By Eva Saulitis
First bird of the morning:
~ ( ( ( ( ( ^ ^ ^ >
I transcribe its song into my notebook. It’s been a long winter in the far north, a long time waiting for this sound in the forest. In early May, in coastal Alaska, no matter how keen the wanting, the stingy earth yields so very little. At the end of a day, I make a list of what’s been given:
—a few calls of ruby-crowned kinglets
—a few degrees above freezing
—clumps of crocuses spiking through a layer of decayed leaves
—barely perceptible shrinking of snow patches revealing more & more moose-colored ground
—moose-on-moose hue of foraging pregnant moose
—a couple of bewildered yearling moose, shunned and driven off by their mother, scuffing through the alder zone between yard and woods, watching me when I walk to the car
And like these signs, I’m tentatively emerging from my 49th winter on earth.
The silence of these woods unnerves me. Why so few bird songs? With climate change evident everywhere, it’s not a paranoid question. But this anxiety is not environmental. It runs deep; it’s my history, my memory. I grew up in the deciduous forest of the Northeastern US, where the trees during the prolonged spring turned green in tiny increments, but the birds arrived enmasse. Here in coastal Alaska, it’s the reverse: the birches flush green in a matter of days. Now you don’t see leaves; now you do. Beginning in April—season of mud and break-up and a blizzard or two—the songbirds trickle in over the course of weeks. I know these things after 24 years living here, but still, anxious, I listen hard and imagine the bare trees listen back, equally.
Okay, I admit it. There’s a lesser reason for my unease. It’s five days to my 50th birthday. I want to dig my boot heels into the still-frozen earth, delay May 10’s arrival. To stretch the moment to its breaking point, to overfill it, that’s my drive.
My Latvian immigrant parents each imparted a particular Eastern European pall to birthdays. When I was a child, my father threatened every year to cut our birth dates out of the calendar. The birthdays my mother disliked were her own. For years, we believed she was twenty-nine, until outed by a bank teller, asking for her date-of-birth. Forty-seven. We made a fuss right there in the lobby, carrying on all the way to the car, indignant at her deceit, appalled at how old she was. On her 64th birthday, I called her from Alaska. Afterward, I wrote down her words in my journal, they troubled me so: “I hate my age.”
At the time, I thought it tragic. And now, irritating, even enraging. At eighty-six, she still hates her age. To get to be sixty-four! To get to be eighty-six! As a thirty-something, I probably countered her statement with some lame American pop-psychology cliché like: “Age doesn’t matter, Mom.” Or “You are young at heart.” What did I know? Another birthday: my sister, in the spirit of enlightening my mother, sent her the book When I Am An Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple, as a present. The only purple thing was my mother’s anger. She called the lavender-clad feisty crone on the cover an “old bag.”
At almost-fifty, can I love my age? Do I understand my 49-year-old heart? If only there were a field guide for the other side of fifty, with handsome illustrations, and a handy checklist in the back. Menopause: check. Empty nest: check. Death of first parent: check. Mammogram: check. Breast cancer: check. At forty-six, I was diagnosed. Spring, and birthdays, and time, and light, and mud, and age—my old field guides are obsolete.
The field guide to birds tells me nothing I don’t already know about spring’s second migrant, the varied thrush. The bird says:
Morning and night, I listen for its electronic buzz. Its familiar call is a relief each spring, especially since my cancer diagnosis. Three years ago, on May 12th, I lost my right breast; I lost a beaded string of lymph nodes from my armpit. Each morning, I walk down the hill to the wetlands, through a dark spruce forest, listening. When I hear it, that rough cry, it’s the abrasion of my own physical presence in this world. You’re here, bird, another spring. So am I.
If the coastal spruce forest has a voice, this is it, varied thrush calls sketching an acoustic self-portrait of the landscape, pitched variably to reflect dark spaces, thicknesses, the heights of trees. How did I even grasp time and home without these markers? Varied thrushes are nothing like the birds of my youth. These raspy voices don’t recall the tender swirlings and whistlings of Northeastern species, like the red-eyed vireo or the shy veery, high in the budding canopy. No, varied thrush songs describe a plainer face: snowmelt rivulets sluicing through brown meadows, mud to the shins, to the axles, ice-jams and overflow, spindly spruce trees swaying in a frigid south wind.
The field guide to birds does provide some pretty body language to describe the varied thrush, a secretive forest bird you rarely see:
nape, bluish gray
eyebrow—a.k.a. supercilium—orange, thin
mask, black around the eye
throat, bright orange
breast band, broad, black
wings, intricately marked
The same bird, over and over, year after year, its song pinning me more tightly to this landscape, thousands of miles away from my birth place, and I’m more greedy than ever for it. My greed is immense. Current population size twenty-six thousand, possibly shrinking.
