The Blue Jay

On the porch in the morning: looking north, into woods and a view of the path dropping over the bank; the northwest corner opening to the pale blue of the Bay, in morning light, a scattering of small oaks and pines and a spindly hemlock silhouetted against it.

Sally and I are sitting here with our coffee when there’s a twang and a thump and a blue jay falls out of the sky. He’s lying on the ground below the feeder, he must have flown right into it. We watch, hoping he’ll get up. He’s on his back, rustles his wings for half a minute; I see his legs scramble, like pedaling a bike, then nothing. He goes limp.

“Oh no,” I say, because I’m pretty sure we just watched the blue jay die.

“Maybe we should turn him over,” Sally says, “in case he’s still alive.”

There seems little hope of this, but not knowing much of bird concussion, we decide to do it. I put on some gloves and walk over carefully, trying to be quiet in case he wakes up. I squat down and scoop the blue jay into my hand.

His head lolls. His eyes are just slits—emphatic as cartoon x’s. I shift him onto his belly—noticing the buff gray of his chest—and a little onto his side, trying to rest his rag-doll head on the duff of pine needles. I notice too that the feathers round his neck are not so much blue as a beautiful, rich lavender. His tail feathers, striped with black, are a piercing hue, like certain wildflowers or the apex of a clear summer sky.

This is the sad beauty of dead birds: lifeless, I am able to study them, up close. The most famous birder of them all, John James Audubon, did this, often killing them himself for the purpose. His journals record that at times he shot scores of them to execute a single portrait. Before photography, I suppose this seemed a necessity. Thankfully our ideas, and our technology, have changed, and anyway, I am not trying to paint a likeness. I will take my opportunities as they come, mournful as they are.

Some hours later I put the gloves back on and pick up the jay again. He is most certainly dead; his small body has already begun to stiffen. I turn him over in my hands, admiring once again the colors: that smoky lavender on his back, the contrasting hues of his striped wings and tail, bright sky blue and a dusky, velvety denim, edged with cream-colored scallops. I notice the crisp sharpness of his glossy black beak, the curled strength of his talons.

I thought I would bury him—but instead I walk a little deeper into the woods and, spying a small open spot on higher ground, I take him there. Before I set him down I gently fan out one wing, admiring the contours and delicate strength of the bones and feathers that lifted him into the sky. But no more. It seems so inexplicable, that a few hours ago his bright colors were flashing through the trees. How can it be?

As I turn him back over to put him down a piece of pale fluff drops from him and floats to the ground. I lay the blue jay there on the mound and walk away. Death is still the greatest of mysteries, even when expressed through the being of a bird.

Later I think again of Audubon, and the collectors and naturalists that came after him. As a child I was fascinated with the sheer number of creatures on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. Now they tell a slightly different story. Before our ideas advanced we thought it a proud and scientific endeavor, to fill museums with the dead, carefully stuffed and mounted.

Worse, we treated entire species as if they were expendable, whether for sport or profit. Audubon painted the great auk, the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon, using freshly killed birds for models. By the dawn of the 20th century they were all extinct. The slaughter of passenger pigeons is particularly well documented in all its gruesome detail: not only guns but nets, clubs, pincers, poisonous gas and fire (to burn entire groves of trees the birds nested in) were used. The numbers are staggering: in one year, 1878, a three-man team in Petoskey, Michigan was reported to have killed over 50,000 birds.

I feel some responsibility for the blue jay’s death; we hung the feeder there between the trees, an unnatural object that somehow he did not see. Having held his delicate body in my hands, admired the colors that outdo even our most brilliant fabrics and the strong wings that accomplish flight—something we can only dream of, I can’t comprehend what it would be like to preside over a mass extinction.

Blue jays are not an endangered or even a threatened species, and I think this sad accident is a fluke. But even so I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not off the hook, entirely. What abundance do we take for granted, what are we ignoring now that will become devastatingly apparent in decades or centuries to come? Chemicals, backhoes, chainsaws, oil spills, our insatiable desire for more and bigger—cannot these be even more disastrous than guns and nets? What terrible event will we stand beside and have to say: “We did this”?

I wonder.

Nancy Squires, September 2016

Sources

A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, Greenberg, Joel, Bloomsbury USA 2014.

