ASSAY: A JOURNAL OF NONFICTION STUDIES
I bird because I love the idea of flight. I bird because I admire and adore another being’s ability to defy the ties that bind me to the earth. I bird because the song of a wood thrush drifting through a spring-green rain-wet woodland buoys my spirit. I bird because I wanted once and still yet crave the freedom of wings. As I birded part-time I morphed into an ornithologist because my love bloomed into full time and that unabashed affection for the avian kind spilled over into my work life. I couldn’t compartmentalize. In that love of all things bird I’ve become Avem cupido perserverans; the one who desires birds constantly. My heart, I think, was made for birds.
In his essay, “Joyas Voladoras” Brian Doyle asks us to “consider the hummingbird.” Actually, Doyle orders, compels, begs us to consider a miniscule part of a tiny thing. He dissects form and function. As his prose probes beneath the thumbnail-sized chest of the smallest birds on earth, he in effect becomes a cardiac thoracic surgeon, his words the scalpel revealing the miraculous nature of nature and human condition with the cardiac muscle as conduit. It is a syncopated, rapid sinus rhythm ornithological ordeal. “Hummingbirds,” Doyle writes, “like all flying birds but more so, have incredible enormous immense ferocious metabolisms. To drive those metabolisms they have race-car hearts that eat oxygen at an eye-popping rate. Their hearts are built of thinner, leaner fibers than ours. Their arteries are stiffer and more taut. They have more mitochondria in their heart muscles—anything to gulp more oxygen. Their hearts are stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight.” On the scale-up from hummingbird to whale and back down to human, it becomes apparent that were we, Homo sapiens sapiens, evolutionarily blessed with the capacity to hover, fly backward, zoom, zip and fuel it all with a flower sip—that we too might live our lives in some sort of super-saturated blurry-winged moment to moment appreciation of the present. Flower to flower. Not even hour to hour or second to second; but now to now.
The hummingbird’s “wet engine” leads me to my own examination of life’s fickle pump and a mirrored look at who I am as bird lover; watcher, scientist—and human. For years, I was one of the legions of birders who religiously kept lists, much the same way Doyle catalogs facts in his second paragraph, like a science report: “Each one visits a thousand flowers a day. They can dive at sixty miles an hour. They can fly backwards. They can fly more than five hundred miles without pausing to rest. But when they rest they come close to death: on frigid nights, or when they are starving, they retreat into torpor, their metabolic rate slowing to a fifteenth of their normal sleep rate, their hearts sludging nearly to a halt, barely beating, and if they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be.” I knew by year and location what I’d seen. I’d chase the storm-blown rarities that showed up far flung from their normal moorings. Curlew sandpipers, black-billed cuckoos, Glaucous gulls, short-eared owls, Lapland longspurs, magnificent hummingbirds—there were lots of reports on the rare bird alert that pulled me away from home and hearth to seek some lost soul. I would often miss the target but when I hit the mark, it was a heady and almost orgasmic rush—seeing something so unusual; a stranger in a strange land. I would watch for a bit. List the tick—and then mostly forget the bird in my life’s rear view. That went on for quite a while and my life list grew respectably. Each bird, no matter what it was; no matter how rare it was—whether it lived in its lost state or was doomed to die far away from home, I’d collected it in pen, pencil or keyboard stroke and caring about its fate beyond that was no longer necessary. Maybe the bird love back then was more bird lust and my heart was only in it for the quick thrill of the immediate get.
As I moved deeper into my relationship with birds—as a graduate student first voyeuring into the sordid sex lives of eastern bluebirds and then studying prairie warblers and yellow breasted chats in scrubby, thorn-strewn overgrown places, the birds I sort of loved became data points. The lists turned from collections of rarities to sets of behavioral focal observations; and then a calculated compilation of sterile point count communities. Behavioral codes for the bluebirds told us who was who and doing what—maybe to whom. In my doctoral research, the groupings of four letter codes on an 8x11 data form; PRAW for prairie warbler, YBCH for yellow-breasted chats, EATO for eastern towhee—helped me understand how these shrub-scrub species were responding to patch size. In the process of becoming the bird scientist I always wanted to become, I became a better technician and a deeper thinker in some ways. As a fully fledged professor, the birds were taking me where I always thought I wanted to be career-wise. But then something was missing. I’m not sure I truly cared about the birds I was counting. The love-lust relationship had faded to a mostly “like.” Turns out “p-values” can’t measure the significance of adoration or awe—nor can they induce it. For a short while my heart turned lukewarm to birds as the science said “objectify.”
In the hyper-speed spend-thrift budget of the hummingbird heart, Brian Doyle posits that “The price of … ambition is a life closer to death.” Scaling up from hummer to human and even to whale, Doyle’s echocardial economy dictates that heartbeats can be spent “slowly, like a tortoise. . . or. . . fast, like a hummingbird.” I think the name-tagging taxonomists would classify me as some sort of heart hybrid. I’ve become a slow-flowing-rapid-pulse-spender with nothing near a normal sinus rhythm. I watch and study birds with a different intent in mind. I still love going to new places seeing new birds, I’ve regressed to my long ago childhood fascination with first looks on my home ground. This means that northern cardinals, a common bird in my southeastern US world, are as brilliantly impressive the 1,000th time I witness their redness as the first time I saw and called them “redbirds.” This means that I am constantly connecting now—more likely than ever to wonder over what’s what—why, and how and where from. And so I stop sometimes and marvel at an American robin’s chestnut-tinted breast and hear a suburban song that for most fades into the ambience of automobiles. I pause, listen to the revolving warbles and remember that even in its ubiquitousness, it is indeed a thrush and distant cousin of shy, brown-backed forest dwelling relatives that self-harmonize and make my heart skip beats. I fixate on thicket skulking sparrows and find beauty in the brownness that others find boring. Even as I slow to absorb and adore my heart spends time speedily on and without pause.
