Spring Blind

I have not noticed spring like this before. Perhaps this owes to the fact that this spring has been a long one — two years, more or less.

It began with the Snow Geese migration last April which I drove 500 miles round trip in one day to see, over the Rocky Mountains (and back), to a place called Freezeout Lake. I missed the geese by a week, but discovered avocets and Northern Shovelers instead. I did see one Snow Goose. It was dead in a field. I wanted to spread out its wings and sleep by it like Terry Tempest Williams. But I was scared to touch it. So I touched it. It was soft and warmish. I wanted to pluck a feather. So I did. Three of them. I felt each one down my spine. I had never plucked a feather before.

Then, within days, there were birds in the morning, waking me with their nesting frenzy. Flocks of robins feeding in the fields, Red-winged Blackbirds assuming their bossy haunt of the marsh. And the rest came: the bluebirds, Western Tanagers, the Sandhill Cranes. And there was a time when spring was just spring with the promise of summer as I have known it. And there were times when I knelt in the soft earth to smell the sweetness and give thanks, but maybe, too, as a bargain.

Then, summer, as we have known it, did not come. Smoke came. And spring moved through a summer of forest fires and we did not see one bird for all the smoke. We needed the birds — how else could we believe in summer? And then the terrorist attack came, and we missed the migration for all the smoke and television. And we needed the migration. More than we ever have. We needed to watch them go. And to believe that we were worth returning to.

It was then that I started stealing things. Hoarding them. Cramming them greedily in my pockets and stockpiling them on my desk: heart-shaped rocks, bones, pine cones. Hoping mostly for a nest.

Spring moved then, through the Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, of my mind, slowly groaning under the snow heaves in the meadow and tossing and turning below the frozen ice of the pond, while its time-twin sunned on rocks in Costa Rica, and I was left with tiny questions presented by wet mittens holding empty nests: “Will the birds need this again? Do I have to put it back?”

“Yes. You should put it back,” I told my little girl, in the voice of the god I had been hearing as I pulled things through the snow and shoved them into my pockets. And we did. We put it back where she found it, in the low branches of an alder. I knew well that the bird which made this nest would not use it twice; I made her put it back so I could keep my three feathers. My heart-shaped rocks. My shells and horseshoe crab skeletons and bones, all in a jumbled cairn on my desk, hoarded. Proof.

I went to Florida somewhere during this long spring. I did not see a Roseate Spoonbill; I did not know what they were then. But I found a pink feather on the beach on Marco Island and if you ask me how my trip to Florida was, I will tell you this story, and another one that had to do with a starfish I found on the beach and took even though it was still alive, then returned; then took again and kept. The nest in the alder branches is carrying more and more weight the longer this spring goes.

If you are my daughter, I will admit to you that I took a starfish that was still alive.

“You should not have taken that starfish,” my daughter said.

I returned to Freezeout Lake this second April in spring to see the Snow Geese. Earlier this time. I crossed the Rocky Mountains, and drove through the bleak everlasting white that drove the pioneer women white-blind and is what was left to the Blackfeet Indians if you don’t count liquor stores and casinos. I drove past an historical marker, blowing horizontal in the wind. I stopped my car on the side of the road and waited for the wind to lay down its tale for a minute. When it did, I blushed. This is where Meriwether Lewis was shot by Blackfeet Indians who were insane with pride and fear, and this is where Lewis and Clark turned around and traveled another 1,000 or so miles south until they found their mountain crossing and even then they were not at the Pacific Ocean and it would be months and months before they ever found what they were looking for and you just drove it in a few hours, you silly stealer-of-starfish birdwatching non-goose — or something to that tune; I wasn’t sure — the wind swooped it up again before I could read it all. Still I eyed the pass I had just negotiated in my SUV not 40 miles behind me, and blushed.

I saw the Tundra Swans first, their white-silver necks pumping them forward like my daughter’s skinny legs on her swing. There are Mourning Doves in their song. Then all 300,000 Snow Geese came up at once and I went to the grain fields and they were white and roaring and there were farmers’ children with their noses pressed against picture windows with whirligigs and bird feeders on their front lawns. Then I drove back over the Rocky Mountains in time for a late dinner.

I have a bowl made out of a dried, halved and hulled-out, grapefruit. It sits on my desk with the pink feather in it, the three white feathers, and the starfish, atop the cairn of shells, heart-shaped rocks, bones. I look at it and think about airborne cholera and non-brown birds falling from the sky after thousand-mile migrations and mountain crossings and white-blindness. And I think about how starfish grow their points back if one breaks off. I need this bowl, at least until spring can turn to summer.

