Nonfiction by Jennifer Marsh
Birds are parts of us that got lost, distant desires always glimpsed and never grasped. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Testament to their difficulty of capture, the ways we struggle to get our hands around what we know is there. The only way we reliably stock holidays such as Thanksgiving is by raising turkeys in captivity, by making sure they cannot get very far. And birds know this: they’ve never forgotten what we did to the carrier pigeon, what happens when desire is too easy to capture.
To be a bird you must have feathers; a toothless-beaked jaw; a high metabolic rate; a four-chambered heart; a strong and light skeleton; and the ability to lay hard-shelled eggs.
To be a bird watcher, you must have patience.
The Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is a delta, a place where the freshwater Nisqually River and the Salish Sea mix, creating a daily-changing estuary. Some days the salt water rushes in and the whole land is flooded, water licking at the piers of the elevated walkways. Other days it is low, and the water is replaced by stretching mud flats, sandpipers scuttling over the puddles, mussels and clams tucked away under the mud.
Once, the estuary was a farm. It was owned by Alson Brown, son of Seattle founding father Amos Brown. Amos was drawn west by the promise of gold, but more by the promise of escape. Born in 1833 in the chill of New Hampshire, Amos grew up in his father’s lumber mills on the Merrimack River. He was only ten when he began working in the mills, breathing in the sawdust and the fumes, bound by both the harsh winters and his father’s shadow. Amos had little proper schooling, but he would come to memorize the mills, to hear the sound of them in his sleep. At twenty-one, he fled New Hampshire. Eventually he made his way to Victoria, following a rumor of gold in the Fraser Canyon Mines.
Amos knew that gold was his ticket out of the lumber industry, out of the part of the world that smelled like home. He wanted more for himself and his descendants than the bite of saws and the feel of wood dust under the skin. Gold would have offered him the capital he needed to get away from lumber mills, to find a new way of being himself.
The Fraser Canyon Mines must have felt like a new start. New Hampshire was cool and stately, but Victoria was a fresh and wild place, alive with the scent of new industry. Imagine Amos lying in bed at night, far from the New Hampshire chill, thinking of his life as a gold baron. Imagine the hope he must have felt, there in the new wilderness.
But the Fraser Canyon Mines disappointed him. There was no gold in the darkness, at least not for him. He eventually left without gold, without new capital, and without a new path to being Amos Brown.
He fell back on his father’s trade. His first logging camp was in Port Gamble, but soon he moved toward Olympia, the state capital. His life was sawdust and wood rounds again. Where New Hampshire is sugar maple and red oak, the Pacific Northwest is all Douglas fir, hemlock, and spruce. Maybe it wasn’t what Amos had dreamed of when he’d escaped the New Hampshire mills, but it was different enough for him to find a freedom of sorts. Sometimes this is enough.
Amos made a life for himself. He built a cabin for Chief Seattle’s daughter Kikisoblu, although her white neighbors called her Princess Angeline. He dined with Susan B. Anthony. He made news by building a floating hotel for his lumber workers. And in 1863 he used the funds from his lumber mills to build the Occidental Hotel, a landmark that helped define Seattle. It was one of the most prestigious spots in the city; a memorial service for President James Garfield was held there in 1881. Amos was still tied to the mills, but he had transformed his inheritance, made it into something new. He remade himself in Seattle. He found a new kind of life.
Bird-watching is chaos. It follows no rules and responds to no demands. I go to Nisqually with binoculars and Birds of the Pacific Northwest, a red tome small enough to slip into my jacket pocket. The book was a gift from my father, the bird watcher. He can identify birds by a flash of wing, by call, by a fleeting impression against the sky. He can tell a scrub jay from a blue jay by sight, knows how to assess whether the smudge on the lamppost is a peregrine falcon or a hawk. He once watched a crow drop bits of doughnuts on the heads of pedestrians near a Krispy Kreme and caw in delight over it. He sees birds everywhere.
