The Ribbon of Birds: For Catherine
by Laurie Beth Jones
My new(est) home looks out across a broad canyon. There is a wide relatively quiet street in front of it, and usually I watch the cars or bicyclists or hikers or kids on razor scooters go by. I have moved into an incredibly diverse and eclectic neighborhood, but that is another essay.
My friend Catherine is a bird lover. A bird watcher. An Audubon afficianado. She told me the other day that her idea of heaven would be to just watch birds all day long, and write down in a journal what she sees.
She almost went apoplectic with joy last week when she noticed a group of people in her neighborhood gathered in a field near her house, pointing at something. It seems a swallow kite, or black swallow kite, or some kind of bird with swallow, black, and kite in its name, was making an appearance in the field. “This is very rare for El Paso,” she told me. “Almost unheard of.” Finally she calmed down with her explanation and then kind of sighed “I wish you liked birds.”
Having Catherine sigh and make a wish regarding my life is like…a thunderbolt. An assignment. A mantra. A mission. A message from God. A one way ticket into a land I didn’t know. I think it was three months ago I kind of heard her sigh and say “I wish you liked clouds.”
The fact that she is taking flying lessons puts her WAY ahead of me in that regard. I mean, studying clouds is a survival skill for pilots. In Santa Fe recently we had a very mosquito like moment of disagreement about a cloud painting we saw in a gallery. As we were walking past it I said “I don’t think clouds really look like that.” You would have thought I had said that sunsets are ugly. I got an education on clouds right there, on the spot.
“How many cloud types can you name?” she gently challenged me. “Ok, here goes,” I said, rising to the question. “Stratus. Cirrus. Cumulo nimbus….gynormous…billowing….” I began to fade, realizing that made up words and adjectives were not going to cut it. “Humph,” she said. “Just as I thought. You need to learn about clouds.” So lo and behold the very next day I located, looked at, and mailed to her a “Cloud Book Journal,” having never known something like that ever existed.
So, back to the birds. “You’ve given me a new vector…a new radar grid,” I told her. “I will be more observant of birds.”
And lo and behold, cumulo nimbus, there they were, birds in the canyon. Birds in the tree beside the deck. Birds on the top of the pine tree like a Christmas tree ornament that changes every evening. All right in front of me. A hummingbird came up yesterday and practically buzzed me in the face–hovering as if to say “Humm…just as the others described…a dodo bird does live here!”
And so it was that yesterday evening, just as the sun was sinking into the sea of trees, a flock of black birds scattered past me in an elongated ribbon in the sky. They took me by surprise, since I had never really noticed them before. They didn’t flock all together. They spaced themselves out literally like a fluttering ribbon of life. It was spectacular.
Hoping that the circumstance would repeat itself, tonight I was ready. As soon as the first bird took off against the pink blazoned sky I began counting…1…2…3 as fast as I could…..18….24….48….97….(could there really be that many?)….108…115….147….185…197…202…218…! I waited ten more minutes lest another group make an appearance, but that was the final tally for the evening.
Yes, 218 black birds ribboned across the sky as the sun was setting in San Diego.
Was God showing off or what? I told Catherine about it, and she said “Maybe they are migrating.” I told her that these are common black birds that live around here, I am sure of it. It just seems that at sunset they all decide it is time to quit shopping and head home.
As you can see, I have a lot to learn about birds. But does noticing their color and beginning to count them like a child count for anything?
I ask you….
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