The woodpeckers are as loud as jackhammers. A hawk nesting nearby sounds warning squawks all the day long. Then there are the cardinals, the bluebirds, the sparrows, a Greek chorus emitting a constant din of cheeps and trills and tralalalas as they pose on the feeders and preen in the birdbath. Around here, it’s an endless bird rock show.
The last day of the Before was March 12. Since then my emotions and activity have been dramatically up and down, but the birds have remained constant. On bad days, when I feel I am slipping into delirium, I squint into the trees and wonder what they are saying. Theoretically I write fiction, though I haven’t done much of that lately. Instead I stuff imagined lines of dialogue into their beaks: It’s mating season—privacy please! Have you seen Tiger King? Baked amazing sourdough bug bread today.
I listen to them while I walk through the neighborhood, when I sit in my house and Zoom the job I’m grateful to still have. While I cycle through despair and hope, while this universal undoing unfurls, they sing on. We grieve our losses, material and abstract, one long global funeral. Chirp chirp chirp.
I miss a few things hysterically. Hugs. Sitting outside on a cool spring night eating a burger with friends. Swimming laps in the pool, my most treasured way to work my body and soothe my mind. Instead of swimming I ride my bike through the nearly carless streets of our little college town. Campus looks like a deserted movie set, needing only 40,000 extras to seem real.
I zip down long, empty hills, the wind whipping against me. It’s scary to be alive. It’s overwhelming to be in the privileged minority, still employed and healthy. I think of all the planes we aren’t getting on, all the barrels of oil we aren’t burning, all the places we aren’t going. We are stuck, right here, right now. There’s something comforting in not making any decisions, in the surety that if there’s dinner tonight, it will come by my hands.
I am lucky to live across the street from a park. Past the padlocked tennis courts and caution-taped playground equipment are trails that lead away from the world, toward soft earth and a burbling creek. The forest is deep, a place you can wander for hours if you need to, if, perhaps, you have nothing better to do.
The woods are where I feel best these days. After an early rain, the freshly leafed trees glisten a technicolor, hallucinatory green. A heron in the creek, excruciating in its elegance and unbothered by human stares, raises and lowers its stick legs, walking through the water so slowly, so carelessly it seems to be mocking us with its beauty and calm.
I was raised Jewish but it didn’t take. At Quaker school I learned the reverence and discomfort of silence. The woods seem holy now, a sacred vault of sanity. The pervasive deep silence feels like a prayer, or maybe it’s the homily—stillness is here for you. The silence is so sharp that thoughts evaporate from my skull, blown away on the breeze.
It’s hard to stand in the cathedral of the woods and reconcile its perfection with the injustice unspooling the world over.
Unemployment, hunger, mortality. As society disintegrated, wisteria bloomed, thrilled our nostrils, died away. Then the pollen explosion covered our undriven cars and clogged our throats, until it too faded. Now there’s the sweet smell of honeysuckle, climbing across fences and bushes. The trees, broad and leafy, throw shade in the original sense, the one Southerners are grateful for every summer. The earth, though throttled off her axis these last decades thanks to our idiocy, is still here, dying and birthing as it always has.
On my lucid days, I know the birds have no message for me, for any of us, except maybe We were here long before you and we’ll be here long after. They are simply following their bird programming, living their best bird lives, regardless of us, in spite of us. Nature doesn’t need us or even heed us, just keeps on. Some days I think we are the dinosaurs.
One day at least some of our daily rhythms will reprise. We will gas up our cars and pursue our pleasures, which will drown out the wind through the trees, the birdsong. The excellent soundtrack of this long, sad, scary movie will be out of earshot.
Cover photo by Julia Green