You’ve taught me to watch for things. The bees making the penstemon go swaybacked. The look of a primrose when it’s about to uncurl in the night. The white flits at the end of evening grosbeaks’ wings before they dive into the larches. Kinnikinnick and lazuli buntings, Pacific wrens and pearly everlastings, scarlet gilia and spotted towhees. It is a field book of wonder. Of naming power.
You like it when there is more than one name for something. You say that means there is no right name for one thing and that people in my hometown can call something completely different from what they call it here or what you called it growing up far away from me. This idea of not having “One Right Name for Something” makes me wonder how we’ll do naming our baby kicking inside me come October.
A northern flicker is calling down by the swollen belly of the Clark Fork River, thick with snowmelt. The only reason I can ID it is because you built a box for flickers on our porch, measuring out the exact proportions to accommodate their broad polka-dotted chests, packing it with shavings to make them comfortable, waiting for them to see that winter had slid to spring and it was time to settle on housing. You’d stand out on the porch watching for them, one foot on top of the other, your top toes kneading your bottom ones.
“They’re not here yet,” you’d call back to me.
Chickadees came to the box instead, and we watched them excavate the nest, chunking out shavings with their beaks and flying to the lilacs to spit and fool predators about where they were making a family. We got used to their songs, the way they called to one another in canon. “Hey babe,” she’d say from the telephone wire. “Hey babe,” he’d call back from the neighbor’s apple tree.
Only the flickers finally did come, and they landed on the porch railing and cocked their heads to one side and then the next, flashing their red-cheeked handsomeness and scaring me and the chickadees both. I had grown to love the chickadees and how they made me laugh as they bounced and squatted on the porch, but what was there to do? It was the flickers’ box.
You worked into the night building a new box for the chickadees with all the right specifications and all the right amount of shavings, and the chickadees moved downstairs after a fitful night in the lilacs. Meanwhile, the flickers went to work making the upstairs fit their needs, moving the furniture around. But while you were away, some invasive starlings came and took over the flicker nest, and one wouldn’t budge an inch even when the expecting flicker mom cawed and cried in a way that ought to have made the starling’s heart break. I didn’t know how to scare away the starling without terrifying the flicker, so I sat there wondering what to do until it was too late and the flickers had done their final bobbing flight off the porch and out to find a new nest.
When you came home, you killed the starling inside the nest. “They’re not native,” you said. “We’d be adding to a problem to give them a home.” But I could tell you still felt bad, and the flickers still didn’t return. You didn’t want any eggs and toast that morning, and you let your coffee sit until it grew cold and the cream made suspended clouds in the mug. That night, you worked late, taking the feather pelt off the starling to use for tying flies. “See how it glows iridescent?” you asked me, holding the feathers up to the light.
You’ve taught me to take a side-long view of non-native things—starlings and house sparrows and that flower, purple loosestrife, that used to set the fields on fire back where we met in Massachusetts. I’m not sure if this is healthy. Taking a narrow view of things, where does that leave us? What happens when you’re not native to anywhere anymore?
The chickadees had eight babies downstairs while the flicker box stayed empty, perhaps in tribute, perhaps in warning. You put a calendar up on the side of the fridge made of a torn-out sheet of notebook paper, and I thought it was a calendar for regular things, so I wrote, “Flight home to South Carolina.” I thought about populating it with other memos but lost steam because I always lose steam with calendars. Days later I looked more closely at your recent etchings when the paper fluttered down as I swept the kitchen:
May 7: Complete BCCH Nest!
May 9: No eggs.
May 12: 5 eggs!
May 15: 8 EGGS.
As May went by and the larkspur’s deep purple paired with the yellow arrowleaf balsamroot on the hills surrounding us in Missoula, you’d climb on top of your native plant garden to unlatch the chickadee box to check the eggs’ progress. Sometimes, you’d flush the chickadees tending their eggs and write that down, too: “8 eggs, flushed female.” Or “8 eggs: male and female incubating.” Three eggs and then five eggs and then eight eggs hatched. You’d run up the stairs to tell me the up-to-the-minute news from the labor and delivery wing of the house.
A cold snap came to Missoula while we were backpacking in the relative warmth of Idaho. When you went to check on the chicks once we got back, you found them rock-cold with their necks lolled back. The chickadee parents had disappeared, perhaps on account of the lurking neighborhood cat, so you brought the chicks in the house and tried to warm them in your hands. The look on your face was more than I could bear for very long. Slowly, three of the eight came back from toeing the line between life and death. You put the dead chickadees on a sheet of toilet paper, their bodies so small and unfeathered they only took up one square’s worth, and you held the three survivors for the entire morning, trying to tempt them with worms they did not want. Two lost the pattern of their breath until they stopped inhaling entirely. I watched for your expression to change as you held your handful of chickadees close to your face, but there was no slide toward acceptance. Your jawline remained set in grief.
For weeks after you delivered the lone survivor to bird rescuers, you listened for the chickadee parents out on the porch. “Where do you think they went?” you’d ask me. On my walks around the neighborhood, threading my way through back alleys of lilacs and rusted cars and fledgling vegetable gardens, I often heard the canons of other chickadees. They called “hey babe” here and “hey babe” there. I saw flickers hopping along the sidewalk, foraging for ants, and perching on telephone wires with their pair. I would come back and tell you that there were still happy birds in the world. “That’s good,” you’d say, looking half-convinced.