For all the articles I read or published in peer review and all the success that came with the intense study, there always seemed to be some emptiness there I couldn’t quite place. In the reductionist sense, I equate conservation with heart’s work—with care. I believe it to be a moral imperative—heart’s mission. Love. As a student of conservation history I’m saddened at a history of non-caring and a current trend towards the same—heartlessness. I wonder like many how something counted as common could dwindle down to one lonely individual with a single name—a passenger pigeon named Martha in a Cincinnati Zoo cage in 1914; or Incas the last Carolina parakeet’s green and gold life waning to darkness in 1918 in that same cage; or Booming Ben, the last Heath Hen strutting alone on a Cape Cod dune. I remember reading about great auks and Eskimo curlews as a kid and how they too disappeared from life’s stage after being so abundant as to be heartlessly hunted –“harvested” for food or simply exterminated in uncaring and unsustainable ways. These birds were at some point in time targets on someone’s lists—watchers or hunters. As the populations dwindled others took note and studied them—mostly too late to help. But when the news came of the re-discovery of ivory-billed woodpeckers still “kenting” and “double-rap-knocking” in Arkansas big timber back in 2005, my heart leapt out of my chest. I can remember the moment in the hallway when my grad student Bran told me about the miracle. I can also remember telling my conservation biology students the news in lecture just a few minutes after the news dropped and tearing up as hope somehow found a way in the midst of all the bad news I seemed to be constantly delivering to future peers who would be tasked with saving whatever was left after all the rainforests were razed to the ground and everything except cockroaches and rock pigeons were driven into extinction’s vortexing suckhole. Yes, I cried that day and my heart felt full and good in the letting go.
Maybe it was that day in that hallway and glimmering light of hope that my heart grew beyond the listing and the collection of data points to burst wide open to truly LOVE birds. Maybe it was actually pausing long enough in the midst of some bird festival fallout ID flurry, standing shoulder deep in a sea of binoculars that a single spectacular black-throated green warbler or scarlet tanager or rose-breasted grosbeak made me think about the miracle of a single half-ounce bird flying 600 miles across the Gulf of Mexico at night in the face of bad weather, predators and all the barriers of development and habitat destruction we could dish out to be there letting me ogle at it in that precise moment. Maybe it was an accumulation of things that made me think about the heart of birding and bird study in a way that changed my avian-centric cardiology. Even as Doyle concludes “Joyas Voladoras” in his inimitable way of bringing an essay that starts with hummingbirds to close with LOVE--“When young we think there will come one person who will savor and sustain us always; when we are older we know this is the dream of a child, that all hearts finally are bruised and scarred, scored and torn, repaired by time and will, patched by force of character, yet fragile and rickety forevermore, no matter how ferocious the defense and how many bricks you bring to the wall. You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children”—maybe it was understanding the limitations of life in the face of constant uncertainty, approaching certain death and the “blessings” that birds bring to me. I’m figuring that since every heartbeat should count, every bird should too.
Doyle claimed that we have roughly two billion beats to count in our lifetimes. That seems like a lot but I’m imagining some watcher sitting on a Mississippi River bluff sometime back in the late 1800’s, never imagining skies then darkened with passenger pigeons being one day devoid of them. My purse of palpitations is drawing ever smaller but I’m increasingly unwilling to be frugal as the account dwindles to a certain zero balance in the end. I’m trying daily to spend the allotment freely on sunrises and sunsets—dawn choruses and evening vespers. Lubs and dubs meted out as laughter and love with friends and family is myocardial money well spent. I’m convinced that although the data we gather must be done so with scientific rigor and integrity that leads us to better responses to the issues big and small we face in conservation—climate change to clean water in communities of color; we cannot afford to stall—or go forward in the same insensitive and incrementally incestuous ways—without our hearts beating full speed ahead and burning hot on.
J. Drew Lanham is a native of Edgefield and Aiken, South Carolina. In his career as Clemson University faculty he’s worked to understand how forest management impacts wildlife and how human beings think about nature. He holds an endowed chair as an Alumni Distinguished Professor and is an Alumni Master Teacher. As a Black American he’s intrigued with how culture and ethnic prisms bend perceptions of nature and its care. His first solo works, The Home Place: A Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature (Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis MN) and a chapbook of poetry, Sparrow Envy (Holocene Press, Spartanburg, SC), have met with wide acclaim. The Home Place was named a "Natural History Book of Uncommon Distinction" by the Burroughs Society for 2016 and also chosen as a 2017 Southern Book Prize winner by Authors Round the South. He currently resides in Seneca, SC.