Bird Woman Bird
Meg Scherch Peterson
Palo Duro Canyon, Texas, 1 May 2012
One minute I’m driving along the straight and narrow, where rectangular parcels of Texas ranchland open on either side of the highway like pages of a flattened bible, and the next minute I’m passing massive blocks of sandstone. Heat waves radiate off the stone and give substance to the air, as though I can float upon it, aloft above the canyon, buoyant, and weightless. The tires skid as I pull a hard right into the Visitors Center and sit in the parking lot to get a grip. Here, I’m safe. Safe within a covey of vehicles. I count (compulsively) two RVs, a white van, and a dust-covered Subaru Forester model—I stop myself from making a mental list of their license plates. Beyond a predilection for list-making, what do I know about what I’m doing? Let me make a list:
- Six hours ago I left home and followed the Rio Grande south toward Albuquerque. From there, I threaded Tijeras Pass, then drove eastward across the plains to Amarillo.
- The endpoint of the road trip is Mom’s service, somewhere in Cincinnati, at some time on May 20. She died five months ago. We kids don’t know what we’ll do with her ashes. The journey is about 1,500 miles, one you could make, driving hard, in 20 hours.
- My trip hopscotches between yet-to-be-determined state parks and wildlife refuges.
- I’ll make lists of all the birds I see along the way.
Thinking about all this reassures me there is a structure. I can see where I’m coming from and where I’m going. This is possibly one benefit of list-making. It’s the opposite of regarding yourself as pure flow. Some people believe we are pure flow, pure awareness, and resistance to the flow signals fear. Does listing birds unnaturally halt their comings and goings?
The immensity of this land-without-trees leaves me feeling, well, seen—a field mouse scrambling over hardscrabble, no place to hide. It doesn’t help that the region is in prolonged drought. Prairie dogs and pronghorn antelope adapt, burrowing into or bounding over the short grass prairie. Along the way, horned larks and vesper sparrows dove in and out of sagebrush, flirting with the stubble. Mysteriously they find sustenance under the unforgiving Texas sky. Me, not so much. How will I hold up camping alone in the barren stretches of Oklahoma or in the backwoods of the Ozarks? In the time I’ve been sitting here, my hands have become damp, wet really, slippery on the steering wheel. The air conditioning burps on, then off, which reminds me the car engine is still running. This fact affords an escape route: I might race out of the parking lot, drive, drive, drive back to New Mexico. The license plates—two Texas, one California, one Arizona—see me.
Before I left home, I had a dream. I am on the bed, on my side, unable to turn over. I am trapped. Or dead. The bed sheet is thrown back, affording a view of a huge protuberance that grows from out of my right hip through a tear in my pajamas. It is brown, fluted with vegetal edges, feeding on my rotted flesh. My dream voice says, There is no avoiding a giant mushroom. My dream voice says, Death. It’s just recycling.
Inside the Visitor Center the air is dry and cool as a mausoleum. There are trinkets, mugs, shot glasses with little pictures of cactuses, maps, and postcards. I open a laminated fold-out of Texas state birds. And then I’m home. I scan the bird photos like an album of old friends. The pamphlet informs me that during the summer, Palo Duro hosts Mississippi kites (raptors) and painted buntings (songbirds). Both migrate thousands of miles, the raptor catching thermals between mountain ranges and the little bunting flying at night. Millions of wingbeats propel them to this canyon. The bunting and kite are among billions of birds that migrate north each spring. 700 million birds may pass overhead tonight. I replace the fold-out, mosey past a display of local rocks and minerals to stare at old photographs of land barons, cattle rustlers, and Native Americans on horseback. Pictures of the dead.
I lift a necklace of dried juniper berries and small, colored beads. The attached tag explains how Native women string these necklaces for their children as protection from nightmares. I finger the berries and beads. I figure I could benefit from some protection. Directly, I stride over to the saleslady. She has blond, tight curls, dangly beaded earrings, the kind I sometimes wear, but not on this trip, where I forego hoops for a pair of studs that are far less likely to get lost: my blue opals. At bottom, I’m a cautious person, even with regard to jewelry. Breathing exercises shepherd me through dentist visits and blood draws; smiles and nods usher me through awkward social gatherings.
I hand the clerk the necklace and my credit card. She returns the receipt and says, My, your hands are cold. She’s friendly and smiles. Probably hasn’t seen many tourists today. Four cars in the parking lot. Plus mine. So five.
Cold hands, warm heart, I reply. But then, I (compulsively) say more. I have Raynaud’s syndrome, I explain, so my lips and fingers turn blue, especially when I swim in a cold river or lake. I’m wearing my opal studs, I tell her, so I don’t lose them on this trip. Opal is the dreaming stone. The clerk gives me a look and a little paper sack. The necklace jingles inside it.
