Mid-March 2020 doesn’t seem so long ago. But, also, last spring seems agonizingly distant, in the way that one recalls the worst kind of wandering journey. If the past nine months were stages along a trail, hazed over in memory measured by quarantine, political quarrels, and persistent racial injustice, then that path was strewn with sharp rocks, sucking toxic mud, leftover landmines; a steep and narrow snot-slick goat track cut on an unstable side-slope, impenetrably tangled with snagging briars wrapped around poison ivy hybridized with stinging nettles, where pissed-off boomslangs and rabid Tasmanian devils lie in wait. Oh yeah, it was all a night trip endured in cold, driving rain. We’ve been asked to hack our way with rusted butter knives, to navigate with a half-empty Bic lighter, walking with plantar fasciitis and no map or soothing automated voice telling us when to turn left or to stop at the cliff’s edge before tumbling off into the abyss. That canyon with sharpened spikes at the bottom? It has felt like destiny.
Our task, then, has been pathfinding through the improbable without ending up at the inevitable.
If this sounds hyperbolic, a fiction stranger than truth, then you must’ve somehow hidden under one of the rocks the rest of us had to find our way around. Maybe you’re hopeful in ways I didn’t find in the crosswinds. More painful than any other years I can recall, there hasn’t been a day in the last months where anything sure outpaced the uncertainty. There were many days when I had no clue what day it was at all. From one evening in 2016 to November 2020, we were mired in traumatic stress disorder.
These nine months have been an uphill trail strewn with sharp rocks and sucking toxic mud. Oh yeah, it’s all a night trip in cold, driving rain.
Last spring started with the mostly normal tasks of my heavy semester’s load at Clemson University. News of a possible pandemic flowing East to West dissipated, mostly, into tweeted diatribe, mixed with my worry about teaching another overloaded wildlife-policy lecture class with no teaching assistant, and another field lab with no research assistant. I’m almost 30 years in with my odd pedagogical commitments — conservation law and bird love — and it’s come down to a tradition of my own self-motivation. (Preach persistence as we might, academics suffer fatigue and exasperation like most humans do.) Students are invested in the courses by Valentine’s Day, in that the chance has passed to drop without a record on their transcripts. But the ornithology group is usually still struggling with Carolina wren-call variations or why I would ask them to write haiku to learn field I.D. Most of them, at that point, show little true understanding about why I teach Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac (1949) and Marvin Gaye’s 1971 environmental anthem Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) as essential convergent texts in conservation philosophy. Maybe, for them, my fantastical idea of Rachel Carson and Martin Luther King strategizing about environmental justice seems too farfetched. Yet I do contrive sometimes to make a point. It’s a bit of a battering ram baited with honey. I offer the in-class liberty of free thought with endless multiple choices. Eventually, the obvious links between Black enslavement and avian conservation in the South Carolina Lowcountry rice fields become clear. Hundreds of thousands of acres of rich habitat exist now because of Black people bound to the land by a racist institution. The birds we see now are there because of what they did under compulsion then. I see culture and conservation as inextricably linked and hope they’re catching on. Some do. Eyes open. Brains whir and hearts feel. That’s enough to keep me going.
This year, of course, was different. This year, by late February, news streams were filling with rancid political rant and unfamiliar terms — COVID-19, novel corona virus. Still, spring break sounded sweetly tantalizing. My thoughts ran flush — would I actually use the seven-day interim to catch up on grading? Or find the usual excuses to procrastinate? Bird migration was picking up and a trip to the coast might refresh me enough to spend a day doing actual work. That was the plan, until a beast only visible through electron microscopy lumbered onto the scene.
I took to Facebook Live, and for an ornithology ‘lab’ did the best I could with early-morning forays into my backyard.
That week, I did watch birds, but mostly locally. The coast was a long drive and I kept putting it off. Purple martins were back in town and I heard my first northern parulas and black-throated green warblers up in the mountains not far from my Piedmont home. Along with the ascending zzzzzzzzzzzziiip of the parulas in still bare-boned tree canopies and the zeee-zee-zee-ZOO-zee! of the black-throated greens rising from evergreen rhododendron, the pandemic menaced in faraway places. Administrators tried to quash faculty rumors of an online finish for the term. The people in the buildings with the columns and carpeted hallways tried to reassure parents and students that all would remain normal. Those of us tasked with actually standing in lecture halls and labs, amid clouds of human breath, were thinking otherwise.