My father casually taught me to birdwatch casually, the way you teach a child to speak. I was home-schooled beginning in sixth grade, and walks in the parks counted as science class. We lived in the Pacific Northwest, where a forest is never far away, and some days we would go walking through the trees, pointing at shrubs, at berries, at the gray of the sky. “Titmouse,” he would say, hearing a trill in the distance, or “cardinal,” pointing at a flash of scarlet in the brush.
The kind part of my father is shaped like birds. In the forest he was easy and gentle, patient when I would run off the path—more than patient, he was encouraging. From my early childhood he had told me that I should not trust authority, that teachers and pastors had no real say in my life. He cheered when I left the trail. When my brother was suspended from school, my father took him to the arcade every day of the suspension. He did not want us to obey anyone’s authority.
Except, of course, his own.
Early bird watchers used guns. John James Audubon, that name now synonymous with caring for the fear-frozen sparrows the cat brings home, shot every specimen for Birds of America. He travelled the country and killed what he loved. He used wires to give them a semblance of life while he painted their likenesses. Birds of America is a book of the dead, drawn by a man who loved so deeply he must needs bring that love down from the sky.
Amos died in 1899. He had never fully escaped his father’s legacy, but he had made one of his own. His funeral services brought nearly a thousand mourners to the family home. He was hailed as a founding father of the city. Seattle would not have been the same without him.
His empire of real estate and lumber mills went to his son, Alson. Amos also gave his son the education he had been denied: Alson went to the University of Oregon and obtained a law degree. Like his father before him, Alson wanted nothing to do with the family trade; he avoided the lumber mills, and while his father was alive he dabbled in law and insurance. But five years after his father’s death, he began to plot something new. Alson liquidated his father’s estate to buy 2,300 acres of land near Olympia, the state capital. He left his practice and his reputation in Seattle. He set out to build a modern farm.
The land he bought was flooded by the Puget Sound, shaped by the daily influx of salt water. He began by building a four-mile dike to keep the water from destroying what he wanted to be farmland. The dike was built with horses and a thirty-man crew. It claimed hundreds of acres from the Sound, barring entrance to the salt water that would kill Alson’s crops. And it worked: within a decade, Alson’s farm was self-sufficient and known throughout the region as an emblem of efficiency. He had orchards, dairy cows, hogs, bees. There was a packing plant on site to handle exports. No one grew as much volume or variety as the Brown Farm.
Here was Amos’s dream realized: his son, free from the rumble of the lumber mills, creating a new sort of world on a new sort of river.
Here, too, were Amos’s own fears and failures, twining around his son’s ankles. World War I hit. There’s no record of why Alson took out so much debt, but we can guess that it was to save his life’s work, to keep the Brown farm operating. It didn’t work. Alson borrowed more and more. Eventually the creditors came calling. He went bankrupt. The farm was lost.
It passed through a series of hands, none able to shape the land the way Alson had. By 1974 it was up for sale again, with two opposing camps vying for the land: it would become either a landfill for trash from adjoining counties or a wildlife refuge.
Sometimes good things happen. The land was sold to the US federal government, which broke down the dikes and let the sea back in, creating a haven for wildlife pushed farther and farther from their native habitats. Now the salt water has free reign over the flats and is slowly corroding what is left of those farmland days; tree stumps jut up out of the water like broken teeth from a gum.
My father learned to birdwatch from his stepfather, a Navy SEAL who once beat him until he passed out on the front lawn. This gift of birds has come down generations to me. I am still learning, and I’m not always patient. The woods are alive all around us, but I fidget in the grass, chew my nails, or play on my phone and forget to be attentive to the movements in the trees. Too much comes up when I am quiet, maybe. Birders have mastered some stillness I can’t find for myself, inside or out.
Stillness is the key because birds are often low on the food chain, and they watch for movement. At Nisqually, I make my way down the wooden walkway that leads out over the mud flats. The water is low today, and the mud is exposed, bubbling with clams and mussels, impromptu streams full of fish and crab. The walkway is a mile long, and at its end you can see for ages over Puget Sound. If you use your binoculars, you can watch traffic on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, forty miles away. The water opens a path that land cannot. I stand at the end and watch the herons.