Audubon’s Elephant: America’s Greatest Naturalist and the Making of The Birds of America, Hart-Davis, Duff, Henry Holt & Co. 2004.

 

Advertisements

Not So Alone in the Dark

Coming out of a complicated dream involving a large cast of friends, group dynamics and a logistical problem (I left my car parked miles away and forgot—now how will I get back?), I wake to a clear morning, fresh, cool air coming in the window, the sound of birds. I lift my head to look through the doorway and out the picture window, see a pale blush on the horizon over silver-blue water. I’m filled with relief—it was only a dream, I’m not up the creek without a ride, after all. It’s only then that I remember the dragonfly.

***

In bed reading the night before, night had fallen, dark solidified while I lay propped on the pillows. A Walk in the Woods—I’d finished the chapter where Bill Bryson thinks he’s staring down a bear, in the dark. Is it any wonder I jumped when something thudded against the glass of the living-room window?

But I’ve heard this sound before—at night, with the lights on, moths start to gather around the cottage, some of them large. If you’re quiet as I was, reading, their soft bodies bumping the glass can be quite loud, and if not ghostly, at least, atmospheric.

I read on. Suddenly there was a clatter and scuffle at the screen right beside me, behind the lamp. Sally’s always telling me not to leave that window open with the light on because sometimes tiny gnats get through the screen. This came to me as the scrambling, banging sound repeated, so loud that I half wondered if a crazed chipmunk was launching itself at the window.

I got up, pulled aside the curtain and saw in the lamplight near the lower edge of the screen a greenish-looking, faceted head, on a long body, like some kind of cartoon alien—then it vanished. A dragonfly.

I shut the window to the smallest of cracks and got back in bed, resumed reading. As Bryson and Katz made their way through Shenandoah and on, the dragonfly returned at intervals, attacking the screen with a ferocity befitting its name, feeding on the tiny bugs attracted by my light. Eventually, despite the noise, I got drowsy. The next chapter could wait—this was, after all, my second time through the book. I closed it, put it on the dresser and turned out the light.

But as I prepared to row off to dreamland I looked out the doorway through the front window and even without my glasses I could see sparks, like diamonds glittering up high in the trees. The sky having finally cleared, the stars were out. I had to go look.

I slipped on my fleece shirt and in hiking boots and pajamas I made my way down to the beach. Switching off my headlamp I looked up, and around. The stars were most definitely, gloriously, out. The Big Dipper shone in the black sky brighter than a neon sign over a parking lot. In fact I could see all of Ursa Major, and everywhere I looked there were stars—except at the western horizon where I guessed there must be a low bank of cloud. I spotted Cassiopeia, just over the treetops behind me, and a group of brilliant stars to the south looked like part of some constellation I don’t know, I can only identify a few. Looking way up overhead, bending slightly backwards, I saw the hazy stream of the Milky Way, a sinuous cloud, a river of stars.

The breeze was strong on the beach, and after a bit I felt cool and ready to sleep. I switched on my headlamp and went back up the stairs. I was already at the back door when I thought of the dragonfly who’d been pounding at my window. I stepped over to look, and there it was, resting on the screen: nearly four inches long, gleaming iridescent green and turquoise under my headlamp like it was encrusted with jewels. I touched its body ever so gently and it shifted slightly but remained planted, feet holding firmly to the screen.

I left it there, surrounded by midges. With the light out it was quiet and I fell to sleep, attended by a flying dragon, a huge bear plodding through the sky, and fires beyond number sparkling overhead. Sometimes I think it is too bad, that summer nights come so late and pass while I’m asleep.

Nancy Squires, August 2016

 

“Bio”

A couple of years ago, I was in a writing group, and we gave ourselves an assignment: to compose a “Writing Bio.” I recently came across mine, which takes a somewhat “tongue-in-cheek” approach, and focuses on my childhood experiences with books and writing. I share it here, with a few updates, and hope you find it entertaining.

