We had an ostrich egg in our school room. We kept it next to the bumpy crocodile skull with the missing teeth. The ostrich egg, as big as the glass around a lightbulb on our ceiling fan, with one hole in its top, or bottom, depending on how you wanted to hold it. One hole. It was square shaped, but with more sides to it, a scattered connection of straight-edged fractures which let me look inside to the same beige stiff egg-material.
I am unable to explain my fascination with birds. I don’t have any ornithological ambition. I don’t own binoculars or wide-brimmed hats. I couldn’t sit and identify the birds of Texas with you, or anywhere else. My memories, though, prevail to remind me of bird-experiences.
There was one day with a baby sparrow trying to learn to fly. I took our video camera out; I was nine years old. In Midland, it was all sparrows and doves and grackles. You’d think it’d be roadrunners and buzzards and hawks. I didn’t meet those old assassins till we moved to the Hill Country. So I took our video camera out and filmed this fat, ugly baby sparrow bobbing around and pretending it had the gift of flight. It flew as well as I could, and I had tried many times to fly. I had so many dreams of flying as a child, so in real life, I would leap into the air as high as I could, in the house or outside, eyes shut, feeling for that one gigantic second that I was flying…that I was about to fly. I came so close every time. I filmed the baby sparrow, crouching and walking along after it as it cased the little brick walls around our driveway. My little brother tried to pick it up and we yelled at him.
Filming. Yes, I watched the film of the baby sparrow several times. But I suppose I used the camera as binoculars on a later occasion. We were in the salty wind of Gulf Shores. We were trotting down our pier to tug up the crab nets and add to our stock in the freezer for our annual boil. But I saw a heron or crane (I told you I don’t know much about birds) standing on a neighboring pier. I had to. I had to run back to the beach-house and get the camera. I zoomed in on the tall bird, filming it as it stood unmoving. It was a terrible film, shaking in the elbows of a skinny child, pixelated in the strained digital zoom of a home video camera built in the 90’s. My siblings still make fun of me when we remember the ten minutes of tape I wasted on that bird. And I make fun of myself. But I loved that bird. Every year we’d see him and his brothers. They were hilarious if you paid attention. When we’d fish on the beach, with our wide blue bucket with crabs or fish in it. We’d stand out there and you’d see the heroncrane, stalking slowly up and down the beach. Like a stately connoisseur strolling along a wine-tasting, tall and proud as if he belonged there, surveying the contents of the fishermen’s buckets. Plodding evenly, nodding at his fellow man, though he was a bird, and hoping desperately to become a thief.
I drew and draw birds. They’re easy to doodle. They’re silly. They’re strident and noble. A beak can be anything; a toothpick, a hooked nose, a triangular outcrop of outrage, the shape of anything. Sketching their legs is next best. Such strange, stilty devices. Grooved with ringlets from flank to talon as whittled into existence by God on His day off.
Indeed, a bird’s legs. A bird’s beak. Their wings are difficult, they’re never quite right. I think I’ve always been far more interested in birds when they are on the ground. Perhaps that’s why I don’t care to improve at drawing their wings. Isn’t that the point of a bird though? They fly. They are what we’ve always imitated in our quest to fly. I won’t mention the losers of the bird world, the penguin and emu sort. They are dear to me because they do not fly. A flying bird soon becomes a wilted V in the sky, leaving for good.
I don’t care about the mechanics of flight. I don’t care. I don’t care how incredible it is that a Peregrine falcon can dive up to 400 miles per hour (that’s not true). I want to see the bird. See it hop along, or dawdle, or meander, or sit still in a tree watching my thoughts. We saw baby barnyard owls in Laredo. They were huddled in an old hunting blind. Three horrific ghosts blinking at us. Scraping the rotted wood they had hatched in. Scrambling to stay forever in that plywood box where they could hide from the sunlight that explains why they feel ugly, why they are ugly. Why their alien eyes and pimpled skin should never be seen. Do you understand? That’s what birds are. They’re everything. They are beauty, like swans and cardinals. They are disgust, like vultures eating the maggots and mealy flesh from a raccoon’s corpse’s throat. They are curiosity, like the dodo who died regrettably before I could see one alive. I wish I could see a real dodo. Pattering up to me. I wouldn’t kill it as the sailors and cats did.
Birds are fear. My fear. I don’t mean phobia. I told you I love birds. I mean that feeling that leads and keeps you at bay in the same breath. My friend and I explored the spread skeleton of an amusement park in the Hill Country. It was twilight and we walked down old stone steps and past broken metal rides. We wandered among trees and faded swirling patterns painted underneath rust. We found an old barn, or something. Who knows. It was a concrete slab with no walls. Except on one edge there was a shack with walls. A quiet, brown shack. We walked near it and heard…hisses, bodies drawing themselves back and forth inside the shack. But they weren’t what you think a hiss is. We heard, that night, in that shack, the sound of a ceaseless rampant wind caught in a tempest of teeth and death. We thought it was some mythic cat trapped in the ruins of a failed theme park. Some jagged-hackled beast who would rather scare us than kill us. My friend and I retreated, finding sticks to use as clubs, and returned to the darkness and the monster.
And then: a turkey-buzzard burst out of the shack from an opening we had not seen. It flew away, and we peered into the shadows inside. Babies. Young babies fated to eat the dead. I never imagined turkey-buzzards could hiss like that. Could concoct thoughts of lions. And that’s fear, I think. We are pulled to our source of fear, unprepared, only useless mock-swords in our hands. To find young, harmless baby birds. Ugly. Afraid. As we fear. As we are ugly. And so, what is it that I fear? It’s never what I expect it to be. I’m rarely afraid when I choose to look finally into the shadows of the shack and see what imaginary lions are really like.
Birds are not anything you want them to be. They are what they already are. Fragility, comicality, morbid fatality. Every bird, any bird, is the polychrome of feeling. That’s what they are. They are the softest of pleasures and the sharpest of dooms.
I have both deep reverence and deep laughter for birdkind.
I would like to hear a loon on a lake. At night. I’ve heard audio recordings, but the real thing would be real. Those are the three dimensions; hearsay, hearing, and the real thing. A loon on a lake. Loons cry out in the night, they make that married sound of marvelous eerie. And they make it for themselves. They don’t exist simply for me to make them into a poetic metaphor or a manifest piece of my soul. The loon is crying for himself.
If you're lazy or simply like the dull timbre of my voice, you can listen to an audio recording of the above-essay. Click play and enjoy.