I drove, dove really, into dawn, and down to the point
where the old lake melts alongside the sea,
and I stood in my straw hat under the pines in the parking lot while the guide
explained ocular limitation: you will hear a thousand more birds
than you will ever see. He cupped his ear, whispered parula.
And we all looked up, to try to see the song, have
the flick of common, invisible gold. When I closed my eyes to listen,
to rise above my fellow humans, I heard morning traffic, a siren,
another siren, fish crows, nah-ah, nah-ah, and the birders
talking, talking, talking, talking, talking, talking and their phones
ping-ping, ping-ping, so much music from this scattering of non-migrating
white-beards, elders with pants belted high, high above the waist,
possibly one lone northern retired humanities professor,
and the bright flock of women fine-frilled in summer plumage,
grounded by stable Tevas. Will we see eagles? someone asked.
Go around back of Walmart at night, I wanted to tell them. But I kept everything
to myself. To hoard small happiness, or protect the final remnant of ____,
I don’t know. Really it felt wrong to speak, like yakking in church or talking
on the phone while reading a poem. The grandmother
pushing a baby carriage with a live baby worked her way up
to the guide’s side, gazing up at him, asking question after question,
a mating dance with fanny pack, blue eyes, rings on her fingers,
her pretty little interrogative song, and what about…? and what about…?
Thus, we the birders made our way around Lake Maggiore,
to which a channel was cut in the 1920s, linking lake to sea
and when the saltwater rushed in, killing
the fishes, the turtles, the rushes and the underwater garden,
the lake turned grey and did not die and did not live and will not live or die.
This morning it’s a pewter mirror. The sign says the lake is “impaired”.
Do not make contact. Do not touch the mercury-laced water, do not
eat the struggling fish. I saw seven Mexican whistling ducks, swimming,
and a large, businessman-like raccoon washing his paws in the water.
We’re supposed to keep track. I can’t bear to keep track.
The bird walk ends behind a Quonset hut holding restrooms under the oaks
and a row of wire mesh cages. These birds, the guide says, are for education.
We walk past the prison cells. One, two, three four:
hawk, falcon, bald eagle, great horned owl—the muscled birds of the apocalypse.
I see jesses hanging down from the falcon’s legs.
I see them watching-not-watching us, vacant yellow eyes, the terrible presences,
as my flock speaks of where to go now to buy hats, books, ready-made checklists.
I stayed behind in a depth of silence here, in the tomb of ghost birds.
We were told it’s okay to keep them like this, on display.
These birds would not make it in the wild: they came injured, unparented.
See? Even despair seeks homeostasis.
And the bright sun barrels over the pine tops, good morning.
Heather Sellers is the author of Field Notes from the Flood Zone (BOA Editions) and You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, a memoir about her experience as a person with face blindness. Her most recent book is How to Make Poems: Form and Technique. She directs the creative writing program at the University of South Florida.