization to the western states by William T. Hornaday, published 1916, I noticed this insert near the front of the volume:
Your grandfather hunted elk and buffalo, until there were none.
Your father hunted antelope and mountain sheep, until there were none.
You are hunting deer, there still are some.
WHAT DO YOU WANT YOUR SON TO HUNT? RABBITS?
Join the Game Protective Associations
Help bring back the game
And on one of the first pages inside the same book:
(A Western Father presents his twelve-year-old Son with a new Gun)
Oh, where is the game, daddy? Where is the game
That you hunted when you were a boy?
You’ve told me a lot of the game that you shot;
No wonder such sport gave you joy.
I’m old enough now to handle a gun;
Let me be a sportsman, too.
I’d like my fair share of clean outdoor fun,
And I want to shoot, just like you
But where are the birds, daddy? Where are the birds?
I can’t put them up anywhere!
You had your good sport with the wild flocks and herds,
And surely you saved me my share.
And where is the big game that roamed around here
When grandfather came here with you?
I don’t see one antelope, bison or deer,
Didn’t grandfather save me a few?
Why don’t you speak up, dad, and show me some game?
Now, why do you look far away?
Your face is all red, with what looks like shame!
Is there nothing at all you can say?
What! “The game is all gone?” There is “no hunting now?”
No game birds to shoot or to see?
Then take back your gun; I’ll go back to the plow;
But oh! daddy, how could you rob me!
The arrow of time, I thought, is in reality a circle, or perhaps a spiral. We return always to the same events, the same fads and worries, the same disagreements. The passion with which this poem must have been composed, the fear and anger at those who were taking away this valuable resource for future generations, was so familiar to me that I had no trouble imagining its author. I pictured him at home alone sitting at a large oak desk that stretched out before him like a dinner table, empty of anything but paper and two candles to light the pages. He bends over it in a fervor, his greying hair sticking out at angles from being pulled in frustration, his shoulders hunched, the pen jerking back and forth across the page like the needle of a seismograph. The author of this poem could have written it about any number of species in 2016, or in 1816 for that matter. Of course, many of these worries go nowhere, as many worries today will go nowhere. Even 100 years later there are still well over 100,000 sage grouse in existence. The species that do go extinct were likely never destined to survive in our world.
I spent most of an hour pulling out and turning idly through books in this way. I tried to identify with the essence of the book and to imagine its history, and the life of its author. When I took The wild pigeon of North America by Simon Pokagon from the shelf and laid it on the materials table, though, I found myself reading the article straight through without a thought of anything but the visions Mr. Pokagon was placing in my mind, a telepathic message from a century past.
THE WILD PIGEON OF NORTH AMERICA.
BY CHIEF POKAGON.
The migratory or wild pigeon of North America was known by our race as o-me-me-wog. Why the European race did not accept that name was, no doubt, because the bird so much resembled the domesticated pigeon; they naturally called it a wild pigeon, as they called us wild men.
This remarkable bird differs from the dove or domesticated pigeon, which was imported into this country, in the grace of its long neck, its slender bill and legs, and its narrow wings… Its back and upper part of the wings and head are a darkish blue, with a silken velvety appearance. Its neck is resplendent in gold and green with royal purple intermixed. Its breast is reddish brown, fading toward the belly into white. Its tail is tipped with white, intermixed with bluish black…
It was proverbial with our fathers that if the Great Spirit in His wisdom could have created a more elegant bird in plumage, form, and movement, He never did.
When a young man I have stood for hours admiring the movements of these birds. I have seen them fly in unbroken lines from the horizon, one line succeeding another from morning until night… At other times I have seen them move in one unbroken column for hours across the sky, like some great river, ever varying in hue; and as the mighty stream, sweeping on at sixty miles an hour, reached some deep valley, it would pour its living mass headlong down hundreds of feet, sounding as though a whirlwind was abroad in the land. I have stood by the grandest waterfall of America and regarded the descending torrents in wonder and astonishment, yet never have my astonishment, wonder, and admiration been so stirred as when I have witnessed these birds drop from their course like meteors from heaven.
While feeding, they always have guards on duty, to give alarm of danger. It is made by the watch bird as it takes its flight, beating its wings together in quick succession, sounding like the rolling beat of a snare drum. Quick as thought each bird repeats the alarm with a thundering sound, as the flock struggles to rise, leading a stranger to think a young cyclone is being born.