Back outside, I feel stronger, amble cliffside, peer into the sublime, the dreadful, and the vast. Those aren’t my words. Robert MacFarlane wrote them in regard to mountaineering. This canyon is a mountain in a downward direction. The canyon walls, twenty miles apart in some places, are a layer cake of earthy pigments—yellow, orange, brown, and red ochres. I learned at the Visitors Center the deepest reds, a thousand feet down, fan out at the bottom like their namesake, Spanish Skirts. They are fringed with the pale green of desert vegetation that hugs the canyon’s lone stream, the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River. What is here for me? I ask a raven flying past but don’t expect an answer. I hear my question as a prayer.
Senior Living Center, June 2011
Mom sinks into the blue upholstered recliner. Adorned in soft plush pajamas, childlike, angelic even, she radiates the glory of her 82-year-old self. The apartment is in casual disrepair, like the rooms of a beloved hotel where walls need fresh paint and throw rugs hide the carpet stains. We are watching black and white movies from the 40s, me on the couch that also folds out into a queen-size bed where I sleep when I visit her. Rather than turn up the volume on the TV, we both adjust our “ears”— Mom’s word for our hearing aids. We share a genetic disposition to hearing loss. I don’t wear lipstick, but even at 82, Mom does. Flecks of this morning’s application make tiny pink lines on her lips. After the movie, she settles contentedly into a wicker chair at the wicker table with the glass top. Her milky blue eyes trail after the movements of my hands as I portion out a simple fare of leftovers and set a vase of supermarket daisies, drooping a little, in the middle of the table. I light two tapered candles. Nibbling a bit of chicken, Mom asks, Meggie, do you believe in anything spiritual?
- I hear her question as pointing out a character flaw in me.
- I hear her question as an acquiescence to a male religious hierarchy.
- I hear her question as giving in, rolling over, a white flag of surrender.
I want to say, Buck up, Mom. Fight, fight, fight against the dying of the light. But I don’t. My toes knot into a ball, clench and unclench like a fist, and I begin counting the knotting and the unknotting of my toes. In the silence, the hum of the refrigerator is accusatory. Sunlight glares through the patio doors at potted plants. I take aim. Things need to get in order, lined up, I say. Do you have a Living Will? What do you want us to do with your ashes? Would you like a memorial service here at the retirement center?
She pats a napkin to her lip and says, You kids will decide things. I’m not going to be around, so it doesn’t matter to me. Do what makes you happy. She reaches across the table, plucks a daisy from the vase and peels off a dried, yellowing petal. I like to keep them fresh as long as possible, she says, slipping the daisy back into the vase.
Wichita Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma, 4 May 2012
A creek may offer a sighting a black-capped vireo, a rare member of the 14 species of vireos in North America, so I scoot down an embankment, binoculars banging against my chest, and come to rest streamside. The dirt I kick up releases a minerally scent, and more bright pebbles glint in the clearest of waters. Among the stones, I discern an odd shape, a dark-brown textured shape, which appears to undulate slightly—caused no doubt by the flow of water above it—so it seems alive. I panic, fearing a snake. But no, a patch of buffalo fur. Gingerly, with thumb and index finger, I pluck it from the stream, suspending it a few moments over the water. Droplets roll down one end and ping back into the creek. What is here for me? A lonesome wind and a feeling of dread. I rebury the fur, weighing it down with stones.
Later a memory about a different kind of fur leaks into awareness. Mom is opening her fur coat, spreading it on the floor for my baby daughter. I protest, Mom, that’s your new coat. She says, Honey, it’s nothing. Mom bought the coat as a luxurious gift to herself when she learned Dad was cheating with her best friend. Dad would sneak across the street and lie about where he was. One night, Mom hid inside her friend’s bedroom closet, burst out, and discovered them. I’m watching it play out again, this movie. The baby is naked and snuggles into the fur like a kitten, but something is wrong. The fur coat isn’t a full coat, after all; it’s a piece of one. Mom has cut up her fur coat. And the baby rolling around on the remnant is me.
White River National Wildlife Area, Arkansas, 9 May 2012
I slop down a muddy path that opens onto a flooded prairie ringed by bald cypress trees, their “knees” interfingered with yellow-green duckweed. More rain is forecast. Through a thicket of drowned branches, a female wood duck and her three ducklings silently paddle. The pond is at most waist-deep, its surface twitches with water striders and dainty winged insects. The ducks must feel safe here. Mama duck, like me, is on the lookout for predators. Great blue herons are known to snatch ducklings, and I eye two foraging on the opposite side of this pond. A green heron is motionless deep in the thicket, inches above the waterline, probably in pursuit of frogs. The black bear population of the refuge is recovering from a low of about 30 bears in the early 1900s to about 500 now. It’s unlikely they’ll prowl through a bayou. But I don’t know what to expect. Suddenly a dart of yellow zings through my field of view, and a few seconds later, a prothonotary warbler is a drop of sun balanced on a twig. My grip tightens on the binocs, and I fidget anxiously with the focus as though that will fix the warbler to the twig. Seeing the prothonotary warbler for the first time is exquisite. Like the first taste of honey or a musical note suspended in the rarified air of a cathedral. Here, birdsong replaces hymn.
