As if they read my tweet yesterday, my white-crowned sparrows celebrate this evening, give me hope. They sing from the bougainvillea, loud for the first time, clear, bright. The hedge across our small road answers. Then more singing in my courtyard, late dusk wonder.
We lost 2.9 billion birds across the U.S. and Canada since 1970. But did the Cooper’s hawk scare off my white-crowned sparrows? Or is it even worse? Will they still return in droves? Today at dusk, one sings in the courtyard. I stand beside the kitchen window, savoring.
Chris Erskine, one of my favorite columnists at the L.A. Times, was kind enough to reply to my email years ago. I remember he talked about how writing a column or a blog can be hard because we’re dependent on what happens in our lives. It was the first time I understood the contrast for me, how it moves between plethora and dearth. Because today I want to come back to those two hummingbirds in my living room whose visit I completely missed when I was having a difficult conversation on the phone the other day. And the last time I was on my bird walk, how I was focused on a woodpecker in a nearby oak, when the man beside me said, “Oh, look, a deer.” I glanced up only long enough to see him, to note his short antlers, and went back to looking at the woodpecker. After, I felt terrible. I went looking for the young buck but couldn’t find him. “I’m sorry,” I told the man later when I’d caught back up to the group. “I shouldn’t have let bird trump buck.” But two weeks later, I still feel sad about it, lying on my back in the courtyard after my yoga. I feel sad I was unable to transfer my attention in that moment. I adore deer. If I’d made a real choice, I would have stopped, breath caught in my chest, and watched the deer in wonder. It is still a grief in me, no ease in forgiving myself, in letting even small things like this go. It comes to me I may need to allow the sadness in more when it first arises. Maybe even one brief full moment would do the trick. Maybe an apology to the buck? I coax myself in letting go. I am only human. I’ll miss moments. I’ll mess up others. I’ll get good at forgiving myself. May I rejoice in the times I remember to stop.
When I lie down on my back for chavasana at the end of yoga, the crescent moon is above me in the sky, tender and dear in the blue of late morning. I swim the breast stroke in my mother’s pool and watch the ridge when I swim north. It is the same ridge I gazed at from the living room when she was sick. I count my row of yuccas while I swim, though they are no longer in bloom. When I get to the bird walk the leader is speaking in his warm, relaxed voice. It is a big group today. I look around for my two other favorite people, but they are not here. I struggle with my disappointment, reach for the treetops, the sound of the leader’s voice, splashing water in the distance. I can still be here, I tell myself, still tap the deep peace of this place. I can still have a sweet time. In moments, I steady. Then as if conjured the woman I like so much from before is beside me, and I hear the man I like up ahead of us making jokes in his resonant voice. Later, I think about how the leader draws us together, about what a gift he is offering, maybe without knowing. I think about his warmth, his charming lack of ego, his quiet, cheerful knowledge. I think about what a rare bird he is. (Pun intended.) We walk together, rearranging ourselves, clusters and strings of us along the trails, a small, fluid river, California towhees, an ash-throated flycather, a black-headed grossbeak in flight, a green heron across the lake, the old oaks speaking acorn woodpecker. After the bird walk I sit on a wooden bench, a black phoebe sitting nearby, and then I walk by myself through the rose garden. I take slow steps, reluctant to leave. I can feel how even in such a short time, the place has changed me, helped me ground, settle, rest inside. This extraordinary world has worked its magic.
I love you because each time I come to the path in the early morning you surprise me by being there, as if each time I leave I forget you exist. I love you because you foster life, lushness, because you are untamed and unexpected. The frogs sing you. The swifts dive and the hawks and ravens glide above you. The egrets wade in you, steps careful and quiet, breathing you in. I love you because the rabbits come close to your edges, cautious, fuzzy, delighted. For so long you were not here, and I know soon you will disappear again. My bones dance, loose beside you, grateful. When you are gone I will love your empty bed even as the greens fade. I will love your bed because even in its browns and dusty colors it is a wild place in the middle of our neighborhoods. I will stand on the footbridge and pull that long endless wilderness inside me. I will drench myself in the memory of your water.
I try to be quiet when I leave my courtyard, but the gate screeches, wood against wood. I walk toward the creek path in the early morning. There’s a mockingbird every half block marking my passage. Today I see three cottontails in the creek bed, no coyotes. A squirrel races across my path. I stop to watch a mockingbird displaying from the top of an old, wide fan palm near the footbridge. On the bridge, I watch the swifts. There are more of them than I have ever seen, flying in a big circling cloud, then pausing on a stretch of nearby wires, as if they, too, are taking in the show. Or maybe I am their show, the lone human so strangely fascinated by their ordinary acts. I don’t know if they’re really swifts. I’m making that up because until today I never saw them sit still, and they are always quick in flight. Today, when they sit on the wires, I see their tails are forked. I stand there for a long time looking up, my mouth open, watching them swoop and circle, their small noises a communal sound, as if this ever-changing shape of small bodies is one beast, all those wings and hearts beating together. Then the extraordinary happens, flashes of yellow gold on their bellies, beneath their wings. At first I’m confused, but then I understand. The sun has risen, and it’s lighting up their undersides because it’s so low in the sky. I watch until the light changes, until the cloud shrinks to just four handfuls of birds. This reminds me of when I lived in Sebastopol and discovered that three-week window when you meet dark furry caterpillars everywhere on country roads. I remember dodging each one, so surprised I’d never noticed them before. And now at sixty this first glimpse of small birds lit from below, dazzling, the waning half moon behind them, suspended and silent in the blue sky.