Bird, Bear, Humans

by Naomi Crummey

Downtown Denver

Just shy of a mile above sea level, I sit cross legged on a cold stone pathway leading to the Colorado Capital building, which rises behind me. Tilting my head, I can’t make out the dome—obscured by the sun, rays intensified by altitude. Somewhere just around the curved building, out of sight, a construction shovel whines, grinds, and releases rubble. A green hill rolls down before me, bisected by a four lane road traversed by taxis, SUVs, ambulances with blasting sirens, roaring city busses, and the occasional clattering garbage truck. Latino picketers line the sidewalks carrying signs in English and Spanish that read: Documents For All and We Are Not Animals. Behind them rises an obelisk, at least 50 feet high. At the base of the hill, another grand building curves around a green expanse. In the distance the Rockies lurk—snowcapped and jagged. Silent, silvery atom and noisy nucleus. The vehicles and people swarming around me fade into a din, broken occasionally by a motorcycle’s ragged acceleration a shoe’s hushed fall, the whoosh of pant legs brushing together. I am still for the first time in months.

 

The Urbanite’s Flight

Crossing one of these busy streets the day before, I passed another hasty figure with white wires trailing from her ears. We shared a smile of recognition—the harried urbanite’s efforts to create isolation in the crush of humanity, concrete, and machine. I heard Bach—she heard I don’t know what—and we both heard—despite our efforts not to—the city’s commotion. A commuter’s horn urging us through the cross-walk, the light having turned green. The sigh of a bus as the driver released the brake.

 

The First Bird

Then, I heard a woodpecker drilling for insects. I thought to stop, surprised to hear the hollow, rhythmic thud of its search amidst the mechanical din. I even scanned nearby branches, but kept my feet moving quickly on—certain I was late for a presentation at the Denver Convention Center.

 

The First Bear

On my way into the convention center, I dashed through the legs of a 40 foot blue bear who was peering into the building’s glass and metal façade. Settling into a windowless conference room, well beyond the bear’s gaze, my mind flew back to the woodpecker and remembered a duck I saw in Chicago several years before.

 

Downtown Chicago

Again fear of lateness compelled me: this time up subway steps, from cool gloom into the stark, summer-morning glare of Daley Center Plaza – a vast expanse of stone, glass, and metal in the city’s center. As I moved towards the building where I worked, a sea of pigeons parted for me and other urbanites rushing to work. A swirling mass of grey feathers and black suits. Picasso’s 50 foot steel face towered to my right and the massive columns of City Hall directly ahead.  Dense traffic lined three sides of the plaza—impatient cab drivers inched and honked, some of them weaving as I did through the more sedentary objects in their path—city busses, horse-drawn carriages, and illegally parked police cars. Men and women of all shapes, colors, and sizes moved through the plaza at maddeningly different paces. Some carried coffee cups, others donut boxes. Cell-phones, brief cases, lunch bags, and suitcases with wheels. All around, skyscrapers stood silent.

In the southwest corner of the stone field lay a small, square pool, a fountain spouting cool water from its midst. A handful of people sat on granite benches surrounding the water, finishing their coffees, savoring their breakfasts, or perhaps anticipating moments to come. A slight breeze carried mist from the fountain to people sitting downwind.

 

The Second Bird

A small green, orange and brown duck bobbed silently on the waves created by the fountain’s falling water.

 

The Urbanite’s Flight Interrupted

I paused, smiled, wondered how it got there and marveled at the duck’s, and nature’s, triumph. Compelled by its creature-ness to seek water, the duck had found and lit upon a pond. I would have thought it impossible in the crush of concrete, glass, steel, and humanity.

 

The Third Bird

Moving again, I continued to think of the duck—placing it in my mind alongside a loon I had watched cross a lake in northern Ontario a week before. How different their lives. Cacophony, quiet. Crowds, solitude. Skyscrapers, trees. Tiny pool, open water. Beneath webbed feet: cement, mud. Urban, wilderness.

 

The Urbanite’s Flight Moves On

I am in Denver for a writer’s conference, seeking Woolf’s room, which I dream of at least three times a day when I am at home wiping runny noses and changing diapers, breaking up screaming matches and finding crayons, cooking dinner and reading stories, grading papers and holding office hours, talking with my spouse and checking email. Most of these things bring me closer to joy, and some of them nourish my creative soul, but they take time. And energy. Truly, I say to myself, Woolf was right—women must have time and space for themselves in which to create. So, I came to Denver to ruminate, to write, to revel in solitude, to enjoy quiet, to lose one self in pursuit of another. I looked forward to finally writing an essay about the Daley Center duck and how I had been forced to reconsider its, and my own, creature-ness.

 

And on

Summer ended. Classes started. And for several months, I used the duck’s triumph and the loon’s serenity to hold onto the woods.  I rode the subway two hours a day to and from the University of Illinois at Chicago campus, renowned for its Brutalist architecture—cement buildings with tiny, sliver windows divided by concrete walkways. Virtually no green, at least not where you could feel or touch it. I planned lessons, gave lectures, facilitated discussions, graded papers, bemoaned the imminent winter, and complained about the lack of wilderness my urban life allowed. I spent my days surrounded by concrete, metal, and glass, and eventually forgot the duck’s marvelous, miraculous creature-ness.