The Early Years–Accomplishments

At seven I was chosen to attend the Young Authors’ Conference at Oakland University. This felt like a huge honor, and a kind of professional validation. I remember dressing up for the day-long event in a new outfit—something tasteful and sophisticated, I think it had a jacket and maybe I even wore a hat although I may be getting it confused with Easter…

Around the same time, I completed outlines for several novels. I kept them in the middle drawer of my roll-top desk. I remember I was still somewhat perplexed by the things adults did, and found it a real stumbling-block, trying to understand their motivations. One of my novels had to do with life on the frontier. I must have been reading Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Inspired by reading Harriet the Spy, for a while I kept a notebook hidden on my person and tried to write down observations of everyone around me. It was frustrating that my adventures weren’t nearly as exciting as Harriet’s. I didn’t see much from the top of the neighbors’ eight-foot redwood fence, other than their pool.

Early Influences

E. B. White. I still read Charlotte’s Web every now and then. White’s writing is beautifully clear, direct and I think, soulful. It was no surprise to me years later to discover he was half of “Strunk & White,” the style guide. You could say he literally “wrote the book” on writing.

Andre Norton. I didn’t know, as a child, that “Andre” was a pen name, and the writer was a woman. I didn’t love all of her books—but I was crazy about Gray Magic, a fantasy story in which each of three children had to perform a task that forced them to face their personal fears. (For one of them, spiders, for another, heights.) The title is out of print. Isn’t it sad that this happens to great books?

Robert Louis Stevenson. Treasure Island was the first book I bought with my birthday money, and I was so young I couldn’t yet read it. I think my mom read it to me until I could tackle it. I bought the Illustrated Junior Library edition with wonderfully dramatic illustrations by Norman Price. Stevenson is a master storyteller. And has anyone come up with a villain more engaging than Long John Silver? Or a character scarier than blind Pew? If you have never read the book, I highly recommend it.

Rudyard Kipling. The Jungle Book was also on my childhood bookcase. Kipling is another amazing storyteller, and his animal characters are without peer. I especially remember the wise and unflappable Bagheera the panther, and Rikki-tikki-tavi, the valiant little mongoose who saves an entire family from the cobras.

Betty MacDonald, who wrote the “Mrs. Piggle Wiggle” books. These stories did not impress me even then as great writing—but they were incredibly formulaic, and I remember being dimly aware that the stories were satisfying because they stuck to a tried and true recipe.

Richard Wright. My eighth-grade Spanish teacher read to us from Black Boy every Friday, until someone’s parents complained and he was forced to go back to Spanish lessons. This memoir left an indelible impression on me as I entered my teenage years—“searing” is not too strong a word to describe its effect.

Recent Achievements

I’ve managed to write a bit of poetry, a couple of stories, and a lot of personal essays. In 2014 I self-published a memoir, The Cottage: Portrait of a Place. But the real accomplishment for me is when someone tells me that words I wrote touched them deeply enough to bring tears to their eyes. That is the writing that makes me feel successful. If a reader is moved enough to cry (or to laugh, or slap the table in agreement), I think I must have got through.

Nancy Squires August 2016

Then and Now

When I was young I wanted to write, but I thought I didn’t know anything. I realize now that I knew so little, I didn’t even recognize what I did know.

I did not see any importance in it, that my grandfather wore his old black leather shoes over the sand and into the boat when we went out fishing for perch or bass in the Bay. The same shoes he wore gardening, tending the cucumbers and green beans and tomatoes he would bring us every week in a rough garden basket with an arching handle, made of splints like a bushel.

I didn’t know it was important, that my grandmother had these objects in a tin in the linen closet: the rattles from a rattlesnake; a letter from a Union soldier (her ancestor), writing of seeing Abraham Lincoln when he came to review the troops; a huge, half-worn away shell, thick and brown and fossilized like an old bone.

I didn’t know how much it mattered, that one grandfather sang WWI songs (entrhusiastically and slightly off-key), the other wore a nightcap to bed to keep his bald head warm. He cried once, at the dinner table, when we were all gathered with him, saying grace, because he loved us, and he was ill. He had Parkinson’s. Some thirty years later, my dad would be diagnosed.