We put a bird feeder up in January even though the man at the store told us the winter birds would not trust us this late in the season; we’d have to wait until spring.

“Oh the birds will come,” said my daughter. “They’re hungry.”

But I did not trust. I missed the migration, after all.

She was right. In the first hour after we hung it from the eaves on the back porch, we had Mountain Chickadees and Black-capped Chickadees. And we learned that there is a difference in the world of chickadees and it is this: a stripe through the eye. Then we had a Red-polled Finch with a broken foot. At first we thought it had a bloody head but then we saw that it was just its marking. It kept falling asleep under the feeder and tipping to one side when the snowy wind blew. We kept trying to catch it while it was sleeping; I’m not sure that we knew what were going to do with it. We just wanted to touch it. Save it somehow. Love it for trusting us and believing in spring in January. After three or four times, it flew away and stayed away; it didn’t trust us anymore. Would you?

Then we had Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Lincoln’s Sparrows and then the snow melted and we had Red-winged Blackbirds who are utterly obnoxious but I love them in the cattails so much that I cry when they come back. There has been a lot of crying this spring. Frogs make us cry, especially.

One morning, we saw two Evening Grosbeaks. They looked like parrots — accidentals. We have had Hairy Woodpeckers and Downy Woodpeckers, starlings and juncos, camp robbers and flickers, and once a Mourning Dove. And even when we stand at the window, not three feet away from the feeder, and stare through binoculars, we still can’t really see the yellow stripe in the Pine Sisken’s wing and tail. We only know it is there, like we only know it has been spring all along.

When the Mountain Bluebird came back to his house in the meadow, we said, “Hello, Friend.” That is his name, according to my daughter. Then we went to the pond and there was still ice in the middle, but we saw a male and female Barrow’s Goldeneye and a male and female Hooded Merganser and we couldn’t believe we could have such birds in our measly little pond that dries to cracked mud by August even without smoke. And there was a pair of Mallards and we could believe them, because there is always a pair of Mallards. The male Goldeneye was making quite a show with his purple head and his alabaster markings and his ability to dive down and then bob up like some kind of machine bird. The female seemed brown and unimpressed. It occurred to me that she might like to see my pink feather or maybe my long white Snow Goose feathers, or even my starfish. She looked at me and said, “You should put it all back, if you want summer.”

I answered her, “Maybe I do not want summer.”

That is when my daughter said, “I once saw two ants shaking hands. Come on. I’ll show you.” And we went to her anthill that I had mistaken for a stump all this time, and we peered down into it and held our breath over its roaring vertical migration. I watched two ants carry a twig to the top, politely going around the other ants who were on their way back down over the millions of fir and larch needles. And when they got to the top, they gently laid down the twig, then mounted it like a balance beam, came into each other, met at the middle, stopped … and then they shook hands. “See,” said my daughter.

“Yes. I do see,” I said.

So we went to the alder tree in the marsh where we had replaced the nest in January. To visit it. To see if it was still a tightly woven vessel. To see if a bird had claimed it. (I was not so sure about the ways of birds now.) And we saw instead, that it was gone. Now there was nothing to hold the weight of my bowl. And I knew that our long spring would be over soon. And we turned back for home.

And we came across a pile of fur leftover from a kill.

“Oh that’s sad,” said my daughter.

I looked to see what the animal had been. Something softer and smaller than a deer. Larger than a coyote. Something that was very white in places and very brown in other places. Something capable of carrying much weight.

“I’ll bet that fur will help the birds with their nests,” said my daughter.

Then we heard the three-part pierce of the Varied Thrush but again, did not see it — we never see it. But we knew it was there, like we have known it is spring.

Later, by moonlight, I walked out to the marsh where the alder trees are, holding my brimming grapefruit bowl. I woke the frogs and they all warned each other of me with beautiful music. I stood with my bowl in my hands, and I lifted it up until the moon poured itself over my feathers and my starfish, casting them in its blue glow. Then I leaned over and put my bowl in the branches of the alder and went home to receive summer.

When April came I took my daughter to Freezeout Lake to see the Snow Geese on her birthday. I took her, not because she needed to believe, but because I needed to. At dawn, we stood out on a peninsula and watched them lift, rising to feed — 300,000 fold.

No terrorists, no war, no loss or fear of hope can take away belief such as that. Each April, the Snow Geese become our permission.

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