(Top left clockwise: Least Bittern, Barn Owl, Starling nestling, Second year, Brown pelican, Ruddy duck female)
“Here I am. Here I am. Here I am. Here!” a Scarlet tanager announces every few seconds, yet remains hidden in the trees despite his blood-red body and coal-black wings.
I’ve strained my eyes for ten minutes trying to locate him in the dense oak, maple, and tulip trees to only catch the briefest flash of red as he dives deeper into the treetops.
Water thrushes pipe along the river and robins sing from low bushes. Red-eyed and Black-whiskered vireos chip and chirp their distinctive calls, little gray-green bundles of feathers forever in motion in the bright green leaves.
There are catbirds here also, yet another bird to add to my life list. I feel some guilt for calling one out of dense brush with a recording on my phone. He approaches in the open, echoing my phone repeatedly, concerned, it seems, as if answering a mate. I end the charade and seconds later, he dips back into cover.
Birds, not boys, were my first love. I wrote silly little poems about them as soon as I could string words together but before I knew or had seen their variety.
When I left Surfside Beach, I left my “puppy birds,” my beloved Brown pelicans. Probably the greatest joy of my life other than my child and grandchildren, was rescuing pelicans. I went to lengths most would not, stripping off shoes and socks and submerging myself into murky ponds or the wind-blown “old Brazos river.”
Of all the things I left behind—a man, a job, beautiful sunrises, and amazing storms—the pelicans were my greatest loss. Some days I’m convinced it wasn’t the man that broke my heart, but these flying dinosaurs with their sweet demeanors and often desperate need for help. The man didn’t need me; the birds did.
Maybe that’s what it comes down to—my being needed.
I tried telling a friend, as I have tried telling many people in my life, I must have purpose and without it, I am flotsam. He said, “Purpose isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” (Paraphrasing because — crummy memory)
My ex would say my purpose was to take care of him and his house.
My family would say they need me so that’s purpose enough.
My writer friends say my purpose is to put my art out into the void.
They’re all wrong and all speaking from places of value in this world. They have people and things for whom and which to care. My friend has family and a job that expect his care and effort. My ex has a job to which he endlessly tends. My daughter has her job and kids that need her. My writer friends have established writing careers and other jobs.
When I worked full time, I felt whole. I felt needed. I was rewarded for my efforts.
This society rewards “work” but it doesn’t reward saving birds. Two Surfsiders were kind enough to help me with a little money when I was spending hundreds on gas every quarter to save birds.
Society rewards only what it sees as “product,” some outward and obvious expression of usefulness. A bird, healed from a shark bite or parasitic infestation and released back into the wild is, “nice,” even admirable, but not a product. It doesn’t warrant pay and barely warrants praise.
Yet, all these songbirds I have been listening to and recording for the past two weeks as they fly through or settle in the mountains, are crucial to the workings of this planet. Diversity in animals is as important as diversity in humans. We let these things fall apart because of selfishness, greed, “capitalism,” and the mistaken belief that the more money we make, the more value we have. Pretty, wild things have no transferable value.
In my heart, I know that what I did for the birds of Surfside was of value. What I did deserved more than pats on the back and a few dollars in Venmo.
But my rational mind knows that the rest of the world will never understand that until it’s too late, if it isn’t already too late.
My rational mind still says, in order to be of value to this world, I must find my way to a “good paying job” that everyone else deems acceptable and productive. My rational mind knows that I can’t bear to live out my life not being “acceptable and productive,” because society has taught me without that, I am worthless.
But my heart is so tired.
In this valley off the grid with just the birds to entertain me, it’s easy to let my rational mind slip forever into nothing but bird song and isolation. It’s easy to be the catbird, realizing another bird isn’t there and in need, and dive into the safety of the brush and never come out again.