Herons move stiltingly, staying so still you’d think they’re oddly shaped bushes and then snatching, all at once, a fish from the water. They’re elegant in the air, wings swooping slow and gentle. Nisqually is full of them; they love the estuary, step carefully from pond to pond to find their next meal. When the tide comes in and the flats are replaced by the sea, you can find them on lone islands in the stream, waiting for their world to return.
My favorite bird story is the time my parents were fighting on the way to church. This was a regular activity. I hated the fighting, sunk low in my seat, tried not to cry, a skill I would not master for a few more years. Children cry helplessly, and this should be a signal for protection but is instead sometimes a signal for attack. My father had his hand out the window, as he always did, feeling the breeze up his arm. My mother was shouting behind the wheel as she often was, fighting a battle for normalcy that no one in my house won. My father said something blasphemous—God damn it, maybe. The Lord will deal with you for that, my mother said. God can deal with me if He wants, my father said, and then a bird shit in his outstretched palm.
By the time we got to church the fight was over. Eventually even my father laughed, using his free hand to sort through the glove box for napkins. We went into the sanctuary united by the feeling that something had happened and we were a family and the fight was funny now. I stopped crying before I got to Sunday School. Even my parents would find this funny, would repeat for years to come how the rage was interrupted by the unexpected. Growing up, this was my best definition for the mercy the Gospels speak of.
Bird-watching means seeing a lot of the same bird over and over again. I have never run short on crows. The more common a bird is, the less inclined we are to see its beauty. My friends talk despairingly of seagulls and pigeons, made nuisances by their number.
There was a time I ached for normalcy. When I moved out of my parents’ home, I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the everyday. That sounds like the beginning of an inspirational speech or a Hallmark movie or a book on how to organize your life, but it wasn’t like that. It was like this: I would stare at the sheets on my bed in wonder, shocked that I had a bed and sheets and an apartment full of friends who did not scream at me. There were five girls in that first apartment of mine, and we got in fights sometimes, but we had all studied conflict management. We used “I feel” statements. We talked things through. Even when we didn’t, no one was allowed to scream at me. No one ever balled their fists. The walls remained undented. Sometimes I was so taken by all of it that I would cry and laugh at the same time. I was so grateful. It felt like heaven. I would have done anything for that peace to continue.
When a bird is very afraid, it will not move. It freezes. Birders call this being stunned. It happens most often when a bird collides with a window and falls down, seemingly dead. Usually you should avoid touching wild birds, but a stunned bird is a vulnerable bird and needs time to recover. Common birding wisdom suggests gently placing the stunned bird in a safe place, such as a box, and giving it time to recover. It just needs time to reassess where it is. It needs to remember that it is made of sky.
The unkind part of my father is shaped like a fist. As a child, I never knew what would set him off. Some days a flippant comment would be met with laughter. Other days it would be the beginning of a Bad Day.
The bad days were impossible to predict, and within them there were no rules. We might eat that day or we might not. The rage might end with a brief apology, or it might be waiting the next morning. My mother might defuse his anger or feed it, scream back at him until one of them left the house or the car, either for a few minutes or a few hours or an infinite amount of time, I never knew how long. Normally, me crying was enough to get my father’s attention, but when he was angry I might huddle in the corner and cry for hours unnoticed. Normally he would respond when someone shouted stop, but when he was mad he would shove my brother against the wall, tower over him, every muscle tight with the kind of anger we all knew could kill someone. We knew because he told us.
My father didn’t hit me. He held me by my throat once, the day he learned about my first boyfriend. This is, itself, abuse, and I don’t mean to diminish it. But by then I was used to this kind of physical threat, because while he didn’t hit me, he often hit around me. He would punch walls or the dog. I don’t remember them, but I am sure the steering wheels of our family cars were marred by the impact of his fists, so often did I watch him pummel the wheel. He once kicked a box of newborn kittens across a room, the cardboard sliding slick along the laminate. By then I was old enough to know something was wrong.
