Saturday, August 18, 2012


Hi, there,

The news of the week from a naturalists' perspective is that I've found not one but two dead birds recently, a robin and a hawk. I suppose this could be a metaphor for my recent melancholy, which passes in and out of my mind at times like fog. You know the way wisps clot and pass on mountain tops or near the sea? And your eyelashes bead up cold and wet and eerie and then it passes and the sun shines again? Like that. But even in the relative depths of this week's passing wisp, I could not find in these dead birds a suitable metaphor, the way I used to find comfort in the natural blues of rain.

The problem is I just don't find death morbid, except in a literal sense. I'm too much of a science geek, for one. For another...I have known seven human beings who have died: three young women I had gone to school with, all of whom I had lost touch with long before they died; my grandmother and two great-aunts, all of whom were quite old when they died; and the headmaster of my old boarding school, who had a stroke in his sixties. I grieved some of these people, though I was close to none of them, and I was sad and angry that the young women died the way they did. That was tragedy. But in none of these cases did I perceive the death itself to be a problem exactly. It's hard to explain. Somehow I can be the fog of grief and sadness and wishing, and I can be the landscape that the fog rolls through as well. And from that larger perspective...I don't know.

But I keep the dead company, when I can. I bear witness. It seems a kind of service I can give, like how I always maintain silence, and read the names and ages, when they announce the dead of war on the news.

Once, I kept a dead whale company for a while. It had washed up, dead, on Assateague, which, as you may recall my telling you, is basically a giant sandbar with trees growing on top. In among those trees, by night, I was banding owls. By day I was meant to be sleeping, but by day the wasps who lived in the walls of the little hut we used woke up and had the run of the place. I am allergic, so I slept outside or made pilgrimages to the beach and the dawn-gold sand and the curious tracks of a beetle I followed and finally found. Though I never figured out what the beetle was doing. And I made pilgrimages to the whale, whom the rangers had pushed up into the dunes so that tourists would not disturb its rest.

This whale, when I found it, lay in several pieces such that I could not quite figure out what all of the pieces were. And I could not find its head. I don't remember its species, if I ever knew. Its flesh was largely still intact, but changed somehow, rendered into some new, unfleshlike substance by the action of maggots. Some kind of liquid had seeped out from the body and rumpled up the sand round about the corpse, and I could hear the mass of maggots in their chewing from several feet away. It did smell bad, but not unbearably so. If it were not for the idea of rotting, the idea of those massed maggots, the scene would not have been disgusting at all. There were holes in the sand, tiny ones, where dozens of beaks had drilled in after the maggots. At least once, I saw the owners of those beaks, small birds in a small flock, don't ask me what kind, and they throbbed and swirled in a moving skein about the corpse, now in front, now behind, flying always ten feet here and ten feet there, as they managed their pointless anxiety about my presence and their interest in getting lunch. What a bounty a mass of rot and maggots can be!

It is the ants that carry this week's sweet prince of a baby robin to its rest. The tiny corpse was undisturbed when I found it in the mulch, in the flower bed near the door on campus, undisturbed but deflated, hardly anything left but bones and feathers. I think it was a young robin, fledged but still wearing its spotted waistcoat.I sit and keep it company while my laptop charges on days when I work outside.

I inspected the corpse today in some detail; the ants are taking away more and more of the connective tissue, and pieces fall loose, a feathered wrist here, a head and neck there, it hardly smells at all now, and so I felt safe enough picking up some of the pieces to look at. The wing primaries and--do tails have primaries? They certainly have analogously large feathers--the big feathers of the wings and tail lay fanned and dark, but edged with white or pale grey, just edged, the way a set of card stock samples shows white on the edges where the card is cut and you can see the undyed cross section just a little. Some of the feathers tangle with each other a bit, but otherwise they are as intact as bones. a row of primaries and the little thumb feather, the alula, and nothing else, no flesh, no coverts, dry as a fan, and I can see the delicate loops of bone that were once a dinosaur's wrist and fingers long ago. I picked up the head, the round and bulging skull exposed, for the most part, except at the throat where the red down clings. The corners of the mouth are yellow and soft-looking, a detail I know enough to find childish and charming and sad. They eye on one side is still relatively intact, though deflated and dried. On the other side the eye is gone, its socket is occupied by a ring of delicate little boney plates, like what I saw in the eye of a fossil icthiosaur years ago. Birds have bones in their eyes? And a line of tiny rings winds down through the ruined neck, I suspect these are bits of cartilage that once supported the  windpipe.

What intricate work, the building of a bird, and it didn't get to be a bird very long. "Sweet dreams and flying machines," as the song says, "in pieces on the ground." Well, here is the flying machine, its exact and tiny engineering in pieces but magnificent still. But where are its dreams? The dream is gone, like a knot is gone, when all you have left is the rope.

And now that I think of it, this week contains a third dead bird, the chicken in the refrigerator, whom I would have eaten some of already if the refrigerator had not been set too cold, cold enough to keep it frozen. I imagine the chicken did not want to die. Maybe it had plans, expectations, as that hawk, as this little robin did. I can sympathize with this little bird, and at the same time I can recognize a broader view, one that knows that not all baby birds can make it, that the loss of one bird is no more important than the gain of the scavenging ants, that there is no problem here. And yet the bird in my refrigerator, the one I want to eat, proves that I, too, am partisan. I, too, am part of this world.

best, as ever,


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