When we went virtual, I was caught flat-footed. I procrastinated, avoiding warnings to download apps and upload lectures. I’m a self-described “Straddler” — born smack dab between the last generation of Boomers and the first X’ers. I remember landlines, dialup modems, the wonder of faxes, and waiting for film to be developed at now-extinct corner drugstores. I used 5 ¼” and 3 ½” floppies. I used Netscape. I toted slide carousels cross-country for presentations. So, I made it up as I went along. I gave the usual thinking-and-writing assignments to my policy class. But for the bird class, I took to Facebook Live, and for a “lab” did the best I could with early-morning forays into my three-quarter-acre backyard. The course is popular and students usually clamor to get in, but just a meagre complement, five-maybe-six out of 20 on the roster, “attended” those field trips. I made it clear that expectations had changed, and lowered the bar to ankle height; I let them hear my delight at the first red-eyed vireo song inside the cacophony of cardinal whistle, titmouse Peter! Peter! and wren chatter. If they did the basic work, they all got A’s. Time will tell if the grade inflation results in some environmental-policy malfeasance or bird-misidentification crime. I’ll try harder next time. Maybe.
The backyard is as secure and isolated a place as I know without going into some wilderness. I can breathe out there.
Class was mercifully over. But all the traveling I usually do in May and June, following birds north and speaking and reading about connections between their heroic flights and our own plights — all that was delayed or canceled. The creative-writing faculty position at Middlebury College, in my adopted writer-haven of Vermont — nixed. Not one but three trips to my fantasy-next-life state of Montana — called off. My friends and I turned to virtual mini workshops and cuss-heavy happy hours. Planned wild excursions were reoriented from western prairie-and-range to backyard lawn and Adirondack chair.
And there, in a space roughly three-quarters the size of a football field, littered with non-native plants, and a plastic bathtub-sized pond, and weeds, surrounded by rusting chain link and mid-1970’s ranch homes, I watched the tropics filter through as rose-breasted grosbeaks, chimney swifts, scarlet tanagers, and several different warblers, vireos, and thrushes found the space good enough for rest and refueling. As I see it, fear and resentment define the last three-quarters of the year more than any other emotions. The backyard is the antithesis; as secure and isolated a place as I know without going into some wildness. A step out the sliding back door, through the screen porch, and there’s green. Green means peace. I could breathe out there, and it became a daily destination — or maybe pilgrimage.
Plague One — Viral
It was May, and most of thinking, feeling America understood the definition of pandemic. Smart, caring people wore masks and stayed home if they could. The cancelled events began to call in for remote rescheduling. I evolved from luddite to greenhorn and was ready to log on when the links were mailed. At first it was interesting, in a dystopian way; a click-a-link and peer-into-personal-space thrill. I wore the same running shorts for days at time, while taking turns, above the waist, amongst two or three presentable collared shirts. Showers were optional. There may have been augmented coffee way before 5 p.m.
The spatiotemporal markers for my life once included teaching days and sprints though airports, but staying home short-circuited all of it. I could no longer look to flight schedules, hotel stays, or gigs leading bird walks and doing readings to help me know where I stood in my own circadian rhythms. I fell out of step with my peregrinating alter ego; Eastern, Central, Pacific, and even the nether regions of Mountain time faded into one Nonstandard Plague Zone where the passage of minutes only mattered if you were virally ill or at the wrong end of police violence.
Through the midsummer nightmare of swelter, sickness, and protest, I sat and absorbed the cast of characters that brings the world in on wings.
But between bouts of dry-eye screen-staring, I was still watching birds in my backyard. Day after day, from the first week of spring through the midsummer nightmare of swelter, sickness, and protest, I sat after all the Zooming and absorbed the usual cast of characters that brings the world in on wings. American robins whinnied. Northern cardinals sang as if red might get redder. A few remnant white-throated sparrows whistled their melancholic yearnings before May Day, when they went back north to someplace with loons and wolves. Goldfinches re-gilded their plumage past winter-tarnished hues and again became black-oil sunflower-seed pigs. Chimney swifts flew in tight formation, and Carolina wrens seemed to work every daylight hour ferrying food to their chicks in the makeshift plastic-flowerpot house. I waited on the great crested flycatchers to show up and move into the new house I risked my life to hang 20 feet up in a cherry tree. They arrived in early May; looked; called wheeep! to one another — but never took up residence. Was my constant peeping a deterrent to nesting? After all, there were days when I was back there for five or six hours in the same seat. Yes, “working remotely” — but mostly looking and thinking.
