“Look. There. A hawk.”
“On top of the sycamore.”
“Did you see it? Up in that dead branch.”
* * *
But I wasn’t in the beginning. In the beginning, hawks were not even part of my world. My world contained only three birds: Robins, Jays, Sparrows. When I was very young, I often found baby-bird versions of these in the woods behind our house and brought them home for my parents to save. My parents were something in the way of miracle workers with baby birds, or would that be necromancers? I always considered these baby birds marked for death and then pulled out of their fate by my parents and their odd, other-world alchemies.
Only the Robins ever died. The Jays and Sparrows tended to survive and stick around awhile, years even, flying in and out of our screened porch, the door of which was always propped open for visits, just as the woods was always open for me. A perfect parallel to my mind at the time: I entered their world, they entered mine. Both of us possibly changed at some subatomic level each time the entering and leaving occurred. They were a different version of themselves once they flew through the screened porch into our kitchen, landing on the dark, polished planks of the table or on the back of a kitchen chair, pecking at the tattered threads of the oil-cloth cushions.
I grew up in a strange little house, down a strange little lane, which branched from an old blue highway running around and through St. Louis. Behind our house, five acres of woods dropped down to an old creek bed and then up to a rise of land that stretched several acres more behind the old estate of an ancient dowager widow.
This woods in the city only added to my sense of other worlds. Friends would visit, and they too would find the woods a strange and marvelous thing. Few, however, knew what to do with it. And I must admit that I never encouraged them to discover more. I suppose I expected them to respond to the woods in the same way as our odd-fated birds responded to the kitchen chairs.
There was from this world-on-world of my youth one other group of birds. They were nameless. I now know they were likely ravens, crows, hawks, eagles, or vultures, but then they were simply the birds seen circling high in the sky overhead, often as not, riding wind currents, dipping, floating, skimming air.
I saw these birds when I wandered out to the field that ran from the brambled fence near the highway down to the beginning of the woods. My father didn’t bother to mow the field more than once a year, in the fall. It was an amazing, dangerous sled run in winter. Calm, lowly, tender in the spring: pleasant enough. But in summer, especially late summer, the field was at once dangerous, tender, and magical. I would bed down in the field with my favorite old counterpane, stare up into the sky, and be completely unseen from the house or the woods or the highway above. And the danger, of course, the magic, was falling completely away, vanishing forever. I would be hidden from view in the sway of yellowing switchgrass with its smell of cornmeal and honey and wet straw, and I would be myself in a way I could never be when more fully seen. I knew that a single voice from anywhere within range could threaten this me, so that out of this moment of pure, calm being would creep in the indefatigable labyrinth, the chaos, the dread of rising up and losing that quiet, vanished me, that lost-in-the-tall-grass-forever me.
And then the circling birds would appear. They in their world, me in mine. They were being their own lovely selves, coasting and soaring, big sweeps and tightening turns. With the flow. And something in their flow would often as not be part invisible ink, part déjà vu, part smoke signal. Their world and language and secret gifts, hovering. They were not quite the woods’, not quite mine, caught up in the rare air and sending me messages cut like ribbons out of sky. Sometimes the arrival of these birds would compel me to roll clear from the counterpane and run wild with the gloriously threatening thought that the circling birds might burst into stars or disappear in a silvery celestial wink. I would run into the woods, weave through the greens and browns and yellows, the Turk’s cap oranges, trillium whites, short-spurred violets, all the while thinking of the great vault of blue overhead and those black sky-slicing birds, circling their world at the farthest exhale of the sky.
* * *
For biologists, archaeologists, or anyone trying to read clues to the dead or see through the camouflage of the living, search image is everything. I first experienced the effects of a proper search image while helping friends collect water snakes for reproductive studies. The collecting took place throughout late May and early June on the Huzzah, a beautiful little tributary of the Meramac River in southern Missouri. The collection crew would drive out from the city and hit the water by ten in the morning, preferably during the workweek when the float-with-your-keg folks were off the river. It was an easy six-hour float with long stretches through dappled woods and shadeless pasture land, complete with shoots and riffles, sandbars and log piles. The log piles were what we sought: twisted wood wreckage half submerged in full sun. That’s where the snakes hung out, like branches themselves, basking in the sun before slipping into the river for a fine fish or two.