I have visited many of the roosting places of these birds, where the ground under the great forest trees for thousands of acres was covered with branches torn from the parent trees, some from eight to ten inches in diameter. At such a time so much confusion of sound is caused by the breaking of limbs and the continual fluttering and chattering that a gun fired a few feet distant can not be heard, while to converse so as to be understood is almost impossible.
About the middle of May, 1850, while I was in the fur trade, I was camping on the head waters of the Manistee river in Michigan. One morning on leaving my wigwam I was startled by hearing a gurgling, rumbling sound, as though an army of horses laden with sleigh bells was advancing through the deep forests toward me. As I listened more intently I concluded that instead of the tramping of horses it was distant thunder; and yet the morning was clear, calm, and beautiful. Nearer and nearer came the strange commingling sounds of sleigh bells, mixed with the rumbling of an approaching storm. While I gazed in wonder and astonishment, I beheld moving toward me in an unbroken front, millions of pigeons… They passed like a cloud through the branches of the high trees, through the underbrush, and over the ground, apparently overturning every leaf. Statuelike I stood, half concealed by cedar boughs. They fluttered all around me, lighting on my head and shoulders…
…I sat down and carefully watched their movements, amid the great tumult. I tried to understand their strange language, and why they all chatted in concert. In the course of the day the great on-moving mass passed by me, but the trees were still filled with them sitting in pairs in convenient crotches of the limbs, now and then gently fluttering their half spread wings and uttering to their mates those strange bell-like wooing notes which I had mistaken for the ringing of bells in the distance.
On the third day after, this chattering ceased and all were busy carrying sticks with which they were building nests… On the morning of the fourth day their nests were finished and eggs laid… On the morning of the eleventh day after the eggs were laid I found the nesting grounds strewn with egg shells, convincing me the young were hatched. In thirteen days more the parent birds left the young to shift for themselves, flying to the east about sixty miles, where they again nested.
Both sexes secret in their crops milk or curd with which they feed their young, until they are nearly ready to fly, when they stuff them with mast and such other raw material as they themselves eat, until their crops exceed their bodies in size, giving them the appearance of two birds with one head. Within two days of the stuffing they become a mass of fat, a “squab.”…
It has been well established that these birds look after and take care of all orphan squabs whose parents have been killed or are missing. These birds are long lived, having been known to live twenty-five years caged.
During my early life I learned that these birds in spring and fall were seen in their migrations from the Atlantic to the Mississippi river. This knowledge, together with my observation of their countless numbers, led me to believe that they were almost as inexhaustible as the great ocean itself…
Between 1840 and 1880 I visited in the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan many brooding places that were from twenty to thirty miles long and from three to four miles wide, every tree in its limits being spotted with nests. Yet notwithstanding their countless numbers, great endurance, and long life, they have almost entirely disappeared from our forests.
A pigeon nesting was always a great source of revenue for our people. Whole tribes would wigwam in the brooding places. They seldom killed the old birds, but made great preparations to secure their young, out of which the squaws would make squab butter and smoked and dried them by the thousands for future use. Yet under our manner of securing them they continued to increase.
White men commenced netting them for market about the year 1840. These men were known as professional pigeoners, from the fact that they banded themselves together, so as to keep in telegraphic communication with these great moving bodies. In this they became so expert as to be almost continually on the borders of their brooding places. As they were always prepared with trained stool pigeons and fliers which they carried with them, they were enabled to call down the passing flocks and secure as many by net as they were able to pack in ice and ship to market. In the year 1848 there were shipped from Catteraugus county, N.Y., eighty tons of these birds; and from that time to 1878 the wholesale slaughter continued to increase, and in that year there were shipped from Michigan not less than three hundred tons of these birds. During the thirty years of their greatest slaughter there must have been shipped to our great cities 5,700 tons of these birds; allowing each pigeon to weigh one half pound would show twenty-three millions of these birds. … and all these were caught during their brooding season, which must have decreased their numbers as many more. Nor is this all. During the same time hunters from all parts of the country gathered at these brooding places and slaughtered them without mercy.
In the above estimate are not reckoned the thousands of dozens that were shipped alive to sporting clubs for trap shooting …
These experts finally learned that the birds while nesting were frantic after salty mud and water, so they frequently made near the nesting places, what was known by the craft as mud beds, which were salted, to which the birds would flock by the million. In April, 1876, I was invited to see a net over one of these death pits. It was near Petoskey, Michigan. I think I am correct in saying the birds piled one upon another at least two feet deep when the net was sprung, and it seemed to me that most of them escaped the trap, but on killing and counting, there were found to be over one hundred dozen, all nesting birds.