A friend listens to my loss-of-youth fears of turning fifty, tells me to just accept aging (he’s in his early forties). No, I won’t, I counter, and he raises one dark eyebrow.
This morning, the croaky utterances of sandhill cranes. They nest on the soggy meadows of what’s known as the Homer Bench, a rapidly shrinking habitat for birds, a rapidly expanding one for humans. On the Bench, humans erect cathedral-like nests, south-facing walls of windows that stare unblinking at Kachemak Bay, Grewinck Glacier, the Chugach Mountains, what realtors call the million dollar view. How many birds in their exuberance and hurry smack into those windows each spring, who can say?
No one knows where the sandhills go to roost at night, and I find that comforting. It means the place where I live, populated by an inordinate number of the curious—biologists, writers, artists, birders, retirees—still keeps its secrets. Sometimes I hear the sandhills at dusk (there’s no actual night this time of year) flapping over my roof in twilight toward the bluff, and I want to don rubber boots and slog through the drainages after them, find their hidden place. But I know it would be wrong. Because one of the failings of love, and science, and aging, and illness, is the breach of the sanctity of secrets, the privacy of the body. Every three months, a sixty-something oncologist passes his fingertips along the bony escarpment where my breast once was, the thin scar, massages the remaining breast, drums at the flesh under my ribs, listening for dull thuds of tumor amid the hollower background acoustics. CT scans expose my insides as gray shades of cirrus and cumumous and dusk-dark. In this age of techno-science, we think everything can be known. But the internal landscape only gets stranger. That was certainly true for my father, whose bizarre utterances in his last years described landscapes and autobiography unknowable to us: a black dog jumping on his bed at night; his bedroom a gas chamber; the imminent arrival of the FBI; his imminent trial for crimes against humanity.
On the other side of fifty, I vow, I’ll gather secrets in my coat pockets. But I won’t bury them deep in my body, like my father did, and like I have done, these forty-nine years. At night I’ll release them, so they can roost somewhere, where even I can’t find them. That’s how I saw the tumor in my breast, the swelling, the lump: dark fist of secrets, the body constructing its geode around their hard, dark crystals.
Sometimes it’s feathers, not throats, that swell the heart, disturbing the quiet of the sub-arctic never-night, like the male snipe’s love-velocities. I scan the brown field down the muddy road: there . . . and there . . . and there . . . the winnowing produced by his tail-feathers as he dives, like the rotoring of a distant, tiny helicopter. For that breathy, whirling sound, he’s been called “Heaven’s Ram,” “Heather-bleater.” I never see him, no matter how hard I look. And ravens: water bells and chortlings, but also the heavy whump whump of wings. If a raven flies close overhead, you feel the pressure change inside your ears. Ravens, who stay all year, along with the chickadees and redpolls, fill the winter silence with wing-beats and tentative queries. My queries aren’t answered by bird-facts; they are only momentarily made irrelevant when I’m stopped in my boot tracks to listen a sound outside of myself. Rough-and-tumble earth, half-thawed, half-formed, half-broken down, delivers koans for me to ponder on these walks. Like the wall in front of the Zen practitioner, the spaces between trees are where I fix my eyes, count ten breaths, then twenty.
I haven’t found the field guide to turning fifty, but surely another one of the chapter titles, besides the one-in-eight chance a woman has of developing cancer in her breast, would be “Losing A Parent.” Does the muddy spring earth miss my father’s heavy peasant footfalls? Someday, will this icy road miss mine? It’s been years since my father’s physical body donned an old wool coat and cracked shoes and tramped to the back yard with hedge clippers to bring in the first yellow sprays of forsythia for my mother. Decades since he ordered me out there with a knife to cut a birch switch for my traditional Latvian punishment. Years since he mucked around with a pitchfork in the compost heap, or checked in with his spruce trees and beehives. Since he filled the bird feeders. Pruned and dusted the orchard. Nature. Birdsong. For his last two years it was more a concept, a wafting, like the first whiff of my mother’s black bread baking, not real, just the backdrop for another memory fragment. Because it became winter non-stop for him after a series of mini-strokes precipitated a psychotic break. A kind of brain-blizzard erased all the familiar landmarks. He didn’t go outside anymore. He went inside, and was always cold.
One day, visiting him in the nursing home on a 90-degree summer day, his eyes darted to the window.
Is it snowing? Where is your coat?
No, Dad, it’s summer.
You must go to the store. And buy me three roses. Red, white, red, for the Latvian flag. Don’t forget, red, white, red. Feel my hands, they are already getting colder. Put on your coat. When you come back from the florist, pick up my remains at the front desk.