Several months into the semester, I assigned William Cronon’s essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” which I had selected without a close read—relying on the textbook’s pairing of it with Frankenstein, which I had read many times, to give shape to our discussion. Reading it on the way to class, barreling beneath downtown Chicago on the subway, straining my eyes in the tunnel’s gloom and deafened by the shriek of the train’s metal wheels, I remembered the duck and the loon and felt the cool water beneath them. My mind flew from Shelley’s monstrous technology, the Romantic fear of industry and science to Lake Michigan. Five blocks from Daley Center Plaza.

 

The Trouble with Wilderness

According to Cronon, the American popular imagination fancies wilderness “as the last place civilization, that all too human disease, has not fully infected…[as] an island in the polluted sea of urban industrial modernity,” and that such a “wilderness offers us the illusion that we can escape the cares and troubles of the world in which our past has ensnared us [and an opportunity to] see the world as it really is…” He suggests that when we visit [wilderness/wild places] we find ourselves surrounded by plants and animals and landscapes whose otherness compels our attention [as had the loon on the glassy Ontario lake]. In forcing us to acknowledge that they are not of our making…they recall for us a creation far greater than our own.” Cronon suggests that this relationship with wilderness, with nature, becomes problematic when “we see the tree in the garden [or perhaps the duck in the pool] as wholly artificial and the tree in the wilderness [or the loon on the lake] as wholly natural. We need,” he says, “to discover a middle ground in which all these things, from city to wilderness, can somehow be encompassed in the word ‘home.’ Home, after all, is the place where we live.”

 

Lake Michigan

In the subway, I revised/re-imagined the duck’s achievement. It had interrupted—today and that morning several months before—my distracted flight from metal tube to concrete cell. That much of the story remained the same. But Cronon called me to remember the lake, something I, like many Chicagoans, remarkably, often forgot. At least insofar as it is a lake. More often, it is a producer of winds that howl down high-rise canyons. Or a manufacturer of lake effect snow. A grayish green mass of waves. A place to swim, to boat, to walk along. Occasionally—when zebra mussels flourish—Chicago is reminded that the lake is a wilderness, a habitat to species whose lives brush up against our own, flowing through taps and into the glasses and mouths of the city’s inhabitants. More often though, locked in metal, concrete, and glass, most of us forget that the lake is anything other than a silent backdrop.

Now, the duck’s flight had to be less miraculous, less remarkable. It was a short flight for even such a small bird from the lake to the plaza, and, while Cronon allowed me room to believe that the loon’s home was more wild and even a little more natural, I had to recognize both the lake and the fountain as spaces where avian and human life are carried out. And I had to recognize that my urban life was less void of nature than I imagined. I lived on the edge of water, walked beneath trees and listened to birds.

 

The Second Bear

So, I’ve heard the woodpecker, seen the blue bear, and remembered the duck and the loon. Now, a mile above sea-level and far, far away from the Ontario woods, I remember the bear we glimpsed, as we watched the loon, lumbering across an empty campsite on the far shore of the lake. Wild animals, human beings. And I re-think the urbanite’s flight, wilderness, home, and travel. No longer am I writing simply to re-imagine the duck and the wilderness. Now, I need also to re-imagine flight and home, self among selves.

 

The Trouble with (the Urbanite’s) Flight

In his essay “Why We Travel,” Pico Iyer says: “travel spins us round in two ways: it shows us the sights and values and issues that we might ordinarily ignore; but it also, and more deeply, shows us all the parts of ourselves that might otherwise grow rusty.” He goes on to say that “we travel, then, in search of both self and anonymity—and of course, in finding the one we apprehend the other. Abroad, we are wonderfully free of caste and job and standing.” Iyer’s romantic notions about traveling, and the othering it reifies, irritate me. In part, I must confess, because I fly from home with some of these intentions to find and lose myself. But also because while he refers specifically to travel abroad, his words can also describe the urbanite’s daily flight. We are free of caste and standing only if we ignore the circumstances and perceptions of those among who we move—at home or aboard, human and earthly alike. Because then we turn people and places into Wilderness, into separate and distant. We endanger them, and our selves, just as we endanger the ocean when we forget that we take Lake Michigan into our bodies for sustenance.

 

I See What You Mean

I learn from the Denver Public Art website that the Blue Bear’s name is: I See What You Mean. And I do. I see what he means. He is not silent or a backdrop; his curious and obtrusive entry into the world of metal, glass, and abstraction embodies the balance and re-vision of our world and lives Cronon demands. Seemingly disparate selves and spaces must be recognized as co-existent, as dependent upon and vital to each other’s being. We must stop flying. I must stop flying in search of elusive rooms and live in the ones I inhabit.

 

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