When squabs of a nesting became fit for market, these experts prepared with climbers would get into some convenient place in a tree top loaded with nests, and with a long pole punch out the young, which would fall with a thud like lead on the ground.
In May, 1880, I visited the last known nesting place east of the Great Lakes. It was on Platt River in Benzie County, Michigan. There were on these grounds many large white birch trees filled with nests. These trees have manifold bark, which when old hangs in shreds like rags or flowing moss, along their trunks and limbs. This bark will burn like paper soaked in oil. Here for the first time I saw with shame and pity a new mode for robbing these birds’ nests, which I look upon as being devilish. These outlaws to all moral sense would touch a lighted match to the bark of the trees at the base, when with a flash more like an explosion the blast would reach every limb of the tree and while the affrighted young birds would leap simultaneously to the ground, the parent birds, with plumage scorched, would rise high in the air amid flame and smoke. I noticed that many of these young squabs were so fat and clumsy they would burst open on striking the ground. Several thousand were obtained during the day by that cruel process. …
I have read recently in some of our game sporting journals, “A warwhoop has been sounded against some of our western Indians for killing game in the mountain region.” Now if these red men are guilty of a moral wrong which subjects them to punishment, I would most prayerfully ask in the name of Him who suffers not a sparrow to fall unnoticed, what must be the nature of the crime and degree of punishment awaiting our white neighbors who have so wantonly butchered and driven from our forests these wild pigeons, the most beautiful flowers of the animal creation of North America.
In closing this article I wish to say a few words relative to the knowledge of things about them that these birds seem to possess.
In the spring of 1866 there were scattered throughout northern Indiana and southern Michigan vast numbers of these birds. On April 10 in the morning they commenced moving in small flocks in diverging lines toward the northwest part of Van Buren County, Michigan. For two days they continued to pour into that vicinity from all directions, commencing at once to build their nests. I talked with an old trapper who lived on the brooding grounds, and he assured me that the first pigeons he had seen that season were on the day they commenced nesting and that he had lived there fifteen years and never known them to nest there before.
From the above instance and hundreds of others I might mention, it is well established in my mind beyond a reasonable doubt, that these birds, as well as many other animals, have communicated to them by some means unknown to us, a knowledge of distant places, and of one another when separated, and that they act on such knowledge with just as much certainty as if it were conveyed to them by ear or eye. Hence we conclude that it is possible that the Great Spirit in His wisdom has provided them a means to receive electric communications from distant places and with one another.
I sometimes wonder if perhaps at the same moment in 1853 while Alfred Wallace watched a ship full of his research sink into the ocean, Simon Pokagon watched a roaring cloud of Pigeons descend from the sky, knowing full well they would be slaughtered by the thousands as they landed.
Simon Pokagon died four years after this article was published, in 1899. Little more than a year after his death, the last wild pigeon, or passenger pigeon, was shot in March of 1900, though some remained alive in captivity. I learned all of this and more, weeks later during my own research and reading on the passenger pigeon. I was able to visit, later that year, Wyalusing State Park, Wisconsin, where a monument to the passenger pigeon was built by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology in 1947. The stone monument was erected upon a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers, and is adorned with a bronze plaque featuring a passenger pigeon as drawn by Wisconsin bird artist Owen Gromme. Conservationist and environmentalist Aldo Leopold gave the commencement speech at the monument’s unveiling, in which he said, “We have erected a monument to commemorate the funeral of a species. It symbolizes our sorrow. We grieve because no living man will see again the onrushing phalanx of victorious birds, sweeping a path for spring across the March skies, chasing the defeated winter from all the woods and prairies of Wisconsin. Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons. Trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a decade hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know. There will always be pigeons in books and in museums, but these are effigies and images, dead to all hardships and to all delights. Book-pigeons cannot dive out of a cloud to make the deer run for cover, or clap their wings in thunderous applause of mast-laden woods. Book-pigeons cannot breakfast on new-mown wheat in Minnesota, and dine on blueberries in Canada. They know no urge of seasons; they feel no kiss of sun, no lash of wind and weather. They live forever by not living at all…”
Species do not often have deaths that can easily be memorialized. They tend to fade away over decades, like a missing loved one, only begrudgingly admitted to be dead after many years without being seen. In the case of the passenger pigeon, however, the date of extinction is known down to within a few hours. The last passenger pigeon was named Martha, and she was born, lived, and died in the Cincinnati zoo. She outlived several other pigeons in the zoo, and survived in isolation in her eighteen by twenty foot cage for the final four years of her life, before dying on September 1st, 1914, at around 1pm. She was twenty-nine years old. I sometimes wonder if Martha had any sense of what she might have been, or if she felt any missing pieces within her. Her ancestors had flown in flocks by the millions, descending on forests like storms, spreading their young like a plague across the land. Martha had never been in a group of more than a dozen other birds, never laid a viable egg, never flown more than a few yards. Did she sense some other life she could have lived, outside the bars? After her death, Martha was frozen in a block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian, where she was skinned, dissected, photographed, and taxidermied. She was displayed for some years, then put into the museum vault. Recently, in 2015, she was again put on display, 100 years after her, and the species’, death.