Despite the violence and the anger, my father was my ally. He told me stories. He walked me to school. He was, most days, my friend. My father was my safe place in a home where my brother swerved and changed under a cocktail of opiates and a bad mood was enough for my mother to admit she wished I wasn’t her daughter. My father was the only one who was consistently happy to see me. Except when he wasn’t.
Sun conures are intelligent birds. They’re originally from South America, made for the northeastern rainforests, but they’re a popular pet for bird enthusiasts. Their heads and chests shift from yellow to orange, a gradient of feathers that a trusting bird will let you stroke, and their tail feathers are a deep olive green, the color of trees. Properly cared-for conures are gentle and affectionate and can live up to thirty years. Their vocabularies are small, but they’re loud for their size, and they love to play. They’re an endangered species now.
My father got Pizzazz before I was born, a sun conure with feathers so bright they seemed painted. Pizzazz loved my father. She bonded to him and would sit on his shoulder for hours if allowed. She hated my mother. Once Pizzazz was flying around my parents’ apartment, and when my mother leaned in to kiss my father, Pizzazz landed on her chest and bit her lip so hard that she pierced it.
Pizzazz also hated me. As an adult, I don’t blame her: my father got a bird that desperately needed attention shortly before he had a baby. The bird knew who was to blame for her boredom. As a child, though, I just knew I was terrified of the bird, who would habitually land in my hair and angrily pull at it. She swore. Whenever young women visited our house—and they did often, my parents being the youth leaders in our local church—Pizzazz would call them bitches. My father always laughed. He didn’t know where she got her language.
When I was a teenager, my father was delivering a pizza and saw a cockatiel on the side of the road. He stopped, letting the pepperoni cool on the passenger seat, and picked up the little gray bird, his cheeks two bright orange circles. Cockatiels are native to Australia, and don’t belong pecking around in the suburbs of western Washington. My father brought the bird home. We named him Dominoes. He was mine.
The only bird I knew then was Pizzazz, and I was still terrified of her sharp beak. But Dominoes was gentle, climbed easily onto my outstretched hand, nuzzled at my ear. He loved to play and would distract me from my homework whenever he had the chance. He would chew on the metal ring on my pencil eraser while I tried to write, or steal the rings off my fingers and fly across the house, squawking as he went. Dominoes taught me how to whistle, and when I was sick he would sit in his cage and sing “Here Comes the Sun” until I rose and showed him my face.
Pizzazz died first. She was young for a conure, but she wasn’t well cared for, either. A few months prior to her death, she had flown out of my brother’s room, having escaped her cage there. When my father and I went to investigate, we found her water and food dishes empty, bone dry. We did not know how long it had been since my brother had remembered there was a living thing in the cage. My father yelled at him, but he was gone by then, in mind if not in body. This pattern would recur with the pet rats he received and traded, likely in payment for drugs. I spent hours once trying to save Greg the rat, hungry and sick and feces-covered, forgotten for days in his cage. It didn’t work.
But we saved Pizzazz that day, at least. And after that she was gentler with me. I would talk to her and she would watch me attentively, no longer hissing and snapping at my fingers. I would give her food and water and whistle songs to her, her cage close to Dominoes’.
One morning I came out of my room and she was lying on the bottom of her cage. She died a few hours later. I don’t know of what. I don’t know if it could have been prevented. I don’t know if she was just succumbing to old age, or if the filth of the house was too much for her system, made for wide skies and treetops. She was just dead. We buried her in the backyard.
Dominoes lasted a while longer. We lost our house and moved into a basement. There was a lot of feces, human and animal, and my cockatiel couldn’t take it. Birds need clean air. They need out of their cages. They need to play and be healthy, and I could not give him any of that. He died, too. I was sixteen. I haven’t had a bird since.
Long before either Amos or Alson saw Washington state, the Nisqually Tribe lived on this land, forming their communities around the salmon that populate the Nisqually River. They stretched from present-day Olympia up toward Mount Rainier, but the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854 consigned them to the Nisqually Reservation. This treaty would be broken repeatedly, and the land and water rights habitually stolen away to make space for a nearby military installation. The Nisqually Tribe was over and over robbed of what their fathers had saved for them.
