For the Birds

Sandhill cranesThis week my writing group, the Write On Mamas, was invited to share our work at a local senior residence. It was a delight to be there along with my fellow WOMers Janine, Mindy, and Steven. Here’s what I read, an old favorite of mine originally published in skirt!

*

Like most married couples, my husband Jonathan and I have many pacts–no cheating, no badmouthing each others’ parents, no going to bed mad. Our agreements are the glue that holds us together.

One of our pacts is to never take up birdwatching. Jonathan and I spent way too much time as kids trapped in some swamp while our parents cooed over coots.

We once took a hike with our friend, Peter, an avid birder. Eyes downcast, my husband and I listened politely as he droned on about plumage and wing span.

“Oh,” Peter said, at last noticing our silence. “Children of birdwatchers.”

Since we have our youthful resentments to uphold, we cling to our pact even though every binocular-toting couple we know is happily married. Birdwatching may unite others, but not Jonathan and me.  If one of us strays, pulse quickened by a downy breast, it’s grounds for divorce.

Still, as long-term marrieds, we’re always on the lookout for new ways to spice up our relationship. The forbidden, even birding, holds allure. So what if it’s like watching paint dry?

That’s how we recently found ourselves driving to the delta with our friends Steve and Mary to catch the last of the sand hill cranes before they headed south. Or wherever cranes go when, sensibly enough, they tire of hanging out on the levees with bored teenagers gunning their engines.

Before we embark, my husband and I renew our vows.

“Promise me we won’t become birdwatchers,” I implore.

“I do,” Jonathan pledges.

Steve and Mary have an exemption. They even have a temporary placard for disabled parking. Sidelined from favored pursuits like hiking and backpacking by surgery, they have entered the phase of life Steve refers to as “recalibrated pleasures.” They’ve traded in their boots for Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guides and sunk a few thousand dollars into birding paraphernalia. No doubt they’re faking it, forced to find the silver lining in an unjust fate. We’ll be safe with Steve and Mary.

We pile into the backseat of their car. After a drive that lasts forever, strip malls give way to fields of rice stubble. We pull onto the shoulder of the levee dam road. “Look at the swans!” Steve and Mary exult in unison. It occurs to me that they’re not pretending.

The side of the road is littered with parked cars whose trunks yield vast arsenals of birding materiel. Pot-bellied men hoist huge tripods onto their beefy shoulders. Except for their girth and Audubon Society t-shirts, they could be mistaken for guerrillas sporting shoulder-mounted grenade launchers.

Birders are a passionate lot. Within a 10-mile radius, only my husband and I are cool to the wonders of feathered fauna. At least I hope Jonathan still is. He seems suspiciously enthralled as Mary explains the difference between divers and dabblers.

Steve spots the cranes on a distant bank. Even I have to admit they’re spectacular. After about 10 minutes of genuine oohing and another few of feigned ahhing, I’m ready to climb back in the car and head for civilization, or at least a Starbucks in one of those strip malls.

But people who routinely drive 100 miles in search of creatures they can’t see without expensive equipment are not prepared to settle for such a small return on their investment. So we look at the cranes. We look at ducks. We look some more.

Birding is like time-lapsed photography in reverse. The day slows down and stretches out in a languorous slow-motion crawl of nothing much happening. We drive farther. A chain-link fence separates the road from a plot of barren land. Steve spies a thin white line close to the horizon.

“Might be white pelicans. On the other hand, it might be plastic garbage bags,” he says with quiet excitement, as if either outcome would please him equally. Has his sense of pleasure been so radically recalibrated?

We train the binoculars on the barely discernible thread of white. Sure enough, they’re pelicans. But heaped together in a slovenly pile, these pelicans look like garbage bags with wing spans fluttering listlessly in the breeze. Perhaps it’s some kind of rare hybrid species: Feathered trash.

The day moseys along toward sunset. Mud hens are now indistinguishable from mud in the long shadows swallowing up the fields. The sky is streaked with cotton-candy wisps of pink and smoky gray.

It is also streaked with birds, flying in formations that, truth be told, look a bit ragged. No perfect, straight-edged V’s for these cranes and geese! Maybe they’re bored, too, and want to mix things up a little.

I think of my friend who took his family to see Winged Migration. Ten minutes into the film, his eight-year-old daughter elbowed him and said, “So this is it, huh? It’s just gonna be birds and then more birds all the way through.”

I’m with that girl! But is my husband still with me? He’s keeping up a steady stream of delighted chatter, admiring how graceful the airborne cranes look when they’re not stuck on land with their unruly necks and legs all akimbo. Jonathan’s enthusiasm makes me nervous until I realize that I, too, sound like I’m going to log on to one of those birding chat rooms the second I’m near a computer. I sidle up to Jonathan in the gathering darkness and whisper, “You haven’t gone over to the light side, have you?” He smiles and squeezes my hand hard, twice, our secret code. Birds of a feather flocking together. Such a man I have married! Black silhouettes fly against a crimson sky; white lies fly below.

“It’s so beautiful,” I exclaim, this time sincerely. Not only because together my husband and I have resisted the call of the wild, but because of how the bloodshot-turning-charcoal clouds are reflected in the little pools of water dotting the furrows. The delta at twilight looks like sepia shards from a shattered kaleidoscope.

We stow the scopes, the tripods, the binoculars, the books back in the trunk. Relieved, we climb into the car and head for home. Steve and Mary point out raptors on the power lines while Jonathan and I hold hands silently, eyes closed, in the backseat.

*

Postscript: Years later, Jonathan and I are still stubbornly resistant to birding. We know a hawk from and a hummingbird, and are happy to leave it at that. Steve and Mary, meanwhile, have traveled all over the world on birding expeditions. They are still our friends, though they haven’t invited us along on any more outings. What shared interests and antipathies do you and your sweetie enjoy?