The passenger pigeon fascinated me not only because the idea of such a large flock of birds had never occurred to me, but also because despite the relative recency of their demise, I had never heard of them. One expects dead things to fade into obscurity, but how could something so vast and stunning as a pigeon colony, the largest of which was estimated to contain 136 million birds, be forgotten just 100 years later by all but bird and nature enthusiasts? Though I have spent many an hour imagining the clamor and sound and crushing wind of a mass of these pigeons, I do not mourn their death, but rather I mourn the death of their memory. The passenger pigeon was not meant to live in our modern world, and never could have. Cities and planes and farming would have been their end, if not the hunting. They did not belong in a world with us, any more than a dinosaur brought back to life today would belong. Yet, the average person knows more about a millions-years-gone lizard than they do the passenger pigeon, despite the monuments built and articles written for them.
The Wyalusing State Park monument is not the only monument to the passenger pigeon in America. Another is at the Grange Audubon Center in Columbus, Ohio. This sculpture is one of five such memorials to extinct birds created by sculptor Todd McGrain of the Lost Birds Project. It is sculpted of solid, polished bronze and stands six feet high, weighing 700 pounds. It is posed perched on a stump, gazing upward as if, perhaps, imagining a time when the sky was not so empty. The other sculptures in the series are memorials to the Great Auk in Newfoundland, the Labrador Duck in New York, the Heath Hen in Massachusetts, and the Carolina Parakeet in Okeechobee, Florida.
The last Carolina Parakeet, called Incus, also died in the Cincinnati zoo, in the same cage as Martha. I hope to someday visit all five sculptures, and I often imagine a future far from now, when all memory of these birds has faded to myth and speculation. Perhaps people in such a far-off time would imagine the sculptures were, like the three-legged sun-crow, simply inventions of an imaginative society.
The ferry arrived back in Seattle and I drove off the ramp with the other passengers. I decided to stop near the pier and walk along the water a while before returning home. The sound of wind and the lapping of waves has always soothed some part inside of me that I do not understand. The feeling can be so strong that I sometimes play with the fantastical idea that humans are secretly descended from sea dwelling creatures, rather than apes. I passed many shops and restaurants along the pier before I found an empty railing to idle against. I relished in the screeching cries of the gulls overhead. They seemed a sound of the sea itself, synonymous with crashing waves and soft sand and windblown hair. I rubbed my hands back and forth over the metal railing and watched the sunlight glinting on the face of the Puget sound. Few ever consider the sea as anything more than its surface. But the waves that trickle constantly into shore are only palpitations on the skin of an unknowable, ancient being ten thousand feet tall who smothers our globe with its body.
Whenever I have been watching the waves for some time, I will inevitably recall one twilight I spent on a beach in Cancun, Mexico. That night I was alone on the shore as I watched the light drain from the sky. I stood at the edge of the water and let it roll up and over my ankles and bury my feet in smooth, white sand. No one else was nearby, and I could angle my line of sight so that it included only ocean and clouds. No piece of human creation interrupted the endless sky and endless sea, each stretching off in their own directions. The only sound was the thudding heartbeat of the surf. I could have been, I thought then, a time traveler to any point in history, present or future, and I would not have known it until I turned around. I remember noticing a blinking light that I suspected to be a plane, and in order to maintain my illusion of solitude I imagined the blinking was caused by distant lightning. Only a moment later I saw that it was, in actuality, the flicker of lightning that brightened the swollen clouds in the distance. I stood motionless for some time, and tried to believe that instead of a resort several hundred feet behind me and bustling cities just miles away, there was nothing but more sand, followed by trees and jungle. I could convince myself, for brief moments, that even I did not exist, that only the world existed, ancient and steady. The waves, repeating their timeless journeys to the shore, as they had always done for a billion years before man, and would continue to do for a billion years after, were the immortal pulse of this creature known as water. The sea, I thought then, was eternal. The metronomic waves were its heartbeat and were unending, and uncountable, and would always be, no matter how the earth may shift and reshape, like a glacial amoeba beneath its caress.
