(From the Vault, Los Angeles, 2011.)
Today I discovered birds. Right outside my front door. And I do mean, yes, discovered them much like Columbus discovered America in that they had always been there, and plenty of people already knew about them, but I found out about them, me, which meant that birds were new.
Until recently, I saw birds in the same manner as some sport I never played: basic outlines of recognition, disinterest, and not much else. I could watch a few birds out my window and have a vague sense that these were pigeons much in the same way I could catch a rugby game on television and simply not see it at all except for one passing glance that said, Ah yes, rugby. Green field. Men in short shorts. Goals in a net.
There were always a few species I recognized that frequent the city, like crows and morning doves and sparrows. I knew a few species from living out in the hills as a girl, like owls and red-tail hawks. But all the rest were just, well, they were birds and I never noticed them.
That was, until last year in November when an enormous white heron (AKA Great Egret) appeared, three feet tall, standing on my doorstep. This is an elegant and nervous bird with black legs as thin as pencils and so long you wonder they don’t just break in the slightest gust of wind; she is armored with sleek white feathers, like the kind you picture an angel has – and this yellow beak that could be made of gold. I startled the bird and she flew off, which was equally impressive in a grand sweeping circle that instantly claimed the sky.
That day, I decided to walk to the estuary along the harbor, a little dirty mistake of a stream deemed the “Ballona Lagoon” which I once heard a little boy refer to as the “Bologna Lagoon”. Close enough. My walk was hurried in the cool autumn breeze off the ocean. I hadn’t been this route in years.
As I rounded the corner down the dirt path, I caught site of the glittering water, and it was full of birds. And suddenly, I saw them; really saw them.
There were at least ten different kinds of ducks, even more shorebirds, and a few I had certainly never seen before. I would become enthusiastic about learning their names: the bufflehead, the scaub, the American widgeon.
There were egrets and mallards and juvenile cormorants all floating about and flapping from one side to the other. The irritable coots chased the smaller shorebirds. And there among them all, magnificent and proud, the Great Blue Heron.
I realized, standing there in awe, that they had all come here from somewhere else. They were truly American in that they were immigrants from across the borders of sky and tundra, and they had found a home here.
As I watched them, I realized that I wanted that too, to fly across the world knowing where I belonged, and to just settle there one autumn as if I had always been there, free to leave if I wanted, but just as free to stay.
P.S. What is it that you don’t see, that if you did, might set you free?