We’re on our way back from my sister’s birthday party and I JUST HELD MY NEPHEW!!! I had not done so before, as my sister wanted to minimize people touching him in his first six weeks or so. He is bigger and more alert than he used to be. As my Dad says, when he looks at you, you really feel looked at.
Holding him was nothing like holding a cat, though he is about the same size. A cat, being an adult animal, has full control over its bodily movements, and cooperates in being held. A cat it not passive in human arms, but turns and adjusts its body to find a comfortable and safe position. The cat will either make itself easy to hold, or it will ready itself to jump, but either way its position in human arms is a joint venture. There’s no particular technique to it, as long as you know not to use the tail as a handle, not to squeeze too hard, and so forth, because the cat helps. But my nephew has little physical coordination yet. He is not passive, he wiggles and squirms, but he does not help you hold him. You’ve got to do everything. His father was showing me different holds, and he reminded me very much of you, or other bird-people I know, explaining how to hold birds. How you have to be careful to maintain control of the other being’s body at all times. My nephew isn’t going to claw me or fly away if I get it wrong, but still, there is a similarity.
Do you remember when I told you about my modest involvement in the bird world? I was careful to explain that I am not, myself, a birder. I did not want you to think me fluent in a language where I only know a few words. I didn’t want you to assume that a commonality existed where none did. You smiled and said, with a great deal of fondness, “but you like them.” It wasn’t a question. You had spotted the commonality that did exist, or one of them.
The problem with meeting a group of people all at once is that all the names and faces get confused. I’m not sure I ever got everybody down, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I was, for you, still lost among the crowd that day. But obviously, you eventually learned to recognize me as an individual, and maybe it was that day; ah, yes, there goes that non-birder who likes birds.
And I do. You were right. I’m not sure that I like birds more than other live things (which is to say a great deal—I really like living things), but bird imagery has been important to me. I drew birds, and made up birds, when I was small, along with horses, cats, dogs, and dragons. My room in the house in Maine had a flock of birds on the ceiling, their eyes and bills formed by the swirls of colored knots in the wood paneling, seventeen birds, just for me. My favorite Christmas ornaments were the antique glass birds we inherited from my grandmother, fantastic birds, pink and blue and purple, with graceful necks and pointed bills and white, filamentous tails. There was a whole mixed flock of them, their legs made of springs, their feet, metal clips so they could perch on the Christmas tree.
Perhaps this was why my mother signed us up for a bird walk when I was seven, in Maine. I found it totally boring; a lot of grown-ups pointing binoculars at trees. Sometimes one or another of them would offer me a look through the binoculars, but no one ever explained to me how to look through binoculars properly, what I was supposed to be looking at, or why. I mean, I understood the idea was to look at birds, but where? Why? Eventually, the group passed through a wonderful little cove and disappeared into the bushes. My Mom and I stayed in the cove, climbing on rocks, and I played in that cove every summer for the next seven years, a wonderful gift given to me by liking birds not quite enough.
I never went back into the bushes to look at where the birders went. They didn’t return the way they had come, so they must have circled back up to the road, somehow. I was vaguely aware that there was a small, freshwater pond up there, the only one I know of on the island, though I suppose there are others. I remember one year there were gulls flying back there and out again. They were bathing. I didn’t know gulls bathe, but evidently, some do. One, as it came flying out, stopped itself in flight, hanging on the air a few seconds to shake itself like a dog before flying on.
I don’t understand birding. I don’t see what is exciting about the act of seeing and identifying a bird, which seems to be the heart of the exercise. It is a kind of collecting, I think, a collection of experience. You see a bird and you know what it is, and that experience of recognition is an item of inner richness, a kind of “oo!” right? Except, I’m not much of a collector. I never have been, maybe I’m not organized enough. It’s not that I like plants better; I would not take a trip in order to see a new kind of plant, in order to collect that recognition. Instead, I want to know everything about a place, ooze the tendrils of my consciousness into every pocket and fiber. I want to know the names and ways of all the living beings I can see, so I can greet them as friends and perhaps approximate a knowing of the whole. I’d love to know all about birds, too, but they move. I think one has to be a birder to be motivated enough to learn about birds. It’s a kind of gateway you went through, and which I have not. And yet, you’re right; I like them.
I have not been back to that cove the birders left behind in twenty years, now. I wonder what it would be like to see it? I could still find it, if I wanted to, and I’ve driven the Maine coast twice now, in good company with nowhere in a hurry to be. I could have stopped by. I might yet. I was afraid, perhaps, that I would find it different, reduced to mere memory. Or, that it would be the same, but I would find no way to fit its continued reality in my adult life. Some things break over the years. I don’t know hold them.
The glass birds broke, most of them. Only two or three are left. My sister and I are grown-ups now, each married, she with a child and—gosh, thirty years old? My little sister! This year, our mother invited us to take some of the family ornaments home to our own trees. I think we both had mixed feelings about this, but Mom’s collection has grown too big to fit on one tree, anyway. I took some of my favorite “soft” ornaments (they are not all soft, but they are alike in not being fragile). I took one of the two varnished balls of compressed flower petals my Dad made, brown and odd-looking, but I love the story, and also two of the Wizard of Oz figurines we got from Longwood Gardens that year, and the toy horn that really plays a note when you blow into it. I took some of the glass ornaments, but not the glass birds. I thought they should stay in their own habitat a while longer. Plus, I didn’t want to risk breaking them. They slip, so easily and so permanently, out of an unstudied hand.
Let my nephew break them, if somebody must.