On other beaches, this kind of imagined solitude is impossible. The Singaporean shores, for example, are crowded with cargo ships coming into port. There is not a day without dozens of them visible scattered at various distances along the edge of sky and sea. I remember distinctly one afternoon walking along the beach at East Coast Park. The ships were so numerous that they seemed to fade into the horizon, as if the whole ocean were covered in them. As I bent, then, to gather a few shells from the sand, I noticed a dead fish lolling on the waves just several feet out from shore. The fish was perhaps eighteen inches long, white and tattered, and seemed to have been dead for some time. It struck me as unusual that there were no birds pecking at its flesh or circling above. I neither saw, nor heard, any birds in the area, and the lack of their cries and movement made the air seem still to me, even as the breeze pulled at my hair. A plane dragged its jet of steam across the sky, the ships bellowed. These beings, perhaps, were new kinds of birds and fishes in the world. As of January 2018, there existed over 53,000 ships in the world’s merchant fleets, and about 39,000 commercial and military planes. Each of these numbers on its own far exceeds the total combined populations of all Laysan ducks, Puerto Rican nightjars, Shore dotterels, Storm’s storks, Socorro doves, Narcondam hornbills, Black-hooded coucals, Madagascar fish eagles, Bornean peacock-pheasants, Lord Howe woodhens, Flightless cormorants, Ivory-billed woodpeckers, New Zealand grebes, New Zealand storm petrels, Kakapos, Galapagos penguins, Little spotted kiwis, and Javan trogons. These new mechanical beings have climbed to the top of the food chain and spread their population across the globe, much in the manner of any other species. The animal world will eventually adapt to the new hierarchy, as it has adapted to other invasive species, or forest fires, droughts, diseases, meteor strikes and countless other changes across the long, worn, and embattled history of life.
The deep rumble of a diesel engine somewhere behind me vibrated my spine, and four seagulls trilled and flapped over my head and out toward the horizon. I watched them until they were a braille ‘Z’ against the pale sky, then they were gone from sight. The gulls would return at their leisure, here, or elsewhere. They could easily stay at sea for days, or even weeks. Exocrine glands possessed by all seabirds allowed them to drink seawater and excrete the salt through their nostrils. Unbound to the freshwater of land, they could roam the rippling blue surface, free to hunt or scavenge the waves as they pleased.
I have often envied seabirds this freedom and have spent much time imagining myself as a bird, specifically a gull, gliding above the waves. Over the years I have adapted my own style of meditation based on various methods I’ve encountered in books and other research. In my meditations I begin by imagining myself on a shore facing a perfectly clear twilight sky. I empty my mind and focus on the sound of the waves and the wind, and let these sounds lull me into tranquility. Inevitably, some thought of daily life will intrude on my calm. Perhaps a worry about an upcoming meeting will appear, or stress about a looming confrontation. When these worries appear I immediately throw them into the sea, where they are devoured by dark shapes beneath the waves. It is important that the source of the worry is destroyed. For example, in the case of the upcoming meeting, I feed the meeting itself to the waves. In my mind at that moment, I am no longer going to attend that meeting. The subsequent worries about how my absence will affect my job lead me to throw my job to the waves. A great lightness and relief always proceed this particular destruction. Without a job, I will be unable to pay my mortgage, so my house is next to splash into the sea and be swallowed by the dark form. All such worries follow in turn, until I have no money, no possessions, no family or friends to care for, and so on. Each subsequent worry that I destroy in this way detaches some part of my human life. Each weight I remove brings a thrilling lightness, and soon, in my vision, I float above the shore. The final worry, after all possessions and attachments are fed to the darkness in the sea, is a concern for my own body, my own being. This primal worry for life and safety is the most ancient and difficult to detach. In my meditation I tell myself that I am not my body. That I have no body. That I am simply I. I repeat this mantra as I rise further into the sky. Then, like a leaden vest peeling away, I watch my flesh body plummet limply out of the sky and splash into the dark waves. What remains is my spirit, or awareness, or soul. In my meditation I visualize my spirit-self as a white gull with piercing eyes and a sharply curved beak. After I have fed my human body to the waves I, in the form of a gull, fly out over the sea toward the horizon. The cool air ruffles my feathers. I scan the waves and the sky for points of interest and fly in any direction, on any whim, with no attachments or fears to dissuade me. Wherever I go, the sea will be there to provide food and drink from its bountiful surface. If I can reach this point of freedom during my meditation, it is the ultimate peace.