I didn’t know then to try to capture and express the beautiful coolness of my maternal grandparents’ screened porch on a hot summer day; shaded but warm, how lazy we felt there, how my sister and I would fight over space on the chaise, covered in velour printed with big, sweeping palms in the colors of a vintage Hawaiian shirt: gray-green, yellow, magenta. I didn’t think to write about my grandmother’s fingers, crooked with arthritis, clasped around the garden shears as she cut zinnias. Even now I love those riotous colors. We would wrap the stems in wet paper towels, then foil to keep them fresh on the ride back to our house. Her shoes too I failed to write about: black or navy, Grandma shoes, lace-ups with a block heel. In my mind I can hear them, gently clicking across the kitchen floor as she went to open the back door onto the porch, or in winter, to raise the shade on the window. She talked on a black wall telephone there beside the door, standing up.

I remember going on a train with my paternal grandparents, when my sister and I were very small. I don’t remember where we went, or much about it—just that it was exciting. I believe they took us because they wanted us to know what it was like, to ride a train, before such things were gone. For probably the same reason, they took us to the State Fair. And yes, now it’s gone—the life-size cow sculpted from butter, the cavernous old buildings filled with rows and rows of chickens, pheasants, rabbits. The horse barns, the big ring they called “The Coliseum,” where riding competitions went on. The pens where every year one or two (or more?) sows would have just given birth. The huge expanse of the fairgrounds, here and there shaded with big old trees.

All gone. About to become a “development.”

I didn’t know how important any of it was.

“In the grand scheme of things” we often say, dismissing the trivial. But is there really anything like a grand scheme? If there is, if our lives have such a structure, they are made of small, crystalline moments that we are rarely much aware of, at the time.

But I had one, yesterday.

My partner’s mother, Jeanette, is in Alzheimer’s care. We went to see her, and unpack some of her things, just arrived from Florida. She was sound asleep, sprawled in a big, cushy recliner near the nurse’s station. She’d been sleeping all morning, the staff told us. They weren’t sure why she was so tired. Sally and I stood by the chair, and as I watched her, she seemed so completely inert, I wasn’t sure at first if she was breathing. Then, after a moment, I saw her thin frame expand, her chest rise, and then contract, just slightly.

We went on to her room, did our work there and when we started down the hall to leave we saw Jeanette approaching, in her wheelchair, pushed by one of her caregivers. I smiled a big smile and as she saw me she smiled too and we hailed her. “Hi Jeanette!” “Hi Mom!” “You woke up!” Still smiling she said, “Yes I woke up.” And I felt such a stab of connection that I knew instantly how much it meant, how grateful I was to have that moment—just that, nothing more. As we loaded some stuff we were taking with us into Sally’s truck tears came to my eyes.

Now I know. Then I didn’t. So it is for all of us, that we have to grow and learn, and so many, many things we’ll witness before we know the value of them. We are lucky when we do.

Fourth of July

Something I’ve been thinking about: my friend’s mother’s baptismal certificate. She showed it to me recently, it’s a beautiful document, covered with hand-painted artwork in bright colors. It was executed in the U.P. (Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) and is written entirely in Finnish.

Another thing I’m thinking about: the trip Sally and I took with friends last February, to Washington D.C. Specifically I’m thinking of the Vietnam Memorial, how reading so many names on that wall affected me. I saw every kind of name, from Native American (Two Crow) to Hispanic (Lopez, Rodriguez) to a name I thought of as Southern Biblical, probably Afro-American (Ezekiel Paige). After a while, I began to notice the names shared by, if not my own relatives, people I knew growing up, kids I went to high school with: Atkinson, Cleary, Shapiro, Voorhees. Some of us may still have a lot of questions about what we were even doing, in Vietnam, but the Wall reminded me that the Americans that fought and died there came from all over.

Today, Independence Day, I am thinking this: The United States was not founded to be an exclusive place. Whatever else you can say about our country (and there is a lot, both good and bad), there is no denying that we are a diverse nation. It is our legacy, our strength, and our challenge. We stumble on, and sometimes, move forward.

Tribute

For the old people:

Men in bolo ties singing “Oh Susannah”

Women with pocketbooks hanging from their forearms

Who made pie crust, and biscuits, without recipes

People who knew mules and horses as well as they knew cars

People who brought food out of the ground

And children out of their bodies, without a doctor standing by.

They were upright, unbowed,

Sometimes stern

But gentle as rain

They’re gone now.

In imagination I try to walk their paths

What were their thoughts? What did they see?

I wish I had asked more

I wish they were here to tell me

Long gone, the old people

The ones who knew.