Thursday, August 02, 2007

What the birds cannot know

We’re never single-minded, unperplexed, like migratory birds. – Rilke

What he said. It returns to me even now, days later, as rain drums the roof and draws a misty veil across the trees shading Juganine Creek. We had just broken from the woods into a narrow clearing bordered by two tree-choked runnels, grass to our knees and purple-blooming ironweed to our chests. The sun muted by humidity and falling into the west. I hurled the branch that had been used to clear our path of webs, watched it arc high and disappear into the trees without a sound. Sweat glistened on our skin, soaked our shirts, cloyed the air. Not a breath nodded the flowers. Steve said, “Hard to believe but soon it’ll be cold and snowy.” The lower leaves of sumac blazed in fiery crimson. Already, and summer barely a month old.

Something about August stirs such sentiments. No sooner were the words unleashed than I saw the flowers shrivel to fuzzy seed heads, the switchgrass, side-oats grama and bluestem shade from green to rust, and trees shed their leaves in masses swirling on a bitter wind. What he said was the future of this prairie place. What he said tugged at something within me, something half-buried, something restless and edgy, something that cast its gaze longingly toward the southern latitudes. For already the watchers had reported swallows and martins flocking, mudflats shimmering under swarms of sandpipers, plovers, godwits and turnstones, playas freckled with mallards, pintails and teal, and nighthawks massing over the Kaw River. Birds on the move or preparing, migration begun already and August still a week away.

Their wanderings are my own. As every birder knows, the beginnings of migration trigger deep-seated emotions barely understood, our very own heaven, our very own hell. The excitement, the quickening, as the first migrants alight on our vernal shores, bleeds away to autumn’s bittersweet yearning. They are going, they are passing away to places we can only imagine, and we flightless bipeds remain grounded. As much as possible our eyes do not leave them. We watch them depart, our skies emptying slowly, painfully, and something within us goes with them. It depletes us, so that when we finally turn away we are less than before. The price exacted for bearing witness.

Steve and I pushed on, crossing the wildflower meadow and drawing up to a barbed wire fence. I had been this way before but not when it was this lush, but it really didn’t matter when all that was needed was to keep an uphill course. We skirted the fence to a gate and slipped it open and closed it behind us. The crest loomed above, treeless, crowned in a wreath of exposed limestone and sumac heavy with scarlet seed clusters. Grasses bent under a cool breeze. It felt heavenly after the suffocating air of the forest.

I made for a rounded knoll and thought of other summits, and how though thousands of feet in elevation separated them they shared a commonality of heights to be attained. A red-tailed hawk lifted with a shriek from a wind-twisted cedar and disappeared over the hill. In my mind’s eye I saw the view unfolding before it, the Flint Hills rolling away in smooth undulations of a thousand shades of green, the sun westering, shadows pooling in the draws and gullies, the horizons indistinct from humidity, the skies to the south storm-wracked and laced with lightning. How must it be to circle ever higher, to escape the bonds of gravity, to see all that land before you and know there are no limits or boundaries?

It is not our lot to know. But likewise it is not their lot to know the breathless expectancy that comes with the first shoots of grass, the first wildflowers, the first cascading leaf, the first raking snowflakes, all within the same minor realm. Though each year a part of me longs to accompany them on their southbound journey, this is where I must stay, for ours is not a transitory life. If we are grounded, so also are we rooted.

We reached the top and turned around to see the valley and the little town nestled among the trees. The sun canted sharply now, leading Steve to remark on the shortening days. Again it seemed an unseasonable comment, but it was true; each day now shed its minutes at the approaching solstice. The birds knew it, even as we did. Behind us a nighthawk boomed, whether for the sheer joy of it, a last farewell, or a love song to the sky. Rilke’s comment about migratory birds being single-minded and unperplexed had no basis in the freefall of a nightjar. Surely there is abiding joy there, a joy we can only guess at.

The hemispheres are theirs, and mine this narrow field of view. When autumn strips the leaves from these trees the birds will be far away in a summer place, and I remaining will walk these silent paths. Winter will come with ice and frost and winds that gel the sap in the trees, and I will still be here. I will be here and in that is a quiet but lasting contentment.

We stood there, the two of us, gazing out over the broad riverine valley, anchored on one end by the Blue Rapids grain elevator and the other end with the distant towers of Greenleaf ghostly on the far side of the horizon, the highway a slender golden thread stitching them together. Around us unseen birds stirred, feeling that implacable, irresistible tug that would launch them in the gathering dusk. It was theirs to feel, not ours. Our eyes were below, on this place where we live, this place where we remain.

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