I had time, for the first time in decades, to make a full assessment of a place I’ve taken for granted. I workshopped with writer friends on Mondays and Fridays. We read and exchanged projects, gave one another advice and chatted about all the bad befalling the world. Through these sessions, I got a chance to compare my southern Piedmont place to Long Island, Montana, and another southern Piedmont place. Me and my house became a here-and-now control in an experiment of others-and-elsewhere. The heightened consciousness of nearby, spliced into the writing and reading about wildness and friends’ quarantined lives, forced me further into the depths of a home that I’d lost touch with. I made a confession of sorts — first internally, then increasingly to a social media world — that fear, boredom, and uncertainty were finding bouts of reprieve in the backyard. A few thousand people, most of whom I’ve never met face to face, got almost daily backyard updates via photos, quips, flash poems and micro prose. It was my own Sane County Almanac published to immediate peer review. Pictures of grosbeaks, frogs, plants eating bees, clouds, all fit to a few words shared with a few thousand “friends,” kept connection vital without virulent spread. It was also a confession that I don’t live in the midst of the wilderness I worship.
Contrary to the persona I’d crafted, wild Black man living in remote idyll, I don’t live in the wilderness I worship.
Contrary to the persona I’d crafted, wild Black man living in remote idyll, I’m a Black suburbanite, living in a declining middle-class Upstate South Carolina neighborhood not more than a mile from a working-class “mill hill” where true poverty is apparent. On that mill hill, textile-factory employees once lived in cookie-cutter homes and could walk to the mill that paid them non-union wages. The mill has long since closed, and rusting Chevy pickups with their hoods raised in eternal salute to disrepair are docked on cement blocks. Pit bulls are the preferred pet, and on too many days one can hear the staccato pop! pop! pop! of handgun fire. I don’t know if it’s just practice, or violence overflowing the dam of lockdown. After a devastating tornado swept through in early April, roofs were covered in blue tarps to keep the rain out. Lacking insurance, money-strapped, or both, people on the hill make do — or don’t. There isn’t much green space there. Many of the trees that didn’t get their tops twisted out in the cyclone had already had limbs coppiced to make room for the sagging electric lines. In some cases, whole canopies were lopped off by the electric company or some seat-of-the-pants “tree surgeon,” leaving only stumpy trunks pointing skyward. It wouldn’t happen in neighborhoods across the tracks. On the hill, there isn’t the disposable time to sit and watch birds. Although these people are my neighbors, I live a different life. I have the privilege of a job that allows me to work from home; that automatically pays me as if I’m showing up; and doesn’t ask if I do so with binoculars or a cold beer from breakfast in hand. I live in a demographic ecotone on an island I’ve designed to be a bird preserve. I bemoan petty problems and bitch to people with “-ology” degrees about much that’s inconsequential. But also, now, I’ve had the time, tied tight by quarantine, to concentrate on this little patch of place. I’m lucky.
I’m an ecologist well-versed in eco-nativist kneejerk: Eschew anything not born of North America and your specific region, lest you commit the eco-sin of encouraging invasive exotic proliferation. I have been a heretic. My backyard is no exemplar for native species. It is surrounded by Chinese and Japanese privet that were here when we arrived and have since grown to 20 feet tall and can’t-see-through thick. There is butterfly bush, lantana, English ivy, and an international assortment of other “undesirable” things that would cause native-expecting eco-visitors to discount my eco-card by a few points. There are some lovely old black cherries I could call a “grove” if my hand was forced. There’s a mulberry that draws in catbirds, waxwings, and summer tanagers like a magnet; a paper birch I bought at a big-box store and planted because I love the bark. In other words, two natives and a northern transplant from a low-wage, small-business-killing mega-retailer. It’s all contrived — hostas next to New York ferns. A dying eastern dogwood growing in the shade of a gigantic Leyland Cypress. All made up to seem “naturey,” just like Central Park except the Black people get to stay.