In some of my early meditations a monstrous shadow under the waves would follow beneath me, tracing my flight wherever I went. This happened several times and I was unable to remove the shadow from my visualization. I suspected it was perhaps some subconscious reminder of my mortality. Then, in one meditation, the shadow grew larger and more solid, until a black whale breached the surface. I dove down and grasped with my talons and tore up strips of flesh from the whale’s back and tossed them down my throat, as some gulls have been observed to do.
In reality, gulls rarely stay away from land for more than a week. Perhaps, if I had known more about various bird species when I developed my meditation, I would have chosen a tern as my spirit form, specifically a Sooty tern. The Sooty tern will spend anywhere from 3 to 10 years at sea, only returning to land to breed. Sooty terns have no oil in their feathers, and cannot float, so must spend every minute of these years at sea in flight, even sleeping while on the wing. It is not known exactly how many birds carry on their existence out in the blue wild, because many of these birds tend to avoid the research vessels that would count them, but there are certainly many millions. The idea of swirling flocks of thousands of birds living their lives out of our sight, over the waves, is comforting to me.
The northernmost island in the Seychelles archipelago, the so-called Bird Island, is the nesting site of around 700,000 pairs of Sooty terns. The island is less than one square kilometer, and the sheer mass of the birds that land there from late March through April each year is a spectacle that some will travel across the world to see. Though I have never been, I imagine that the sight of those birds pouring in from over the waves must be, in some ways, a reflection of the colonies of passenger pigeons that have been lost to time. Perhaps, in a smaller mirror, they are like the hundreds of myna birds weighing the treetops, their roaring chirrups filling the air each morning in Singapore. The lonely spot of land that is Bird Island, 200 km from the only island of any size in the area, Mahe, which is itself over 1000 kilometers from the shores of Africa, has some special meaning to the birds. Since Bird Island was first spotted from the deck of a passing ship over 250 years ago and observed to be “covered with birds innumerable,” and almost certainly long before that, the birds have returned there each year to lay their eggs. I sometimes wonder if the island used to be larger in the distant past. Perhaps through time and rising waters the island has shrunk to the spot that it is now, and the generational memory of the birds keeps them returning there century after century.
I imagine a tern flying alone over the waves, gliding, searching for shadows beneath the surface. Every direction is blue, highlighted with white puffs above and white glints below. But as the sun sinks and the world turns, some ancient urge rises within the bird, and it turns its course toward that tiny point, the presence of which it feels as some undefined calling. For days it flies on alone, toward the call. Then other birds appear along the horizon, from other directions, all converging on a path, like drops of rain into a rivulet into a stream, into a wave of wings crashing toward the tiny island that lay below them, ever below them, pulling them like a black hole pulls light. And then the descent, a cloud dropping from the sky, a treble roar of chirrups and the constant clattering bap! bap! bap! of wings, the sky and trees and grass are covered with them, they sit in plain sight with no fear of predators and lay their eggs in the open on the ground. Everywhere they turn they see kin and the familiar sounds and sights of their own kind. They have come here for thousands of years, some from as far as Australia, over 6000 kilometers away. After that long trek, they rest here, at this safe harbor in the sea, their ancient refuge.
Bird Island is now a privately owned resort with 24 bungalows, and I often consider visiting. To experience the whirlwind breeding season of the terns would be a shining gem among my memories. But whether I do or not, the birds will continue to come, year upon year, long after I am gone.
A faint muscular vibration in my thigh, similar to those which stress can cause around the eye, startled me and dispersed my visions of Bird Island. This is akin to another twitch I often feel in a certain part of my ribcage. These spasms are, for me, an uncomfortable reminder that the human body, as much as we’d like to believe it is in our control, follows its own path. This mysterious machine carries us across the earth but has barely anything to do with us as we perceive ourselves. It chases its own desires and makes its own decisions based on an internal ecology as alien to most of us as that of a sea anemone. At any moment something as innocuous as a stretching blood vessel or a few out of sync heartbeats could cause the whole system to collapse catastrophically and without warning. Such are the paths of my thoughts whenever these various twitchings scatter themselves across my body, and sometimes I find myself unable to concentrate on anything other than my own seemingly imminent death. In this case, however, I realized with some relief that the vibration was only my phone ringing in my pocket. I saw Lisa’s name on the screen and answered. She apologized for being brief with me earlier, then asked me if we could meet again after all. I’ve thought more about it, she said, and I think I sense something different in you. You have such a genuine interest in the world that I feel I can talk to you about certain things I usually avoid with others, she said. When I told her that I had already returned to Seattle, she surprised me by asking if I had time to talk right then on the phone. I was no stranger to standing on the pier for hours, so I agreed. Before I could raise my first question, she began to speak.