Confluence Point State Park, Missouri, 13 May 2012
I glass a gauzy sky, sweep its vault for swallows. In the distance, a clot of trees form a triangle at the tip of a berm of land. When Lewis and Clark set forth a hundred years ago on their epic trip to the Pacific, the peninsula here was underwater and they boated directly over where I’m now standing. A hundred years of deposition has built up ground I can walk on. A low rumble from the direction of colliding rivers summons and I trot ahead. I enter the tree break and duck beneath thick branches before I’m again able to stand tall against a wind skimming across a broad sheet of water, the very waters of the continent rushing past.
Along with the rivers’ pounding vibration, blood pulses in my ears. We are here for you, say the rivers. The Mississippi on my left is stately, clear, steely gray; the Missouri on my right, bawdy, frothy. The joining of the two columns is at first erratic, with differences in rhythm and speed displayed in churning curls and white caps. From a median suture line, eddies and vortices spin-off, brown smudges mingle with gray streaks. I crouch low, claws sinking into soft mud, wings trailing where the waters mingle. I draw close to the water, as though to sip it, as though it would nourish me, but turn and reach instead for the water bottle in my backpack. It’s filled with well water from my land along the Rio Grande, old water from ten-million-year-old sediments. It’s as close to holy water as I can get. Take what’s available, the rivers say. So I take a sip and pour the rest into the blending rivers. In this simple gesture, vast watersheds merge. I offer a prayer for Mom, my creative mother, lover of flowers and rivers, now at one with the ocean of the great beyond.
Anderson Ferry, Cincinnati, Ohio, 16 May 2012
From my vantage point on a nob of weedy and hardpacked ground, the Ohio River is a quarter-mile wide. Brimful. Muscular. Heaving and sinking in slow breaths, an animal stretched out and napping. Lush Kentucky hills are an emerald backdrop as a white-painted ferry embarks from Hebron.
- River as boundary. Between states, between states of mind.
- River as barrier, them and us.
- River as corridor, flow, rite of passage.
From Anderson Ferry, I drive the backroads of Sayler Park, where Mom was born in 1929 and where President Hoover arrived by riverboat to celebrate the completion of the Ohio River canal system. I visit her childhood home, her elementary school, Grandpa’s corner market where he worked as a butcher and where an outside wall marks how high the river rose in the 1937 flood. In a village park, a plaque honors my great uncle who died on an unknown battlefield in France during WWI. As I stroll through the shaded grounds of St. Aloysius-on-the-Ohio, Mom’s Catholic parish, I imagine her as a little girl skipping along the blacktop, blond curls bobbing. Remember this place, a character says in Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr, bring stones. With Mom’s death, I am trying to figure out what to do, how to attend, which stones to bring.
In Fernbank Park on the banks of the Ohio, an oriole warbles from within the dense foliage of a gigantic tree before flushing and disappearing into a weedy patch. I trail after it, vaguely wondering which species of oriole it is. But I am tired of listing birds. The oriole leads me to a woodsy area, which casts a spell and draws me in. The scent of moist earth rises on warm air. A break in the brush reveals a newish route, barely trodden. Except for grasshoppers, all is motionless. No sign of the oriole. What is here for me? Flowers are the answer, say the flowers.
Just ahead, a delicate bluebell balances on a stem and triggers a memory of a mother gathering flowers and leaves, pressing them, preserving their color and delicacy. On a sheet of Mom’s handmade paper—a memento in a box in a desk drawer in my home—tiny crimson petals are bright boats on waves of textured fibers. The memory of petal boats nudges me to ponder a conversation I had with Mom before she died. Meggie, she tells me over the phone, my mother was hanging out laundry, and we’d hear the calliope from the paddle boats on the river. And we’d come running down to see the boats and to swim there at a place that was a little shallow. Wharves were rare, and people pulled right up onto the banks. Mom’s story rewinds in my mind as a dreamscape, one I’ve been searching for, one where our ancestors come running to the river to be with us, to teeter from John boats, juggle babies, picnic baskets, pints of milk, and whiskey. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve been searching for something so humble and ordinary. I keep walking and soon arrive at a clearing that opens to the river. It frames a view of the waterfront, where I imagine happy people gather.
I listen again for the oriole. The morning now past, I hear only the buzzing of insects. Like them, I have news to share. I’ve found a way to the water, where we will gather to scatter flowers (or ashes), where we will pray or sing or laugh. We will pull right up onto the banks.
Meg Scherch Peterson has a BA in Philosophy from San Jose State University and an MA in Educational Thought from the University of Albuquerque. I live in a small adobe home along the Rio Grande near Taos, New Mexico.
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