My backyard is no exemplar for native species. Let eco-fundamentalists condemn me if they will.
My water features are plastic or cement, with streams of recirculated water sucked up and regurgitated by cheap electric pumps. I created two pitcher-plant bogs that grow in clay pots; they are contained killers and I watch morosely for fly-by murders. As the spring edged on, I decided I needed life beyond the water boatmen in the little pond, so I trapped mosquito fish from a nearby ditch and they took to the pond like, well, fish to water. A couple weeks later, three bronze frogs moved in. Was it the fish that attracted them or the lily pads and pond weeds I planted that they couldn’t resist? There’s nothing back there any decent landscape planner would approve of. I don’t care. Disintegrating landscape ties and discarded fence posts make raised beds that grow weeds better than tomatoes or wildflowers. I torch square inches of planting beds in prescribed fires ignited with matches instead of drip torches. I feed the birds in at least four seed feeders, two nectar sippers and a suet cage or two. I mow infrequently and never rake fallen leaves. The birds and assorted beasts — chipmunks, gray squirrels, Carolina anoles, garter and black rat snakes, moles, fence lizards, cottontail rabbits, rhinoceros beetles, skinks, snails, and a kaleidoscopic insectary of at least ten butterfly species — seem to like it. Most days I do too. It is the island of “Misfit Ideals,” ecologically speaking, but it is home. I warn eco-fundamentalists about the less than perfect situation and let them condemn me if they will.
After the plague descended, I lost days in the backyard. I forgot dates. I began to count good fortune for health and full breath from one cycle to the next: Sunup. Sundown. Time (beyond some online meeting) attenuated, because it’s hard to be late for the dining-room table or a side-yard meeting in my Thoreauvian-esque writing shed, a.k.a. “The Thicket.” My range has been reduced to something the Carolina wrens would find restrictive.
Bird song, flower sprout, moon rise, and sunset are the most reliable clocks now.
The writing ebbs and flows in this morbidly target-rich environment — what with another globally disastrous nature story piled on top of all that climate change has already wrought. I’m still depending on birds to bring joy, and to generate an endless list of must-do, might-do, and wanna-do to keep my hands busy. Bird song, flower sprout, moon rise, and sunset are the most reliable clocks now. Work is home and home is work. It’s all one thing. Though not alone, I sometimes feel lonely in ways that are difficult to describe. It’s a wearing down, like water washing across stone; the kind of loss that’s imperceptible unless one sits and watches for millions of years. Even so, I recognize how much has dripped to erode me since mid-March. I think the washouts are showing in fewer smiles, and an exhaustion that I can’t quite shake.
Plague Two — Prejudice
Maybe this is what it felt like for those Egyptians in Genesis, beset by calamity after calamity because they pissed off God by enslaving the Hebrews. They had to endure seven blights. I’ve only counted three so far. (Four with climate change.) The misery of isolation and the fear of a long, lingering, suffocating viral death have been compounded by racism. It’s a plague and a wandering in the wilderness the country can’t get through.
As the quarantine took hold, there was the news of Ahmaud Arbery, hunted down while jogging by vigilantes in South Georgia. Then came the report of Breonna Taylor, murdered by police as she slept in her Louisville apartment. Within a few days, Christian Cooper, a Black birder and personal friend, was verbally assaulted by a White woman in Central Park, who tried to use race and the police as weapons. George Floyd was murdered under a Minneapolis policeman’s knee in the same overwhelmingly oppressive news cycle. Millions took to the streets in mostly peaceful protest around the world. Black Lives Matter supplanted COVID for a good portion of the summer, even as the virus continued to rage and kill — just like the police.
Black Lives Matter supplanted COVID for a good portion of the summer, even as the virus continued to rage and kill — just like the police.
