Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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I leave my tent and go for a walk under the moon, but the firs bend in the wind, a creeping white mist drifts over the lake, and I’m scared. For the first time in my life I’m glad to hear a mosquito whine at my ear. A bird cheeps, then falls silent. I feel fond of the insects climbing over stones — a beetle, a bristletail. I’m grateful for the small lives around me. When I lift my hand, I can hear my watch: its metallic click.
Breeding Bird Survey: Douglas Fir Forest
I knew exactly where I was on that acre: I knew when a drop of rain slid down a huckleberry leaf, and where it would land; I knew where each bird was nesting; I knew the songs, the calls, the scolding, the hopping from branch to branch; I knew when a warbler would blunder into the next plot and be chased away.
My own family had no boundaries. My mother, when she was drinking, used to crash into my room and fall on my bed in the middle of the night.
All spring I lay in the forest and made charts of the boundaries. When a sparrow sang, he threw back his head, and his throat muscles bulged. Then another sparrow sang. A song was a wall: I drew it on my map.
When I get tired of reading the news — a man dies of a heart attack trying to make love to a blow-up doll; a skirmish in a city with a name like a flower, Fallujah; a new way of torturing people with leashes and harnesses — I come down to the pond and watch ducks quacking and dunking. The orange legs of mallards stick up in the air. They waddle onto shore, waggling their tails and gulping down wads of bread; they trail loops of pondweed from their bills; their green necks shine.
Most things I buy don’t give me more than a day of pleasure, but years ago I spent five dollars on a rose-patterned piece of lace, which I hung over the bathroom window. Now, whenever I get up to pee on a windy, moonlit night, shadows of vines and briars sway back and forth across my bare feet.
The log I’ve sat on for so many years has finally disintegrated. Peter and I sat here together when I first met him, and I sat here alone after he died. Carpenter ants have hollowed out the wood until all that’s left are splinters sticking out of an enormous pile of sawdust. I scoop some up, and the fine powder runs through my fingers.
A mayfly struggles in the muddy water. I tell myself not to interfere, but it’s hard to watch her flutter, then float along exhausted, then flail again. It’s the floating that gets to me. I hold out a stick and she climbs on, though I can’t help laughing at myself. Her life span is only a day. How much life have I given her? Maybe an hour or two before she dies anyway. But I feel better watching her clean her legs and stretch her veined wings in the sun.
Ornithology: Mapping The Territories Of Nesting Birds By Their Songs
Alone in the forest, working. Mapping the songs: junco, chickadee. Marking where one territory stops and another begins. Fog in the morning. Smell of resin at noon. Far away, the sound of a motorcycle on the highway. Huckleberry as high as my shoulder — its branches spring back as I push my way through. Once a week a horse and rider clop past. The horse drinks from an old bathtub, then they’re gone.
Listening to the cries of woodpecker nestlings deep in a hole: they clamor as a parent flies in, beak stuffed with insects. Then silence. A fallen bay laurel slides back and forth between two branches of a fir, creaking and groaning as the live tree leans in the wind. When a sharp-shinned hawk shoots between the branches, all the birds fall silent. Then, one by one, they begin to sing again.
Feeling sad about breaking up with my lover, I went for a walk in the fog. The trees looked blurred, and the moon seemed covered with gauze. I lay on a slope; I could smell tarweed and, once in a while, the ocean. I was wearing a gray beret that looked like fur, and I folded my hands on top of my head. Something sharp and cold brushed my fingers. It was an owl; she must have thought my hat was an animal. Her talons struck for an instant, then moved on.
After my mother’s funeral, I come back to the pond. It’s strange to be in the world without her. The lies that used to flutter around her are leaving; I can almost hear a rustle of cellophane in the air. I try to wish her well. An osprey snags a fish, which arches back and forth, gills opening and closing. It’s getting dark. Raccoons wash their food, and the moon begins to wobble in the water.
The yellow jackets massed on the window screen when I cooked a chicken. Crawled over eggshells in the compost bin. Walked in under the door and padded across the carpet. One throbbed on my sandwich; another climbed to the rim of my cup and stung me as I drank.
So at night, wearing rubber gloves, I gingerly pushed a hose into their hole in the ground. The man next door had told me to use kerosene and a match, but I wouldn’t. When I turned on the faucet, they walked out slowly, dazed, onto the mud, their wings glued together, their antennae waterlogged: thousands. A few tried to get away by wading, but most just stood there, unable to fly. Raccoons came and ate them, scooping them up in their paws.
Thirty years ago there were hundreds of Steller sea lions: pups splashing in tide pools; bulls growling and pulling their tonnage over rocks with their flippers, their manes swaying from side to side. When they dropped into the ocean, their pelts shimmered pale gold.
Today a lone Steller climbs out of the water into a herd of California sea lions: Zalophus californianus. He calls over and over. No answer. Only the sharp barks of Zalophus. One gold body among hundreds of dark pelts.
Once, when I was reliving a hard time in my past, I stepped into a meadow. Dozens of crane flies wavered up from the wet grass and grazed my cheeks with their legs and wings, and I thought, It’s all right. I’m here now. Ever since then, whenever I see a crane fly drifting against the ceiling, I get on a stepladder, slide a cup over it and a piece of paper under it, take it outside, shake it into the air, and watch it float away.
The last time I called my grandmother on the phone, she sounded preoccupied, as if she were listening to something she alone could hear. I’ve forgotten almost everything about her funeral. All I remember now are the bees that pollinated the wreath on her coffin, flying from pistil to pistil as it sank.
How lovely that Ellery Akers [“Nature, an Index,” August 2014] saves the life of a drowning mayfly. How compassionate that she slides a cup over a crane fly to rescue it from being trapped in her house.
Why didn’t the chicken she cooked deserve the same respect? All beings are sentient, and all suffer. We could so easily end their suffering, if we could only see it.