Sunday, March 28, 2010

Birds and Other Miracles of (Western) America

This morning, they were necking in the tall, wet grass.

Two Canadian geese off to themselves. You know the ones. Noisy honkers, spook easily. Always make a big production with lots of ostentatious flapping. I admit, I’m not much of a fan. They remind me of tourists somehow. All those little, gray, squishy piles of poo in their wake.

But there they were, together. A couple. The first one thrust his narrow head into the grass, pulled something up – I could hear the roots ripping – and fed its discovery to its mate. Their mouths touched. They rubbed necks like giraffes. One goose tended to the other. It was gentle, intimate. Like parents-to-be, a husband urging his pregnant wife to take an extra portion at dinner.

I felt oafish walking so close to them. I didn’t realize I was throwing open the door to their bedroom.

In a few weeks, if I remember correctly, the goslings will be born. They’ll appear on the water, a string of fuzzy heads following the grapefruit colored legs of their mother. In a few more weeks, they’ll grow into ugly, rangy, unrecognizable teenagers, wandering, heads down to the earth. But not yet. In the beginning, in their dun-headed innocence, they’ll fight desperately to maintain closeness to their parents and each other. The skilled swimmers will do this easily, effortlessly, while the others struggle awkwardly, making a lot of unnecessary waves.

They won’t all make it. Sometimes I’ll come to the park and find a dead one washed up on the banks of the reservoir, the small body in the sand like a forgotten toy. It never has the chance to become something. A goose, or even a skeleton. In a day or two, a feral cat will take it, eating around the heart. Or an eagle or an osprey, something that has been there all along, invisible, patiently living at the top of a fir tree.

It must be a strange thing to see the damp world from such a vantage point.

When we first came to Oregon, it seemed an affront to my dry sagebrush-and-pine sensibilities. We traveled from Montana, from prairie grass and Ponderosas. A place where hound’s tongue weeds get stuck to your boot laces and the cuffs of your pants. Yucca, black widows living inside the yucca. Backyard mountains that were so bare and spiky and beautiful – but also so much an accepted part of the landscape – that only cows ever seemed to climb them. In four years of hiking, my husband and I ran into one person, and that was because we accidentally wandered over BLM land onto his property. He greeted us with a German shepherd and a gun.

Really, though, we couldn’t blame him. If all that land had been ours, maybe we would have defended it too.

But here, four years later, not far away and yet so far away, is Oregon. Green year round instead of dry sage and juniper. Portland and Eugene instead of Bozeman and Dillon. Recycling as a way of life in contrast to Montana’s tendency toward disposability, dumps along the highway with abandoned refrigerators, car batteries, and magpies keeping watch. What you throw away in Montana seems to stay forever, a new form of machine wildlife crouching in the yellow grass. In Oregon, objects are snatched up and re-imagined before they ever meet a landfill, and yet, if left alone, a year of rain could easily consume most everything but plastic. Sometimes the faithful rain almost consumes us. Newts and snails make a soggy life under leaves while everyone else takes cover under the awnings of green energy powered buildings, Dutch Bros. coffee perpetually warming their hands.

Oh yes, you’ve heard: it rains. Moss grows over everything that doesn’t move. (If we had sloths, it would grow over them too.) It took me a year and a half to find proper rain boots so I wouldn’t have to change my socks three times a day. Twice a year, our gutters pull away from the house, weary of all they have to hold.

Some things are the same. The cackling red-winged blackbirds that we came to know in Montana now grasp the tops of Oregon cattails, giving us the avian version of a verbal smackdown when we walk too close. Killdeer with animated toothpick legs turn over to play dead, their little wings flipping upside down. My favorite, the Great Blue Heron, picks through water logged Oregon ditches, through arsenic laced streams in Montana, always enduring somehow in its fragile, twig-like beauty. It doesn’t matter if a heron is in mid-flight, its legs aimed stiffly behind, or if it’s standing, drawing its neck in against the wind and rain; it feels like a lucky day when you see one. That something so beautiful and slight can endure an Oregon winter means that we have nothing, really, to worry about.

From there to here. Montana, where bald eagles perch on fence posts and signs while making a breakfast of mice, to Oregon, where an eagle once stared down at me from a tree, God-like, for four full minutes, the birds were always there, a constant. And yet. Geographically it wasn’t a long journey, but it was a world away.

Before both, there was South Carolina. Robins on my parents’ window sill, squirrels eating moss from brick. New York, with four emaciated deer in the Yonkers woods behind Sarah Lawrence, surviving, just barely. A miracle. A bush next to the train tracks housing a dozen or so crickets, humming like a cathedral. Sooty seagulls on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. New Mexico, where shiny, black cockroaches spilled out of the sewers over your feet at night. Cougars up in the Sandias, roadrunners sprinting through the sand like miniature punks with mohawks.

And now we’re setting out once again. In four months, we’ll be leaving for the Northeast. A chance to re-visit New York as an adult, to see if it fits better than it did when I was in my early twenties. When it seemed to rub blisters in me wherever I went. New York City, Boston, New Haven. I consider the cities, the museums and the schools, the people and the traffic. Snow storms and city buses. But I also know there will be things we can never imagine or prepare for, creatures with wings and multiple legs, up high and underfoot, in trees and in cracks in the sidewalks. New voices and new songs to be learned. Little miracles, all.

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