Thursday, May 5, 2011


[Avifaunae:The birds present in a region, an area, an environment, or a period of time]

My grandfather asks Avah and I, from his hospital bed, if the wildflowers are in bloom. My answer? I don’t know. And so that afternoon we set off into the woods. And find: spring beauties, trout lilies, red trillium about to open, and colts foot littering the side of the road. Yes, we tell him later that afternoon, and name our finds.

My grandfather knows the name and song of every New England bird. Even with his hearing aid he hears them singing long before I do, his mind forever tuned for those other, quieter voices. His eyes will drift towards the woods, glance upward. Song sparrow? He’ll ask, hoping my young ears will help his old ones. It’s a source of continual shame that I’ve never been able to help him in that quest for recognition. Gary Snyder said that to be a poet you must learn the names of things. I read that when I was twenty, living in the desert, learning the names of desert plants, which at this point, I’ve mostly forgotten. I didn’t quite believe Snyder then, but I do now. Learning the names of one’s flora and fauna and birds teaches one the language of place, teaches one to look closely and listen carefully, teaches one to step outside of the self on a regular basis.

My grandfather’s side of the family were intellectual naturalists—friends with Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson, emotionally reserved and naturally attuned. I was always drawn towards my grandmother’s side of the family: desert-dwelling redneck artists, lives rife with tragedy and hot with emotion. We made my grandparents a bumper-sticker a few years back: Warning, Combustible Material: Musician and Physicist on Board. And me? I spent my youth learning country songs, not bird.

On our way back from our wildflower walkabout we hear the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker and Avah, (whose name comes from avis, latin for bird, sign, omen, and portent) looks up into the trees. “Sapsucker,” she says, and I smile. A few weeks ago a sapsucker hit my grandfather’s glass windows and she and my dad went out into the grass and held its stunned body in their hands, then watched if fly away. Sapsucker: medium sized woodpecker with a red forehead and yellow breast.

We walk home through the swamp behind my parents’ house, a jungle of moss-covered fallen trees, sponging water under foot, and upturned roots that still smell like bear. In my grandfather’s sickness the birds have been his greatest comfort, and we have kept his two birdfeeders well stocked. A constant flutter of cardinals, juncos, finches, chickadees, and sparrows have kept him company. There’s a bear coming around on a regular basis, too. One night my grandfather woke to the sound of it knocking his feeder off the window. He got up and opened the window and he and the bear stood staring at one another, both upright on unstable legs. “Shoo!” My grandfather called out into the dark, and the bear fled.

In the evening, on our way home from the hospital, we stop our car by the beaver pond and watch two beavers nibbling sticks. We breathe quietly. Hold hands. Avah asks why Grandpa is sleeping at the hospital when she is sleeping at home. I tell her that he doesn’t have a mother to take care of him when he is sick, like she does. She nods. We are grazing the surface of truth. I don’t yet know what I’ll tell her if he dies. She knows about death from watching the seedlings we started a month ago: the ones we left out in the cold died; the ones we overwatered died. I can tell by the concern on her face and the joy she brings to that hospital room that she understands much more than she has the words to convey. But I’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now we just watch the beavers doing their work: hauling their sticks, piercing the slick surface of the water with their spiky heads, changing this habitat just as my grandfather and his offspring have done for the last sixty-five years. We hear the familiar honk-honk of geese flying overhead and look up to see a pair flying north. “Our friends the geese!” Avah cries out, pointing up towards where they disappear behind the crowns of birch, hemlock, maple and pine. In the morning we'll go back to the hospital and tell my grandfather about this: about the creatures we saw and their industrious labors, about how we sat so still and listened, about how we are learning, one at a time, and together, the names of things.