Despite all of this, the Nisqually Tribe remains to this day and is one of the largest employers in Thurston County. The tribe is also home to Billy Frank Jr. Without Billy, the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge wouldn’t exist.
Billy was arrested for the first time at age fourteen. He was picked up by the police for fishing, despite having the legal right to do so. In the ensuing years he would lead a grassroots campaign for native fishing rights in Washington state. Although state law states that all tribe members retain the right to fish at their accustomed spots, police practice was to arrest tribe members who prac-ticed this. Billy Frank Jr. was arrested more than fifty times. He wrote a regular column for more than thirty years. He survived years of police harassment. His work led to the 1974 ruling establishing local tribes as co-managers of salmon resources alongside Washington’s state government. He wanted to be remembered as a fisherman, as someone acquainted with the salmon he loved so dearly. Billy Frank Jr. couldn’t be stopped.
Billy loved the land. He fought hard to defend the rights of Native tribes, and also to take care of the land around him. He once said, “I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are. Because we and they are the same. That’s what I believe in.” In 2015, President Barack Obama renamed the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge after him.
But before it could be named, it had to be created. The federal government purchased the land that would be the refuge in 1974. There was work to be done. The land was still in shape for farming; trails had to be built and populations established. The refuge is more than just the land near the water; there are mudflats, rivers, coniferous forest, riparian rainforest, fresh water wetlands, salt water marshes, and open salt water. All of these environments had to be identified, protected, and modified so the public could wander through without destroying the habitats themselves.
The work was not all done at once. The dike that separated so much of the refuge from the sea was not destroyed until 2009. The dike had done its job converting mudflats to farmland, but it had also destroyed important habitats for birds and fish. Salmon and heron, important players in Washington’s ecological system, thrive in estuaries. Destroying the dike returned 762 acres to their original purpose, making room for hawks and eagles to expand their territory. But the refuge is home to more than wetland birds: there is a bit of everything in the refuge, and the variety of landscape allows for a wild variety in species. The riparian forest is home to great horned owls and wood ducks, while kingfishers and cormorants live just a stone’s throw away along the river. This diversity extends to mammals, reptiles, and even plant species. They thrive in the shelter of the refuge.
Birders often have a list of dream birds they’d like to see. Even more frequently they keep notes on birds they have seen. My Birds of the Pacific Northwest has a specific place for this, lines for the date and location and field notes. In this way the book becomes interactive, a diary of sorts, a book of the living.
Birders have preferences, too. I love woodpeckers. The northern flicker is common where I live, but I am always excited to see it, the polka-dot spread on its breast.
On a walk last year I saw a downy woodpecker, the smallest in North America, digging into a telephone pole near my house. It was just a moment—they’re fast and small and hard to keep your eyes on in the dusk—but I saw it, held my breath. I didn’t know downy woodpeckers lived in Washington at all. I only knew that it was small, a little bigger than a sparrow, and it knocked its head against the wooden pole in a way only woodpeckers do, searching for something within.
As a child I loved cottonwood twigs. I didn’t know they were from cottonwoods; I called them fairy wood because my father taught me to call them fairy wood. The twigs littered the walkways near my elementary school, and when my father came to pick me up and walk me home, he would point the twigs out for me, pause while I collected bundles. My father was always telling me stories, making imaginary worlds for me to live in. In these worlds I was a princess, a superhero, saving the world or saving my friends or making friends with the animals, with the birds. He tells my brother’s children these stories now, replaces my name with theirs. I am so grateful they have this side of him, this kindness, this magic.
I want to tell you: once he picked me up from school in a limo because he knew it would help me be bullied less. He carried me to bed when growing pains left me breathless. He played with me for hours, and when we went to the playground and I was too shy to introduce myself to the other children, he made up group games so that I forgot to be scared and made my first friends. He bought me books. He told me I was smart and beautiful and could do anything.
I want to tell you: there is so much more than an essay can tell you.
When I moved out of my parents’ house, I discovered bird-watching for my own. Of course I had done it with my father, but the birds became a way to connect with him, a reason to call home. I saw a red breasted blackbird, I could say, instead of I told my therapist about the nightmares. Birds became something easy between us, a path back to the place where I was his daughter and he was my father and no one had ever raised their voice.