I have learned so much in my research, she said, so many truths that I feel desperate to talk about. But at the same time, I feel I must restrict myself. I have learned repeatedly throughout my life that certain subjects, once mentioned, will cause the listener to close themselves off to me as if I have spoken a key which turns in the lock and bolts the door. I have felt that I live in two worlds: the one which exists, and the one which people allow themselves to see. I have found that if I, purposefully or unwittingly, cause someone to view the world in a way that contradicts what they wish to see, they close their eyes and ears to me forever. I suppose you find this kind of talk dramatic, but it is my experience, and is why I have been hesitant to discuss certain things with you. It is so rare to find someone interested in the same subjects as me, and I did not want to lose that pleasure. After our conversation in the cafe, Lisa told me, I drove aimlessly and thought about my life. I thought of how vindicating it felt to describe my experiences to someone who was interested enough to write them down. I thought about the many times I’ve censored myself preemptively, the times I’ve struggled to find the subtlest way of saying something in order to avoid giving discomfort. People so often flinch away from facts as if they were pain that I have gained a habit of trying to exist in the world of whoever I’m speaking with. But with you, such a curious and open person, I felt certain I would eventually be unable to censor myself.
Finally, after perhaps an hour of driving, Lisa told me, I found myself parked in front of my house. I sat there for some time wondering if I could ever change myself or the world, and if there was any point in trying. I went inside and I sat on my recliner in my study and flipped through the Kyosai art book my father gave me, which I still have, and keep on my desk as a reminder to myself. The book reminds me of my origins as a scientist and my motivations, but it also reminds me how I felt that day that I told my father about the crows. I have spent my life trying to avoid that feeling of rejection while at the same time chasing my passion for the knowledge of, and preservation of life. I have crafted a precarious balance of these two opposing desires, and it seemed, in that moment, that it would be terribly easy to fall over one side or the other. It was as I sat fondling my book and considering these thoughts that you called. I let the phone vibrate in my lap for some time, unsure of what I would say. When I finally brought myself to answer, your calm, straightforward words made me feel that I could talk to you, but when you asked me about the passenger pigeons I felt myself begin to self-edit, and I knew, or thought I knew, that if I spoke bluntly it would shut a door on you. So, I instead chose to end the conversation.
I continued to sit in silence, Lisa said, and flip idly through the pages of my book. I thought of Kyosai and the severed head in the river. I had imagined that Kyosai picked up the head because the unseen face would have haunted him, and the more I thought of this, the more I realized that not speaking to you would haunt me. Why should I project onto you all the bad experiences I’ve had conversing with others? Have you not shown yourself to be a curious, interested person with a passion for life, the same as me? You asked me before about the passenger pigeon. I have much to say about this bird, but most of it can be surmised as an overwhelming sadness that I will never witness their great shadow across the sky. The consensus I often hear is that it was natural for this bird to die out. But I find myself wondering what is natural about an animal that kills on such a massive scale as humans do. No other animal could, or would have any desire to, kill a billion birds in such a short time. The passenger pigeon’s death required humans across the continent to work together in new methods and with new technologies. If only we had the same passion for the preservation of life as we do for its consumption. This passion for destruction continues to the modern day. My whole life I have watched as the creatures I love drop dead around me. One eighth of all known bird species are threatened with extinction. Eight species have disappeared in the past decade alone. The total population of all birds in North America has dropped by thirty percent in the past fifty years. We know the reasons: farming, hunting, and climate change, yet we embrace or ignore these things, nonetheless. Nearly 40% of the land surface of Earth is now farmland, Lisa said. What of the creatures that lived on this land previously? Humanity, it seems, could be completely satisfied if the only animals remaining on the planet were the ones we eat. Twenty-five million migratory songbirds, golden orioles and bee-eaters and more, are shot for sport every year in the Mediterranean alone. No law nor any amount of pleading will stop the people there from having their fun. 90% of all seabirds have plastic in their stomachs. Even in the remotest parts of Alaska, diving birds are eating bottle caps or bags or bits the size of rice grains, worn down by the waves. 17 out of 22 albatross species are nearly extinct due to long line fishing. The population of all seabirds has dropped by nearly 70% since 1950, Lisa said, and she went on in this manner for some time. Her voice became agitated and loud, and I recalled the image I had of the author of the poem “Robbed” when I read it in the Ernst Myer special collections. Rather than sitting at a desk scrawling feverishly, however, I saw Lisa pacing manically in her room, her hair a mess from being clenched between her fingers, her free arm waving about as she rattled off her grievances against the world. Whatever it was she wanted of me, I felt certain I would be unable to give it to her. I told her I would need to call her back another time so we could continue the discussion in better circumstances. I ended the call.
