Spring, birds, grief

The wet spring this year, following that long, snowy winter, has made us all nuts. Enough with the struggle, already. I tell my daughter that if you work hard, you also have to play hard. Now that winter’s over, I’ve been thinking that if you grieve hard, you also have to expand your experience of joy. I’m still working on ways to do that.

Whenever the April showers stopped long enough for those of us who watch birds to get outdoors, joy was close at hand. I had unusual luck this year with early season sightings. For example, one evening, as a spring blizzard approached, I stepped out into the back yard for a moment with the dog. I heard a sound; at first I thought it was geese honking, but then decided it wasn’t geese.

I live in the city, where you wouldn’t expect this, but I looked up and saw a V of swans approaching. They flew right overhead. Their woo-hooing was right out of the Pleistocene or some other –cene. One of the pleasures of birding: it involves time travel. These birds had flown a long way, an impossible distance, and maybe they’d been on the wing for a supernatural number of years as well, for centuries, even, making their way ever further north, but at the same time standing still. If I go out there tonight at the same time and look, maybe they will be there.

Back to the grief. Since August, one friend has died, as have two elderly aunts, while at the same time two people in our circle have been diagnosed with grave illnesses. You probably have a similar list, especially if you are pushing sixty, like I am. Or older. On top of the above losses and worries, my husband is retiring in a few months. I was expecting retirement to be about relaxing and having fun, but so far it has meant that all aspects of our lives are in flux, and that there is a lot of paper work to do whose purpose seems tipped toward preparation for dying: the wills, the health care directives, the who gets what when who dies.

In April, when Lake Harriet was still partially covered with ice, I saw a loon out there. Such a thing delights me. I’m the kind of person who goes around telling everyone, “I saw a loon!” I have also heard them call this spring. I see them regularly on our city lakes, but rarely hear one here. Recently there were six of them on Lake Calhoun.

I saw red-breasted mergansers, too, on both lakes, little groups of them, even earlier than the loons. When I urgently needed to see rugged beauty, there they were, near shore, in a small open pool. These guys are green, white, and red-brown, they have distinctive uneven crests, and they dive all the way under to feed.

Two other sources of my grief: watching climate change get worse while our response remains half-hearted, and watching the oil pipeline industry in Minnesota get energized. They are proposing multiple expansions, which would mean increasing the amount of tar sands oil they send across the state (it is already at obscene levels). And then there is this: Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon, has said that an oil-based economy is here to stay, and that cutting carbon emissions would do no good. He actually spoke this absurdity: “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?” In other words: We are choosing comfort over survival. Strange times, indeed.

I came home one day in April and was distracted by the screams from a raptor high in a neighbor’s tree. I ran and got my binoculars. Large hawk, but which one? The bird was brown with white mottling all over its back and a striped tail. Consulting The Sibley Guide to Birds, I concluded it was a juvenile hawk, last year’s nestling. He was high up and facing away, so I couldn’t confirm this, but he was probably a red-tailed hawk.

At the end of April my husband and I were on our way to a funeral when I felt wave after wave of grief wash over me. For months it had been one darn thing after another, and the intensity of it all had caught up to me. We detoured to a wildlife refuge, and were richly rewarded. We saw lovely waterfowl: hooded mergansers, ring-necked ducks. We saw several swans a-swimming. And that huge bird flying through my field of view? Ah, a spectacular sandhill crane, whose wingspan stretches to seven feet.

Grief, like a fire burning. You are in a crucible and the heat has been turned up. You are being made into something else, but it is not yet clear just what.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.