Sunday, March 25, 2007

I heard my ornithologist friend was visiting Southern Utah this year,

so I offered to consult my parents on the topic of birds to watch for (my parents are avid birdwatchers). I spoke to them last night, after taking my children down for dinner.

My mother took her well-worn, dog-eared and note-filled copy of “Birds of North America” (some early 1960’s edition, I’m sure) with her whenever we were traveling. “Oooh, oooh, stop the car! It’s a Lazuli Bunting!" was a common enough exclamation whenever we were on a car trip, or taking a drive up one of the canyons. Or going to the dentist; perpetually late, mom never hesitated to stop the car and admire some rare avian or another. Dad accommodated when he could, I think more in appreciation of her enthusiasm than to see whatever she’d spied (my brother and I were less appreciative. Not being in control of the car, however, there was little we could do about it). There is always at least one set of binoculars in the glovebox of my parents’ car.

So they were happy to suggest my friend visit Lytle Ranch, if at all possible, in Southwestern Utah. There are migratory birds there that can be seen nowhere else in the state (and few places elsewhere, apparently). Dad suggested my friend watch for Hooded Orioles and Phainopepla. Mom directed me to the local birder website, where one can find not only a Lytle Ranch fieldguide, but guides to various other locations as well.

I remember mom directing my attention to hovering kestrels, Blue Herons, teaching me the difference between a scrub jay and a Stellar’s jay, pointing out the differences between the silhouette of a hawk versus an eagle in flight, and shocking various houseguests with her freezer full of brightly plumed birds which had brained themselves on their plate windows. She put me on the lookout for burrowing owls, when I visit the west desert, and was quick to note the sighting of a nest of barn owls on a route I frequently take (I believe I saw one, taking off suddenly from a fencepost as I drove past. Mostly, it left the impression of something very, very big winging away in a flurry of abrupt motion).

Mom got the results from her latest CT scan yesterday. The nodule on her lung, which had been dormant, perhaps due to her efforts (IV vitamin C, radical diet stuff) has grown from 8 mm to over 2 cm, and smaller ones have proliferated. She’s weighing her options, and considering a trip to a clinic in Mexico. She’s no more spare lung to take – they’ve taken lower lobes on both sides already.

It’s impossible to anticipate the permanent absence of someone who has always been there. Mom hovers around the periphery of things most of the time, swooping in to take center stage at only the most unfortunate moments, when she wants to share something with her grandchildren: something they will neither understand nor appreciate, though I hoped they’d eventually come to recognize the value of her desire to share, across that peculiar gulf that seems to separate my mother from the vast majority of people. She harnesses more intellectual firepower than my father, and has only learned late in life to temper her enthusiastic desire to share whatever obscure passion she happens to be pursuing: not so much out of respect for the listener’s limitations, but more as the late-learned impact of her eccentricity on her relationships.

She has a brightly burning mind, and her lack of appreciation of larger society is more than counterbalanced by the intensity of her examination of the areas in which she finds satisfaction. It is difficult for me to imagine how such a thing could be extinguished, and all the insights, observations and trivia will fall silent, except in the memories of the people who love her.


Dawn Coyote said...

When I was little, I used to tell my mom I wanted to die before she did. She'd tell me that that wasn't how it worked, that parents are not supposed to out-live their children, but what did I care how it worked? I couldn't imagine enduring the pain of losing her. When my dad was dying, I recall wishing that I could trade places with him. A selfish wish, of course, because of all the people I will lose, the death that will pain me the least will be my own.

If we must outlive people, there's some small comfort in knowing that we've been able to see them clearly, as clearly as you see your mom, as evidenced by this post.

This: It’s impossible to anticipate the permanent absence of someone who has always been there is exactly true. For me, the world became irrevocably flawed on the day my father died, like one of those rare occluded diamonds, more beautiful for its imperfections.

TenaciousK said...

Mortality sucks. The universe is not a just place, where benevolence and malice are somehow balanced on divine scales held in the hand of an unfathomable father (or mother) figure. Bad things happen to virtuous people, phenomenal things happen to horrid little persons, and innocent children and animals suffer and die.

And middle-to-late aged women, I guess, though there is something like childlike innocence about my mom.

But there's no justice, except what we people impose on a universe indifferent to human conceptualizations of morality or fairness. All the more important, then, to cherish the people and experiences afforded by whatever fortunate confluence of events and influences we might be living in. So maybe that's the flaw in your occluded diamond.

It's so human to take for granted, and assume what's always been will always be, and squander whatever opportunities we might have, believing there will always be another, maƱana.

Archaeopteryx said...

...of all the people I will lose, the death that will pain me the least will be my own.