The first time out, I just observed. The second, I held the collecting bag open (really an old pillowcase) as the undulating snakes were dropped in. Soon I was taking over steering duties so that one of the biologists could sit in the bow and attempt to retrieve the large gravid females. There were many surreal aspects to these trips. Deliberately steering a canoe into a debris pile so that someone can try to grab a honking momma snake was one. Developing a serpentine search image was another. It required a level of observing the world that had never before been asked of me and made me feel at once more connected and more disconnected from the environment around me. In order to really see the individual snake “hidden” in plain view, I basically had to focus on one very specific part of the pattern and ignore the whole. Jumbles of dead branches were scanned for that odd form that was at once branchlike and snakelike. By the end of the second trip, I was getting pretty good at it. The downside came at night, when sunburned and exhausted, I fell into my sleeping bag, content with the smell of the campfire still in the air, the woody sounds of night, ripe for sleep. I’d close my eyes, almost asleep, when I’d discover burnt upon the back of my eyelids the image of sunning, gravid female snakes. These snakes would float and levitate through my dreams all night long.
Three minor notes on catching water snakes. First, they were nonpoisonous and, when warmed up, moved very quickly, so the most effective method of catching them did not include the use of snake tongs. Nope, we just cruised close in our canoes and grabbed them as swiftly as possible, hopefully right behind the head so they couldn’t reach around and bite. Some of the big females had huge jaws with corresponding incisors. The males, however, smaller and thinner, had tiny teeth that left tracks like TB tests. I tried my hand at catching a small male. It was thrilling: taking the front of the canoe and being careened into position, a committed slap of hand down on the snake and closing fist, the roughness of the sun-roasted log beneath knuckles, the writhing of the snake’s dry, warm body against palm, the prick of the first bite which might stay stuck or come clean for another take, the corresponding whip of the tail, the pungent aroma as the pissed snake emptied musk, urea, whatever he had onto my forearm. A total sense sensation. Memorable to be sure. But almost as memorable was dropping the snake into the bag after a long collecting trip. I remember one trip at the height of my friends’ research project when we were going out for as many snakes as possible, with a crew of ten and five canoes. Snakes were everywhere. The mother lode of Nerodia sipedon, if you will. The pillowcases were filling up fast, and I remember opening up one particularly heavy and writhing bag, and looking in on this unfathomable labyrinth of snake bodies and the half digested fish they had regurgitated and the overpowering smells of snake semen, musk, urea. That may have been the most visually surreal event ever, described best as a mix of Milton, Dante, and Borges. Definitely Borges, only Borges in a bag.
* * *
By the end of June, the snake-collecting was over. Now we met on the river every week just to relax. I was a graduate student in creative writing, but the rest of my friends, the river crew, were biologists. Slowly the cohort peeled away as summer ripened, until I found it was just me and one particular friend canoeing down the Huzzah and camping by its edges. We still spotted the ubiquitous water snakes up and down the shore but were relieved to leave them behind. Somewhere in the midst of spring and the snakes and the river, I had fallen in love, and so my particular friend the biologist and I began our formal courtship floating down the Huzzah and Courtois or exploring the woods and caves of Missouri’s rolling hills and bluffs. We developed new search images. The perfect sandbar with just enough cover for lunch and privacy. The right swimming hole with ledges and long stretches of clear, still river.
And then one weekend at the end of September, school back in session, fall setting in, my friend and I decided to end the summer right with an overnight float down the Current River. Neither of us had been down it in years, never together. It could be a very tricky river in the spring with the thaw flow and unpredictable in the summer if you got caught in a downpour. But the fall would be the perfect time: river down a bit, foliage in full color, animals out in anticipation of leaves dropping and winter coming on.
The trip started with one rather harrowing turn. We came around a blind bend and found a tree had fallen across the stream. It was a bother, but it seemed simple enough. We steered the canoe sideways into the log, climbed on top of the half exposed log, and carefully dragged the canoe up and over. That’s when we saw the real danger of the situation. The fallen tree was a honey locust, a native honey locust which is known for its long syrupy seedpods and for its long, dangerous thorns. The thorns on the top and upstream side of the log had been torn away by the river’s current, but on the downstream side they appeared quite pristine, quite exquisitely pointed too, appearing along the entire length of the log in bundles like sparking flares. We carefully made our way around and back onto the water.