All those things I thought defined him, gave solace: trees, birds, Catholicism, rage, liquor, words—they fled. Like the shrews I evicted a few days ago from the nest they’d made out of chewed up styrofoam in the bee shed, his preoccupations and passions hightailed it out of him. None of it mattered. None of it sustained. At least not in any visible sense. Only our reassurances eased his constant anxiety. The ten-dollar bill in the desk drawer, yes, Dad, it’s there. And Mom, look, there she is across from you in her blue chair. Blink. Blink. Eyes clearing, expression resolving, forward thrust of his body easing back: a familiar face: wife, daughter. For a few seconds, he was out of the scary, unfamiliar, silent, snowed-in woods in his brain.
In March three years ago, just weeks before I’d be diagnosed with breast cancer, I took a road trip to my old hometown. I parked at the school bus garage, behind the two-acre property that had been my childhood home. I dropped down an embankment into the woods my father had planted. A thousand spruce seedlings crowded onto an acre plot. They were long and spindly, wind soughing through their evergreen tops. Under the canopy, the ground was brown, a thick mat of needles strewn with vodka and beer bottles, the shredded remains of a pup tent. It had become a teenage-party hideout. Where the woods ended, I furtively took in the back of the ranch house. It was in need of a paint job. What had been a garden was a weed-bed. The orchard was overgrown. I felt nothing of my father’s spirit, just its utter absence. I try to remember birdsong; it must have been there, all around me, but the memory is silent.
Walking up the road, my breath catches at the ordinary warble of the American robin. The song in this bare forest knits past to present, childhood to middle age, which in my case, with my poor cancer prognosis, is actually old age. In this moment, my edges are defined:
^ ~ ` ~ ` ~ ` ~ ` ~ ` ~ `
No green lawns here in May, no balmy nights. I am wearing ice cleats on my boots, mittens on my hands. The forecast warns of snow. I am listening for birds. I am head-over-heels in love with my life, if not my age, with this dun-colored earth, with the chirs of a flock of tiny redpolls barreling across the field like a tumbleweed. I am trying to come to peace with the way a life vanishes all at once or disappears in tiny increments. I am trying to understand the memory of my father laid out on a table in the funeral home in his gray suit, in his maroon woolen vest. His utter absence from that body. My brother slipped a Hershey’s chocolate bar and a few dollars in one jacket pocket for his long migration. Into the other pocket I stuffed a plastic baggie of earth, a scoopful of dirt from Kundzeniskis, the now-abandoned farm near Aglona, Latvia, where he was born. When he retired, my father said he wanted to write about Aglona, an ancient peasant town centered around a Catholic basilica, purported to be a place of miracles. But the computer discs labeled “My Aglona” that I found among his papers were blank.
Since my breast cancer diagnosis, I think a lot about what traces, if any, we leave behind. There are worse things that could happen than disappearing without a trace, aren’t there? Some birds live out their whole lives never having been observed by a human being. Don’t they matter? Aren’t their lives in fact sacred? Besides, they don’t care about our acknowledgment, much less our naming and fact-checking. This is what matters most: the soil of these woods is made, in part, of their skin cells, feathers, and bones.
Perhaps aging gracefully, aging consciously, facing death, isn’t about acceptance. Keats described negative capability as “the capacity to remain in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” Waiting for a spring that won’t come, for resolutions that won’t reveal themselves, for acceptance, I exist in suspended animation, waiting, one bird call giving way, in its own time, to the next, and nothing at rest.
Little life, what do you mean?
^ ~ ` ~ ` ~ ` ~ ` ~ ` ~ `, you say
but I can’t help but reach after reason. In two days I’ll be fifty, a woman whose cancer is metastatic, balanced like a thrush on a spruce top, checking out the scene below, everything to my left back there, it’s fine, it can stay put, and everything to my right (west? east? which way am I going?), obscured by May snow squalls. I can see myself walking onward with deliberation, considering each forking path (let there still be forks!), naming each bird I hear, leaving behind what I think I understand, until even the calls are unfamiliar. But acceptance? No.
pthrrrhaaarh phrrraaarh phrraaarh
Poet and marine biologist Eva Saulitis earned both an MS and MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Saulitis and her partner, Craig Matkin, studied orcas in Prince William Sound for over 30 years, an experience that informed her memoir Into Great Silence: Discovery and Loss Among Vanishing Orcas (2013). With Matkin, she founded the North Gulf Oceanic Society, a nonprofit research, conservation, and educational organization.
Saulitis is the author of the essay collection Becoming Earth (2016), Leaving Resurrection (2008) and the poetry collections Many Ways to Say It (2012) and Prayer in Wind (2015), a volume written in the wake of Saulitis’s cancer diagnosis that examines the spiritual impulse to pray. She received fellowships from the Island Institute, the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and the Rasmuson Foundation. She taught creative writing at Kenai Peninsula College and in the low-residency MFA program at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
In 2014 Saulitis was recognized with a 2014 Alaska Governor’s Award in the Humanities for her exceptional and lasting contributions to the arts and letters. She lived in Homer, Alaska.