In a way, that's comforting, isn't it? We somehow have to deal with the horrors that the universe has put together for us--those tumors and busted heart valves and tractor accidents that steal our family away--but when it's our turn, somebody else will have to deal with it. On the other hand, there have been times when the only thing keeping me alive was the knowledge of what my family would have to go through if I died.

TK--give your mom a hug and tell her it's from me--I probably won't be able to use her tips on this trip, but Mrs. Archaeopteryx and I will be back out there soon (my field trips for work always end up as scouting expeditions for vacations {my life these days rocks!}). Sounds like she's a better ornithologist than I am.

TenaciousK said...

Arch: check the links, if you want a heads up for what to watch for. There are pages on the locations you'll be visiting.

The desert (particularly the red rock canyons) are best visited in the Spring (prone to occasional flooding in the fall, though if you watch the weather, you'd be fine. The deer flies, however, are unavoidable from about August on).

Thanks, Arch - I will.

Keifus said...

Sometimes I wonder if it's worth the trouble to appreciate larger society to a very large extent. It's wonderful to hear someone with a brightly burning mind and using it.

Hope you can (and she can) enjoy the todays--without having the tomorrows weigh down too much. Which is always good advice...


Thomas Paine said...

I dunno what I can say, but to wish you and your mother the best. I have been fortunate to still have both my parents (both are 80 and still going strong) but I was there when my wife lost her mother (quickly, an unexpected heart attack) and her sister (slowly, from uterine cancer) and neither way was easy.

Re your links on Utah birds -- perfect timing for me. I know SFA about birds, but have been seeing many different ones along the Provo river on my weekend walks with the dog, and was looking for a source to identify some that I did not recognize.

There are a number of bald eagles that are really close to the trail (I think I saw one licking its chops while eyeing the dog -- at 45 lbs I suspect she is a little too much to try carry off, but....) and lately I have seen several great blue herons, many Canada geese, some other, as yet unidentified (somewhat smaller) geese, some (unidentified) hawks, lots of red winged blackbirds.

Time to consider investing in a good guide, I guess. Any recommendations?

TenaciousK said...

Keifus, thanks. I should say, though, that lack of understanding for the broader culture may not be so bad for yourself, but it puts your kids at a distinct disadvantage. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized it was an actual, bonafide incapacity rather than a choice to not acknowledge what appeared (to us kids, anyway) to be social imperatives.

Hi TP - thanks for the well-wishes.

The website I linked is a good resource (lots of pictures), and my mom really does have an ancient and well loved copy of "Birds of North America" [complete with artist illustrations, as opposed to photographs]. I imagine the new editions of that one would be good, or you could check the Utah website for recommendations.

Lots of red tailed hawks hereabouts, so if you're playing the odds, that's the most probable suspect. I'm surprised you're seeing eagles along the Provo, unless you're talking the upper provo (above Deer Creek) - I can't remember ever seeing one either in Provo Canyon or in Provo.

They roost in droves, however, out by fairview and beyond, and along the pony express trail road. More golden than bald, but both varieties in abundance. I see them in the mountains of southern utah a lot too (off I-70, South East of Salina, around Thousand Lake Mountain - West of Fish Lake).

You're lucky to be seeing herons. I used to see them in the Utah Lake marshes some, but they're most reliably seen up at the Ogden bird refuge. They're pretty spectacular birds.

I've yet to see a great horned owl in Utah (unless that was a great horned I got a glimpse of that night), but I'd like to.

But I'm not really the birdwatching type. My parents, though - they took a last-minute trip to Southern Utah once after a hummingbird had been sited there that'd never been seen in Utah before.

Now that's enthusiastic dedication.

Oh and Tom, I'm not sure if you're a Utah native. If you're a transplant, you may not know about Floyd, the pink flamingo that escaped from Tracy Aviary and makes a lonely seasonal commute to and from the Great Salt Lake (which suits him - it's a dye in the brine shrimp that makes flamingos pink). Here. He's apparently made some cross-species friends, but I think anyone with a history of social isolation or radical transplantation has got to relate to that lonely, exotic bird.

Thomas Paine said...

As you suggest, I saw then above Deer Creek -- I am in the Heber valley, and my usual dog-walking route is along the restored section of the Provo from the covered bridge over 113 towards the Deer Creek reservoir -- a spectacular place for birds.

No, I am not a Utah native -- been here (with short interruptions) since 1996. Originally from Washington State, many years in Denver, a brief interlude (although it seemed much longer) in the mid-west) and 5 years in Switzerland.

But I have heard of Floyd -- perhaps he IS a good mascot for those of us transpanted to such an alien environment!