The long, dark winters of Alaska can be tough, even for the most seasoned sourdough. To keep from going completely bonkers, Alaskans have learned to seek out things to help them escape the maddening embrace of cabin fever: either literally, through various winter sports; or figuratively, through flights of imagination. Being the bad-Alaskan that I am — one who does not enjoy snow-machining, and who can’t really understand the allure of camping when there are perfectly good hotels with flushing toilets around — I am naturally inclined toward the more cerebral escapes. However, there is one type of outside winter event that I look forward to each year: watching the flocks of migratory birds when they come through town — in particular, the Bohemian Waxwings. I remember, several winters ago, when I was able to spend a lazy morning watching them from my living room window. As with many such activities, this particular one was made even more special because I got to share it with someone special: my then-boyfriend’s cat, Marv.
We sat together on the couch, Marv and I, observing the neighbor’s crab apple tree, which was FULL of Bohemian Waxwings. Marv rested comfortably on my arm, his polydactyl paws perched on the sill, his attention as riveted as mine. I wished I knew what was going on in his little cat brain; was he thinking the same things as I? Every time I looked into his one good deep-green eye I could sense he felt the same awe and curiosity that I was feeling. I could see how deeply he was affected by the beauty of their downy gray feathers; how astounded he was at the vibrancy of the yellow and red markings on their tails and wings; and how charmed he felt that the birds seemed to be so in tune with each other, so that all of them would suddenly rise together from the tree in a flurry of feathers, as if caught by a whirl-wind, or attached to the strings of some mad puppeteer.
Then I remembered hearing somewhere that scientists have used the behavior of certain flocking birds as a models for their suppositions about social grouping or “flocking” behaviors of certain dinosaurs. Another glance at Marv confirmed my feeling that he and I were truly bonding; the twitching of his whiskers and tail keeping time with the beating wings of the Bohemian Waxwings seemed indicative of his deeper understanding of their ties with those ancestral thunder-lizards. It seemed as if he almost wished for wings himself, so he could join in their joyous frenzy of feeding on the sour, half-frozen apples of last season.
Those musings led me to misty memory, of reading, somewhere, that birds have no control over their little butt-holes and will simply poop when gravity’s demands become too great to resist. This vague half-memory was confirmed when I noticed that all these little birdies were literally peppering the snow beneath the tree with their own brand of fecal snow, which made both Marv and I particularly reflective, to ponder that wondrous mystery: the circle of life.
We thought — Marv and I — of life as a giant wheel, upon which species rise and fall, yet their behaviors live on through, perhaps, DNA; we thought of the beauty of birth, the necessity of consumption and the absorption of nutrition, of the intricacies of the body and how it makes use of the fuels each being provides it with; and finally, the slow release of the unnecessary bits and remnants — the waste — through the exquisite efficiency of the digestive tract; until finally, those wastes which are discarded by one creature are left upon the earth, which is able to process the leftover nitrogen, etc., into fertilizer by which the apple tree is sustained, and thus lives to bear fruit the following season; which in turn will feed another winter’s worth of visiting birds.
I looked at Marv, he looked at me, and I thought I noticed a tear gleaming in his eye as we shared the profundity of the moment. Then I noticed that Marv was also drooling, and that the glint in his eye was not a tear, but instead more closely resembled the ravenous glint of a hungry tiger. While I was pondering the mysteries of life, Marv was pondering the subject of how he might possibly be able to make it through the window so he could get outside to kill him some dumb birds and eat them.
The moment was over.
I finished my coffee, and Marv, frustrated, stalked stiffly to his food bowl to viciously masticate his kibble.
note: A version of this essay can be found in the Chicago-based publication I Ate the Spider. Please visit their site, they have some terrific stuff that is worth the read!!