The convergence of the plagues concentrated what I’d been feeling already; a sometimes-suffocating angst that wakens me long before the birds do, to lie in quiet, stomach-roiling worry. What’s going to take me or some family member or beloved friend out? A virus seeking Black victims. An egomaniacal president trying to revive the confederacy. Police and racist institutions acting with impunity, killing at whim. I awake with these things on my mind, mixed up in all the tiny responsibilities of first-world adulting, and I’m groping my way again on the treacherous path. The energy expended in thinking about not being taken out is almost enough to make one give in, just step off the overlook. At times like these, the time I spent on social media took up more headspace than before; my pretty-picture posting of backyard birds, or chronicling of a rare wander to take in Piedmont prairie birds; or dispatches from Sunset Camp, the postage-stamp-sized place I bought on a small mountain lake, take on intense meaning. I long for traveling partners along the troubling trail.
I wonder if some algorithm hasn’t labeled me “M for militant.” I’ve probably been pinned as “melancholic with depressive capacity” by some Zuckerberg formula that sells things to sadly intense people. While observing backyard birds, I’ve spent almost as many hours pondering my singular identity as a Black man and the pestilent privilege of White impunity perpetrated since 1619. I slip on switchbacks and get mired in mucky spots as parts of majority America finally recognize that black and brown skin have been “pre-existing conditions” that killed us in dramatically disproportionate numbers way before the virus did. It feels lonely at times even though I know millions who look like me can empathize, and millions who don’t look like me try to work shoulder to shoulder as allies. But as some citizens weaponized themselves and occupied state capitols without pause or retribution; as self-deputized vigilant “citizens” continue to profile Black people innocently jogging or birding in public parks; as the pressures are exerted on Living while Black, any purchase gained on slick ground gives way again. Though quarantined and socially distanced for most of one calendar year and who knows how far into the next, I feel that pressure. Indeed, I feel it in newly acute ways, in an emergent political climate that says 401 years of suffering aren’t enough.
As the pressures are exerted on Living while Black, any purchase gained on the steep track across slick ground gives way again.
I cannot just watch the birds in gusts of heavy wind that blow through my backyard on the edge of a weather front without thinking of the barriers that persist. As I marveled, in the spring, over the beauty of rose-breasted grosbeaks, then over a procession of summer fledglings, and then over the return of “rosies” in the fall, a gnawing knowing persisted that there is more than COVID out there to kill me. I think about this for myself, and even more for my young-adult son who sometimes makes late-night visits. When he leaves, I always warn him, “be careful! Look out for deer — and the police…” He assures me that he knows the drill.
I worry, too, about my 90-year-old mother, who insisted on going to church deep into the summer. We’re being stalked by the specter of suffocation that renders each breath in a precious gift. Each breath is a loan reclaimed with interest, and the next not guaranteed. I fear every sore throat, dry cough, sniffle, or odd headache; fear that I’ll be damned with a diagnosis. Fear that those tasked with serving and protecting will do neither for me or for my adult child, and that our Black bodies can be discounted by a cop who decides it’s time for my son or for me to die. I still fear that a tweet-happy denier-in-chief won’t concede to the democracy that fired him — and even if he does, will foment a new civil war because he knows he can. I resent these things. So much is preventable and fixable, if Americans would just think and feel beyond hate and self. But they won’t, and the degree to which I resent this is a soul-rot that doubles down on my doubts.
Plague Three — A Presidency
It is the compounding complications of ignorance, arrogance, and impunity that have made everything worse. Because, of course, I’ve been on the dark trail since at least November 2016. I was an undergraduate during Reagan’s first term, and a graduate student during his second and Bush I. A 20-something progressive with ideas bent towards racial justice and the environment, I earned two degrees under presidents who roiled up racist sentiments with policies centered on stereotypes of “welfare queens” and Black rapists. The environment suffered too, with deregulation and the re-genesis of newfangled robber barons on Wall Street. Neither Ronnie nor George H.W. could be called friends of anybody Black or anything green. By the time Clinton and Bush’s son were done with the ’90s and early 2000’s, I was mostly numb. I think malaise is the word. I was busy raising a family, but “meh” is how I mostly felt.
Perhaps it was the proper purgatory to be in, while raising two children into teendom; a featureless plain of ordinary (until September 11, 2001), that gave them opportunities to grow up alongside reasonably well-behaved and mostly well-adjusted, thinking, feeling human beings. Then, in 2008, Barry Obama arrived and the plain was suddenly fruited! “Woke” wasn’t anything but a word for being un-asleep in the Obama years, but it did feel like the nation had somehow awakened to live out bits and pieces of the creed Dr. King spoke of. A few dared utter the term “post-racial” on that glorious November night in 2008. I wasn’t so foolish. Things still felt edgy.
