Every spring when the birds come back I feel so grateful, and also, a little bewildered. Are we really that worthy? How can they leave Belize or Costa Rica and do quick fly overs in New Mexico and Arizona and want to brave the jagged frozen Rockies and the turbulence and the cold to come back to Montana? How can they look down over white-out and say, “There. That’s where I’ll land. That’s where I’ll make my home and my family and teach them everything—absolutely everything. And then send them off. And then empty my nest of even me and leave again…back down to the desert and to the jungle and to the sea. Only to do it again.”
Just when I’m thinking that I can’t stand it one more day—my life in infinite shades of grey, ice shrapnel defining my every winter step….they come back, casting their votes on this place I call home without migration. They need this place of echoes and countenance I guess, to do the work of their lives. As they’re heading north, I’m telling myself I need what they’ve had– color and light and for my body to be winged and nimble…and not braced against the air outside my front door. I’m tired of my daily buck up—the forced flinging open of my front door every morning to feel Montana’s fresh slap—you’re alive and you can take it. So that I can be grateful then, for the retreat back to the warm woodstove breath of my house. Even in spring. It won’t be a warm outside welcome for months. Not Belize warm. A Canada goose stands on the ice of the pond in the meadow. A mountain bluebird on my hoar-frost encased mailbox. I look at the chickadees and ravens and magpies and flickers—are we really worthy of all their faith?
I have watched. For twenty-five years I have watched. I know them by their faces, their nests and feathers and flocking. I know their symphony, and sometimes Stravinsky cacophony that is the world outside my door beginning in March. Oh that cunning allegro, oh that fine mezzo again, oh that tricky staccato followed by that day-is-done decrescendo. But I have never really learned who is singing what. I don’t know why. It’s similar to the way I go through an art museum: take it in first. Then step forward to read the plaque. What’s in a name, if you don’t feel your way to it first? It was the same way with trees and wildflowers when I moved to Montana. I needed to feel the wholeness of it all and know it by season. Know that when the dandelions are out, that the bears are coming to the avalanche chutes. Know that when the calypso orchids are blooming, it will be time to celebrate my first born’s birthday.
But yesterday, it was time to know the symphony by its players. It overcame me like a long lived itch that I suddenly needed to relieve. I don’t know exactly why and maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe because I’m finishing a novel I’ve been writing for two years and I already miss its characters. Maybe it’s because a year from now, my youngest child will be planning his college migration. For whatever reason, yesterday, I sequestered myself to my bed and cranked open the window as wide as it would go. And I listened to the marsh below, piece meal. Song by song. All day. Picking out their riffs and going on the internet to birding websites to hear the songs from the singers I suspected.
Who knew that a little thing like a nuthatch made that roadrunner’s meeep meeep? I’d thought it must be a furry creature all these years, slicing through the forest’s music. And that upward aria I’ve heard for so long, usually at dusk? A little thrush I’ve never laid eyes on but who surely lives in my back yard, faithfully and hopefully: the Swainson’s thrush. I knew the bossy red-winged blackbirds, of course, because how can you miss them? And the ubiquitous robin’s song. You have to be paying no attention at all to miss those. And the chickadee’s my tree, this time of year. But the one I really wanted to know, was what I’ve always thought must be our western version of the mockingbird—that schizophrenic song that doesn’t know quite what it wants to say. And yet it says it over and over. I scoured the internet and my bird books trying to find what bird was behind this rote sentence in too many genres. I’ve always wanted to tell it to settle on one. I like the poetry at the end, personally, not the throat-clearing at the beginning, or the screeching in the middle. I figured it had to be something rare. Something elusive. Maybe even exotic that I’d missed in all my wandering in the woods, looking up, paying attention.
Finally, at the end of the day I thought, What about a sparrow? A regular old sparrow. What song do they sing? And you guessed it. That one.
My son came in and said, “What are you doing?”
“Learning my bird songs finally. Did you know that the most simple birds make the most unique songs? And the smallest make the loudest. And the biggest birds, sometimes the faintest.”
“I’m going skiing. It’s the last day the mountain is open.”
“We need to make that list of colleges to look at, you know. Soon.”
Then my daughter wrote me a text from her college dorm room in California. “I’m going camping for my birthday. You know I swam with a blue whale over spring break in Baja. I don’t think I told you.”
And I wrote her back, “I’m so proud of you. I hope you know that.”
And I thought…maybe it’s time to learn them all…so I can say a proper good bye. Because they come back, you know. They come back.
June 7-11 (a few spaces left)
June 21-25 (a few spaces left)
September 6-10, 20-24
October 4-8, 18-22