I let out a long breath, and the low groan of a ship horn sounded somewhere to my right. I watched a pair of ducks rock back and forth on the rippling waves and thought of what Lisa had said. Her agitated words took me back to my most clear memory of my grandfather, when we had sailed on the Puget sound in his catamaran, in one of his final active years. It was a cloudy summer morning with very few other boats in sight and we were relaxing, enjoying the silence before later we would fish for salmon and flounder. I remember watching a lone bird on the horizon, a black dot which steadily grew closer, every now and then swooping down to the water’s surface. I followed the bird’s movements for several minutes and began to feel a kind of connection with it through this simple act of prolonged observation. As it drew nearer, I saw that it was a common seagull, and heard the high trill of its call on the wind. At this time in my life I was just mastering my meditation method, and so I felt a strong empathy toward this seagull, a bird that I regularly imagined myself as. The approaching gull seemed a kind of omen to me because of this, and appeared it would soon fly directly over us. I kept my eyes locked on it, and as it passed above us it suddenly dropped from the sky and splashed into the water, perhaps ten yards from our boat. My first thought was that the gull was dive-bombing for fish, but the bird did not surface again. After a few moments of searching, I saw its splayed wings bobbing on the waves, its head hanging limply beneath the water.
For weeks after the incident I was plagued by the uneasy feeling that I had caused the gull’s death somehow. I wondered obsessively if, had I not been scrutinizing the bird’s flight so intently, it would still be alive today. It was only after long contemplation that I was able to release myself from this manufactured guilt.
I sensed then that Lisa was feeling something similar to my unease over the death of the seagull. She would, I believe, eventually find her own peace and acceptance of the loss of her beloved birds. I hope that she will not long carry with her the burden of that responsibility. It is a common quirk of being human, I have noticed, that we see ourselves as the cause of, and solution to, all the problems around us. Extinctions are not necessarily tied to human activity and are often simply part of the ebb and flow of life. Nature swells and shrinks like a tide, leaving behind species like shells on a beach, yet we feel we are to blame, be it for deforestation, global warming, or pollution. But nature is far stronger than humanity, and Earth will adapt to us the same as it adapts to anything else. Animals that once lived in the forests we’ve cut or burned down can move into the new forests that we plant, or they can adapt to live in the plains. Seabirds can learn not to dive for fishing lines, and perhaps they also will evolve the ability to metabolize plastics and help us to clean up the environment.
I will never know what killed the seagull I saw that day. Perhaps it was a sudden aneurysm or other mysterious ailment, or maybe it simply hit the water wrong when diving for a fish. But whatever caused its death was bound to happen regardless and is not something I should allow to haunt my dreams and sleepless nights. What I have done instead of worrying is to write about the gull. Now, in some way, that gull’s final moments will live on in the minds of anyone who reads this, as will the passenger pigeon, the terns, the crows, and so on.
As I drove home that evening, I passed the Crow With Fries statue and, as always, I felt that its golden, glowing eye was watching me. I think, now and then, about how that statue will exist longer than me, and it always gives me some comfort and peace. Like writing, sculpting, too, is a kind of preservation. Should Lisa’s wild fears come to pass, or should, just as likely, the ten sun-crows fly out from their ten suns to burn the world once more, even then the statue of the crow will preserve the image of all crows. The eyes of the crow statue, and those of the sculptures of the auk, the passenger pigeon, the Labrador duck–perhaps they all watch us from that distant world where they exist alone, silent and continuous, pelted by dust and wind and the light of a harsh, red star, and yet still carry their preserved image of beauty, ever onward and deeper into the labyrinth of time.
Jonas David is a writer and editor at Lucent Dreaming magazine. He lives in the Seattle area with his wife and two cats.