In his first year in office, I sank deeper, knowing that we’d been infected with something insidious way before the biological pestilence arrived.
Gun sales and membership in White supremacists’ organizations went up when the White House went Black. Right wingers went righter. And then one night in 2016 everything went sideways. In the four years since to present day, the world has waited on tweets he likely types from the shitter that can drive financial markets or cause world leaders to move missiles into firing position. There is no empathy, sympathy, or real concern or caring for anything wild or anyone other than someone rich, male, and White. In his first year in office, I sank deeper in, and knew that we were being infected with something insidious way before any kind of biological pestilence arrived. In January 2020, when warning signs of the viral pandemic loomed, he denied it all, on tape. Now, winter is here again; and the death toll soars beyond a quarter of a million; and the collateral damage of joblessness, homelessness, and poverty rates further demoralize a nation; and unarmed Black people continue to die at the hands of the police; and even though millions marched in the summer streets to insist that Black Lives Matter, 45 has defended confederacy, teargassed peaceful protests, and rolled back environmental policies to feed a political base hungry for superiority at any cost. November 3rd opened the way for some repair, but even with wings clipped to lame duck, he spews every kind of lie. We have 36 more days of denial to further erode the potholed trail we’re on. There are 70 million plus who think he was leading them towards some “Great Again” place. That’s a lot of traffic walking roughshod on a shitty road.
Epilogue — What’s Next
It’s December. Nine months is enough time to hike a long way. Conditions, of course, will determine how far one travels towards a destination in a given time, and weather, footing, and random encounters with other beings can make a great deal of difference on the journey. But individual disposition might be the thing that gets us from one marker to the next. So how do I feel at the end of 2020? In a word, unsure. Looking back, I see a trail that mostly fell away after me, rotted boards on a swinging bridge that splintered and fell as I made my way across. I feel lucky that family and most friends made it without plunging into the pit. The next semester looms and I don’t feel confident about meeting in classrooms yet. I’ve almost mastered the hyperspace landscape and even host my own writing workshop now; the usual circle virtualized but still exchanging words and feelings. New vaccines may come online in record time and I will trust the science — but the COVID plague continues to selectively stalk certain prey with fatal efficiency, and I’m in that herd. So waiting is my watchword, and I will face teaching again with caution and some dread. I likely won’t fly to events before fall 2021 or January ’22. The protests for equal justice go on, and Black Lives still don’t matter to enough people. Emily Dickinson’s hope has indeed been the rare visitor with feathers, but a cautious optimism rises around common sense and decency after January 20, 2021. There are hard times yet to come and that trail will be a stony one to tread. But I’ve got a heart set on going on.
There are hard times yet to come, and that trail will be a stony one to tread. But I’ve got a heart set on going on.
A hermit thrush skulks in a real thicket of saplings impenetrably bound by honeysuckle vines behind my contrived Thicket, which is itself impenetrable to all but me. I venture out every other day or so to a nearby patch where the winter sparrows scratch in brown fields of tall grass. Northern harriers drift over stubbled corn and dry-rattling soybeans. The whitetail bucks are rut crazy, chasing does. I need to be in a tree stand watching the year drain out. If I’m lucky, there will be a chance at gathering some venison. More than likely, though, I’ll not kill a deer but take instead some peace of mind gathered in wildness beyond my backyard.
In the time it’s taken for birds to stitch hemispheres together in northbound migratory journeys, to make more of themselves, and then to turn in autumnal flights south, enough people have died as a result of the viral plague to earn citations by future historians and demographers, alongside the bubonic plagues and the 1918 flu pandemic. The political havoc and racial injustices of the other two plagues will not be noted by comparable magnitudes of numbers lost, but by an immeasurable toll of pain and misery inflicted on mental well-being. Costs measured in misanthropy, hate, fear, resentment, and disenfranchisement; the costs are obstacles in the dark we’ll falter over again and again, until they are removed. The trail we’re on is not normal. Not what we mapped or planned. But then normal is some long-ago thing we passed on the old path. Time now to chart a new way.