Birds have always “anchored” me. From the time I was three or four, birds have not only reminded me where I am when I wake up and hear them, but also their descendants remind me where I’ve been. Their morning song pin-pricks me and lets me know I’m indeed awake. They are objective and unsubtle; they wake me when they want to. They anchor me in the present and let me know my past is real.
Karen turned our patio behind our 349 West 84th Street apartment in Manhattan into a little “café,” as she liked to call it. Appropriately so. At one of two metal tables covered by canvas umbrella, I’d drink coffee and listen to myriad birds in the morning. Robins, sparrows, cardinals, jays, even red-tailed hawks and crows or ravens — I’d like to think they were ravens, since the two-block stretch of 84th Street that included our building was called “Edgar Allan Poe Street;” he was rumored to have written the poem on Broadway and 84th — sounded like a symphony orchestra warming up. Toward the end of our time there, the people two buildings down started to keep chickens out back. I found their sound dissonant and, therefore, unwanted. Theirs were the sounds of a banjo and fiddle, not an oboe and first violin.
But it was at the café that I’d hear the song of the towhee, which Mom helped me remember as “DRINK-your-TEA!” I can’t hear their call without thinking of Mom. In that respect, the bird anchors me to her as much as to my place.
The towhee was the bird that let me know I had woken up in Point O’ Woods on Fire Island. Mom and I stood on the small concrete front porch of what I later learned was the smallest house in the community and probably the only one my parents could afford to rent. We looked south, over a thin stand of trees and past the “truck road” — with very few exceptions, only utility and emergency vehicles are allowed to drive on Fire Island, and they use one-lane sand roads — past the tennis courts, which usually start hopping at 7:00 AM during summer hours, and ultimately toward the beach and ocean, from which the sun rose.
We’d face that direction and Mom, with Virginia Slim cigarette and teacup in the same hand, would look down and smile at me and use that phrase — “DRINK your TEA!” — to help me remember I was awake. She’d smile with purple smoke curling around her twinkling eyes and then turn back to take a drag. A noisy sip. And more quiet there between us. Listening. Sun rising. Tennis balls hitting rackets. Feet shuffling on clay. Laughter.
Our 84th Street café reminded me between 2007 and 2017 that I had awakened years before when I was four. That the past was not a debatable premise, as YouTube and Spotify podcast philosophers like to muse indulgently to hundreds of thousands of viewers and listeners who are online and hoping to get as rich as those philosophers by monetizing their own accounts. Because if you can’t make a killing from your streaming video gameplay on Twitch or lingerie activity on OnlyFans, perhaps you can spout outrageous ideas like that hearing towhees is actually an illusion, a sound file that’s activated in real-time to keep me unaware of the Matrix-like “simulation” they believe I’m living in. These opportunists who think they’re so smart are blind to the irony that Descartes would tersely remind them of with his five famous words. Spouting these things in Descartes’s era might even have got you tarred and feathered with the same coating worn by those beautiful beasts you said weren’t real.
In Texas, the bird that most reminds me I’ve awakened here is the turkey vulture. Overhead, it looks like a hawk or even majestic eagle. On the ground, its ugly red head — “ugly” to me; I’m not being judge-y here, but I think most people would agree with me if they’re really honest with themselves; I mean, seriously, would you actually put a couple of them in a cage in your sunroom and call them “Skittles” and “Coco”? No, you would not — and its hopping around roadkill remind me not only that I live here but also that I drive everywhere. (Does that mean that I don’t really wake up until I turn onto Bandera Highway? Scary thought. But then again, I live in a simulation, so fuck it.) The circling overhead of multiple vultures is somehow beautiful to me, like a dance, and to see them on the roadside comforts me to know that a needless killing at night is converted to deer tartar.
Yet, vultures don’t have a song. And that bothers me, because it’s sight rather than sound that tries to keep me anchored, yet it is sound that has gone largely unchanged because the source has been largely unchanged. It is sound that is imposed on me rather than me on it. But with sight, I am the source. And I have changed quite a bit over the years, or so I’ve heard, and cannot by nature anchor myself. That’d be like a ship telling itself to stay close to shore “or else it’s gonna get an ass-whoopin’.”
The other bird I associate with my place now is the purple martin, whose swallow tail is more distinctive to me than any song which, if it has one, I’m unaware of it. The Guadalupe has herons, elegant birds whose front and back yards I am privileged to paddleboard through. They, too, sing only now and then when I get too close.
But we live on a golf course, where song birds are not so numerous as elsewhere. Golf courses don’t honor nature so much as manicure it to the point of looking like a Desperate Housewife instead of the Janis Joplin that nature really is.
And frankly, I’d rather wake up next to Janis.