You’ve taught me to look for patterns, drawing on them for hypotheses, but the difference between you and me is that I mostly only notice them when they’d be impossible to miss. For instance, how glacier lilies bloom where the snow recedes on the valley floor and then follow spring up the mountain. Or how larkspurs tuck into the coolness of rock overhangs and lupines can flourish in the heat of open grasslands. Or how you can walk back in time and season by hiking up in spring or down in autumn.
Otherwise, I learn by rote memorization, a learning method largely relegated to the past. I point to things along the trail and ask you what they are, and I have to ask again a half mile later because I’ve forgotten the name’s intonation or one of its syllables. I walk down the trail, reciting it to myself after you’ve told me again: stone crop, prairie smoke, blanket flower, western meadow rue, bear grass, sticky geranium, wood’s rose, shooting stars, fairy slippers. Maybe memorization is still okay when it comes to such poetry.
On our first date, we picked apples at the farm in the Berkshires where you’d been studying bumblebees. The bees crowded a corridor of flowers that led to the mountain where Herman Melville looked for whales in the sky and found them. “It is not down on any map,” Melville wrote in his novel. “True places never are.” After filling our bags, we hiked up a toehold of the great mountain, and I told you stories I hadn’t told anyone in a long time. You laughed in a way that was not worried, and I thought of your email to me from a few days before:
Hey McC____ (sp?),
We should be friends.
I was only twenty; you were twenty-three. How is it that you can love someone so instantly?
Later, as we drove home from the farm, you shrieked and slammed on the brakes when a chipmunk ran in front of your tires, and I thought you might be crazy. Damn, I thought to myself, How sure am I about this guy?
Seven years after that moment, I nearly took your leg off with the car door, trying not to run over a kaleidoscope of zebra swallowtails flocking to a wet rut in the Idaho backcountry. You’d jumped out to wave them off the road so we could go by, and I was worried they’d come back again before we passed and get crushed underneath our hot, heavy tires, so I hit the gas without thinking until you yelped and leapt into the car. You laughed once you cleared the hub, and the swallowtails descended behind us with wing-beats of yellow.
During the first field season I knew you, you studied milkweed beetles and brought two of them in a jar when you visited me. “I gotta keep an eye on how they’re getting along,” you said. They were supposed to make the baby beetles you needed. They got along fine within their glass globe of grass, and I named them Bonnie and Hyde because Bonnie was clearly an outlaw-level beetle, but Hyde was not exactly Clyde—a little dinky-looking and too clingy with Bonnie. It was clear he couldn’t lift Bonnie in one arm and lean against the grill of a 1930s getaway car at the same time. Once you went back home, you called me from your place, and I asked, “How’s Bonnie? She getting along alright with Hyde?”
That summer, I clumped around a broad field in your huge mud boots as you planted milkweed into the hardpan. I could see how quickly the crop would succumb in the heat, making your research impossible, so I climbed on top of the car to better see the sunset as it caught your shirt and spread sideways. “How about trying some tomatoes and an irrigation system instead?” I called out to you. “Seems more likely to work than planting milkweeds with no water.”
“Thanks for the encouragement,” you called back, unbending yourself in the field, unable to keep from grinning.
I used to think I couldn’t write about you. I thought that relationships were written about when there were questions at their core, a geography to be charted from hurts built out of uncertainties. I haven’t felt those questions for a long time. When I did, I made sure not to leave a paper trail. That’s something imprinted on me from growing up in a big family with siblings sharing every physical space in the house: someone always found the paper. I know my little sister stuffed her poetry in my older sister’s bedside drawer, thinking we wouldn’t find it since we had moved away. But people come back. And when I came back to you, I didn’t want to write about the questions that came in the interim because there was assurance in your eyes, a forgiveness that ran beyond my conceiving of it. Now I see that I have missed writing to you all along.
In your book, The Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds, there are birds with their wings spread wide and their wings closed up. Juveniles just coming into their necks and adults who have stretched them to see far above the land already. There are birds in winter and in summer, in resplendent breeding plumage and dressed in their regular old long johns. Sibley’s tries to offer some encouragement to the likes of me, a novice of all sorts:
“As you gain experience, patterns coalesce into a framework of knowledge.”
“Pay attention to the seasons,” it says, “there is order in the universe.”
There are many seasons to live through, I gather, and it’d be foolhardy to think that the questions we ask in one are the same in others. Or that the answers we find stay steady across time. The field guide points out all the different stages and feather colors and bird behaviors. “Always be willing to step back,” Sibley’s says. “Reconsider your angle. Check for other possibilities.” It says we as people can see what we want to see instead of what is actually in front of us. Our imaginations are capable of creating mirages of whatever depth we want.
I guess what Sibley’s is trying to say is: look. Look from bird to book, and in that instant, the bird flies away from you. Better to look at the bird while it’s there. Notice the flashes of light on its feathers. The crack of its beak on the snag it’s carving out. The sound of its babies going bonkers for it, just going absolutely wild. I guess what it’s saying is love what’s in front of you right now. Watching you watching the world, I say: I am. I am.
McCullough Blessing is a writer who holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Montana. She currently lives in Tennessee with her husband and young sons.