From my grandmother, I learned to talk to birds. She greeted them, at her picture window, as if they were formal creatures: How do, Mr. Cardinal? There goes Madam Bluebird. I learned their personalities amid her narration—the bullying blue jays and the finicky finches. I learned how to see them.
I’d like to say that those living room lessons from my boyhood turned me into an expert birder in adulthood. But the truth is I can recognize only a handful of birds; I’d be of little use in the woods at 6:00 am with binoculars.
What did stick, however, was a willingness to see the birds. To stop, to listen.
Yesterday, I sat quietly in the second floor of a former courthouse overlooking the Smoky Mountains and listened to writers read the words of Kathryn Stripling Byer, a poet who died far too young this summer. She had been both a force and a generous spirit in the world of North Carolina letters—the first female poet laureate of the state. As her words sailed around the room in the voices of writers she touched, I watched the birds outside. I followed them—some I could name; others I could not—as they swooped, in flocks and alone, over our building and down into the valley beneath.
As a writer, I know I ought to make meaning out of this—out of the uncaring beauty of nature—but I couldn’t then and can’t now. All I know is that those birds in my sightline kept me still, kept me grounded while they soared, and I heard Kathryn’s words and felt loss.
Beyond my grandma’s living room, I talked to the birds, often to birds unseen. Some calls were easier to imitate than others. The bobwhite sang back most consistently, once I finally managed a passable whistle and could parrot its low opening note that quickly slides upward. In hayfields and from meadowed hills, I called out—the low bob, the high white—and it called back.
The bobwhite and I don’t speak much these days. I grew up and moved off of the 100 acres that have been in our family for five generations, where former farmland and forests welcome all stripes of birds. There are no fields wide enough for bobwhites where I live now, a couple miles from Main Street. But there is a stretch of woods behind our house that stays busy with birdlife, with Mr. Cardinals and Madam Bluebirds. A few months back, I sat by the window upstairs while my five-year-old son played in the bath. Outside, we heard the owl-like song of the mourning dove. I sang back.
Dripping water across the tile, my son stood by the window while we watched the bird appear, as if by magic, perching on an old planter at the edge of the forest, to return our calls. Or so we thought. Before long, another mourning dove appeared alongside the first, and the two stayed like that, paired and silent, disinterested in my false calls, until the rain set in an hour later.
I didn’t mind the puddle of water my son produced as we watched the birds. I didn’t rush him back into the tub, even as his bedtime hour approached. I knew I was giving him something, even if I didn’t know what, as we stood, side-by-side, and watched the birds, sitting side-by-side.
At his insistence, we came back from the hardware store with a hummingbird feeder one Saturday. Now, from our sunroom, we watch as blurs of blue and red momentarily solidify into the shapes of small birds at a feeder. They’re easy to miss. But once he’d noticed two or three of them zooming in and pausing long enough to drink, he shaped an eye for it. He learned to read the flash of color as the possibility of a bird.
My son knew my grandmother only for a few years. I doubt he’ll have much of a memory of her; she died when he was three. What she passed on to me, injected into my blood and brain, is impossible to fully name and measure. I spent much of my childhood in her house—just through the woods from my own—and can still taste her fudge and feel her hand on my feverish forehead and see the hawk-eye stare she aimed as us boys when we’d broken something or hit each other with sticks. I can recognize that she gave me the birds. She taught me to keep my eyes up.
On days when everything stressful feels electronic—unanswered emails, writing deadlines, looming bills—I’m grateful that my body still remembers, sometimes without my brain’s permission, to look outside and keep an eye out for a bird. I’m grateful to be able to train up my boy in this tradition of ignoring the calls of the world, if only for a moment, to listen to the calls of the birds.
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