And I found that I loved them for myself, too, somewhere unconnected to my childhood. I started to watch the magpies that flickered around the edges of my college town, their white streaks of tail. I began to listen for the calls of chickadees, stop to watch quail run willy-nilly across the road, always as if they are being chased. I watched murmurs of starlings rise up from the fences and held my breath at the sight of them, the way they temporarily blotted out the sky, as if there were nothing before me, no problems to solve and nothing to remember—only just the birds.
My father calls me often. He asks me about my day, tells me how many cars he has sold at work. He always tells me he loves me. My voicemail is full of messages from him, recordings I don’t delete, as if to prove to myself and to him that we live a different kind of way now. There is no more shouting. Only nice phone calls.
This isn’t true, and I know it. The violence resurfaces sometimes; I dream of it, and flinch when I am touched too suddenly, and sometimes go glassy-eyed remembering things that used to be true.
At my niece’s sixth birthday party, my brother and father talk about theology for too long and start throwing punches. I don’t see it spill over from speaking to hitting; I am out back picking berries with the birthday girl. My mother calls for me, her voice tired. I hold hands with my niece as we walk back toward the apartment.
Inside, my mother tells me they’re out of control. She tells me they’re going to fight. She says I need to break it up. My brother and father are circling each other outside the front door, anger radiating from them like dogs fighting over a bone. My father is bigger than my brother, arms corded with muscles that age and weight have done nothing to diminish. But my brother is furious, is suddenly fifteen and forced against a wall, is determined to show that he is a father now. He is done being made to obey.
It happens very quickly. A fist is thrown, and then another. My dad hits my brother in the face, and my brother hits back, hard enough to send my dad staggering. He is getting older. I shove my way between them, and keep one hand on my brother’s chest and the other out-stretched toward my father. I know I cannot stop them from fighting. I know they are both stronger than me. I have learned this the hard way. But I shout at my father to take a walk. He is breathing heavily and my brother’s fists haven’t unclenched and I am standing between the heat of their rage, and then I see my niece standing in the doorway. She is six. She is seeing everything.
I leave them. I grab her by the hand and lift her sobbing baby sister off the couch and run as far as I can get, far enough that we can’t hear the screaming, the way my father is forcing my mother to get into the car, the way my brother is calling the police. I do not want them to have these memories. We sit in the grass by the blackberry brambles. We look at the trees.
“They must be really mad. Do you think they’re still mad?” my niece asks. She is small and blond and hugging her knees, pressed against my side. She’s so little. I could lift her with one arm. There’s no room in her body to store this kind of fear.
“Maybe,” I say. I hold her sister on my lap. She is crying for her father. I put my arms around both girls, squeezing them hard so that they know I am here. There are so many promises I want to make: that I will never be the one to throw the punch, to become suddenly unsafe; that I will always run with them, take them where they cannot hear the screaming; that I will fix this, somehow, give them a different way to grow up, a safer one. Some of these are mine to give, and some of them are not. I am trying not to cry, but my body remembers decades of this kind of fear and brings it all back at once. The nausea feels the same as it did when I was a child. I squeeze the girls a little harder. “This isn’t your fault,” I say. “We just have to keep safe. That’s the most important thing. We have to be safe.”
Some days you don’t even have to look for the birds. Some days they will come to you. In this way, too, birdwatching is unfair. I am walking home from school. I am trying to be there, in that town, and not far away in a dozen squalid houses, five or eight or nineteen and helpless to someone else’s rage. I am trying to learn how to be me, and suddenly a red-tailed hawk lands in the tree across the street. I dart into traffic to be closer to it, to see the largeness of the bird, the way its breast feathers are dusky orange, diluted like watercolors. The bird sees me coming, and even this predator is suspicious, watches me for a moment and then takes back to the sky, where hands can’t reach. I watch it glide across the field, disappear into a patch of trees down the street. For these few fleeting moments I have forgotten to be me, and it is nothing like living. It is everything like being alive.