The rest of the two-day float was alternatively work (it’s a fairly wide and slow river when down) and wonder (the most spring-fed of all the Ozark rivers with dozens and dozens of springs and caves and cliffs along the way). Because of its gravel bottom and scores of small spring feeds, the Current is crystal clear. It’s lined with hardwoods, sycamore, river birch, dogwood, and, of course, honey locust. We really pushed it the first day, making two-thirds of our distance so we could deliberately dawdle the next. We camped on a long, thin sandbar just down from Fire Hydrant Spring. We loved the name. No pretense of woodsiness or Indian lore. After a long day on the river, you’re so tired you have to convince yourself to take the time to eat. We made sandwiches of English cheddar, avocados, arugula, mayo on thick slices of heavily seeded wheat bread, drank cold, weak lager, nibbled on carrots and tiny dill pickles, and rounded it all off with chocolate, cashews, and a little sweet port. We always knew how to eat well on the river. The sun set as we started our dinner but there was still plenty of light. By the port, those orange-pink to purpling shades were closing in.
“Can you believe all the bats?”
But then I began to see them, like little accent marks flittering across the night sky. Hundreds, as I remember. They seem to be rising out of the water but were just exiting from the mouths of the caves that ran along the river’s edge.
The next morning we spent some time in those caves and saw runs of bats glued to the cold stone walls. They were all delicately shabby, with thin, boney bodies and the saddest remnants of fur. When I’d seen them in the sky the night before, they had reminded me a bit of bank swallows in their low, elegant silhouette, but in repose they were so less charming. Not unlike ballerinas I’ve seen backstage who, after a run of gravity-defying feats, collapse in upon themselves, all bones and angles and inaudible bored sighs, waiting to return to their rare, rightful world.
Perhaps it was exploring the caves and linking bats to ballerinas that brought about my first thoughts of my own old, rare, rightful world. There would be times during the long stretches on the river when my mind would wander, swim, glide, and soar, which can be more than a little unanchoring, but my translation in the caves helped. I found an odd sort of comfort in translating the image of bats into ballerinas. Woods, me and my friend, and nearly every time I checked, those high, circling birds up in their otherworld of sky. A place for all things and all things in their place.
By midafternoon of the second day we had left most of the weekend floaters behind, and we had the wonderful illusion of being alone on the river. The river had widened considerably, with long stretches which were only two or three feet deep where we watched the pebble or limestone bottom flow by, flourished at times with softshell tortoises, hogsuckers, darters, or the ubiquitous Gambusia, tiny and silvery and running like mercury. Once we thought we saw a lone gar moving near the bank in slightly deeper water, its prehistoric jaw and body invoking prehistoric castings.
We had begun a competition of sorts to find the next great thing in the water, when the river suddenly turned, and we came upon the next great thing rising up from a sandbar in the middle of the river. The sandbar had been cut away from the shore and had a clear, wide channel on one side and an impassable, rocky channel on the other. Jutting up from the center was a dead spar of what looked like an old river birch and scattered among the leafless but still powerful branches sat a dozen turkey vultures. The turn, the tree, the vultures all fell upon us so quickly that we could hardly think to react, but we stayed as still and silent as possible so as not to send them away. They didn’t seem inclined to be fearful of us, I must say. My friend put his oar in the water to steer the canoe into the easy wide channel, and we stayed focused on the vultures. That’s when they made their move. That is, they lifted up their wings, expanding them fully, and then sat silently in their old dead tree, drying out their wings and breast feathers in the late day sun. Just picture it, two stunned canoeists floating past a dozen turkey vultures, their wings fully extended in the branches of an old dead birch, the whole lit by the dark golden hues of a late day autumn sun. We were seeing something few ever had, that we, even after a lifetime on the river, might never see again.
It was only after that sighting that I began to see the birds of prey—those same black, ribbon-cutting circling birds—sitting silently in the trees, capping the powerlines, the fence posts, overseeing the little dramas of land and stream. The circling birds fell to earth that day, gathering names and differences: red-shouldered, rough-legged, sharp-shinned hawks along the roads, kestrels down the lanes, eagles near rivers, osprey on the edges of marsh, turkey vultures holding revivals in newly mown fields, great blue herons rigid in backwater pools, small greens flying low across woodsy streams. The image of those vultures forced me to recognize the uniqueness, the particulars of the circling birds. This knowledge was and is a pleasing, worthy thing. It adds greatly to my world and my appreciation. Still, sometimes I let my mind run wild back through fields and woods, scatter knowledge of names and differences like puffballs on wind, reclaim my netherworld birds, their anonymity, our mutual otherness. It’s the secret draw. It’s why a writer hangs with snake-crazed biologists, why she attempts to recast nature in shades of ink: for the parts and the whole, for this world and others, for bats as ballerinas, mercury flows, prehistoric casts, for a lifetime of attempts to find again those circling birds.
© C.R. Resetarits