My new book, The Names of Birds, will be out September 2011.
Growing up on a farm in Michigan and later in California, birds were always around me. My father was a chicken fancier. My mother raised Barred Rocks for the eggs. Valley Quail wandered through our yard. I knew the sweet song of the Meadowlark in our neighbor’s alfalfa. The memory that’s followed me all of my life though was walking with my uncle in a field of corn stubble in Michigan. It was a sunny day. I was eight years old and on my first pheasant hunt. I didn’t see the bird flush, but the explosion of the shotgun, I remember that, how it startled me. What came next wasn’t about feeling bad for the dead bird, but the shock of its beauty when my uncle laid it warm in my hands. Its colored feathers astonished me: the white ring, the iridescent blue-greens over the neck and head, the luminous red patches and yellow beak. And, oh my, those long, spotted tail feathers. If one can have post-traumatic-shock from beauty, mine was for that male pheasant. I’m certain it was the beginning of my life as a birder.
That there are still 800 different kinds of birds in our country is pretty amazing, but something else that amazes more, there are sixty-one million birders watching them. That’s a lot of packed lunches and binoculars. And my guess is that these are mostly ordinary people like you and me who simply love birds. I can’t explain in scientific terms, bird habitat, the impact of invasive species, migration patterns or any of the rest of it, which is vast and very important. But I do know that if we don’t figure out soon how to reconnect people, our country with the natural world from which we enjoy our own earthly existence, then all the smart science in the world won’t save bird or man from extinction. Consumption is killing us and killing the planet. Conservation begins with the heart. That’s what my book THE NAMES OF BIRDS is really about. Right now fully half of those 800 birds are either in trouble, in decline or are on the so-called Red List for endangered species.
It was something in an article in the New York Times in 2009 about the destruction of bird habitat that begin my journey as an activist. It wasn’t my lack of awareness of endangered species and the causes, no it was the density of metaphor, that’s what was missing in the writing. That mysterious quality of language poetry is. Birds are poems after all. They remind us that only by our capacity for wonder are we saved. Then I thought of the line, really a mantra for me, “Birds are holes in heaven though which a man may pass.” It was the warm pheasant in my young hands again, that’s what was missing. Right there I suddenly felt called to action. I’d already written a number of bird poems so why not a whole book of bird poems? This was something I could do. Something I must do.
Read more about The Names of Birds, or order the book now.
Sculpture in photo, by Daisy Youngblood