THE MORNING WAS QUIET with the scent of wet earth outstretched and welcoming. Our surroundings were sharp-edged as white clouds seamed into the pale blue sky, and the silhouettes of trees, like veins, protruded against the horizon.
“Listen,” my mother said. I did.
A swoosh from a passing car — a haunting remembrance of the fading pre-pandemic normal. Then, a blanketing of sound: staccato chirps, long barreling calls that heightened at the tip, fluttering, scatty caws, and sweet whistles.
“We never hear nature like this,” my mother said.
For a few weeks, my mother and I rose early to sit outside, to listen, to watch the birds that made their residence in her backyard: the jays, goldfinches, hummingbirds, and others whose names I had yet to discover.
At some point during our watch, another glided into view: a hawk, graceful and light, perching with predatory privilege at the tip of the pine tree next door. The branch bowed beneath its weight. Its head swiveled, absorbing a scene I could not see, and somewhere between the distance of our gaze, I remembered. Birds suffer too. They experience sickness and disease. At just the right angle, a connection exists, though difficult to catch if one did not watch or listen.
After a moment of stillness, the hawk’s wings outstretched. Encouraged by the breeze, it was delivered.
Its flight was an act of praise to God.
Days tumbled into weeks. Far too much was happening, despite nothing moving. Our national pause, unfamiliar and foreign, turned civility wild for all to see. With any sense of propriety unraveling, it became clear that this was a new wilderness I could not roam. A hiking pack filled with supplies and gear could not deliver me from the shutdown. And yet, from all my perceived stagnation, nature remained in motion.
Morning walks became extensions of discovery, my gaze absorbing it all: the birds’ bobbing flight, light slipping through gnarled limbs, the foothills’ landskein: a weaving and braiding of horizon lines.
But I also saw brutality. A feathered body with a defeated tail mangled in the gravel, its brightness blurring, voice silenced, wings to never outstretch.
There were other bodies too. Black bodies against concrete. Black bodies unable to stand, unable to mount up on wings and soar.
Neither sight is new to native inhabitants, but rather for those who have just begun to awaken, those finally able to see bodies caught in the hunt.
I thought poaching was illegal.
To feel shotgun spray. Knees resting within the nook of a neck. Bullets jolting through their bodies — my body. Their limbs collapsed.
Little black birds, fly.
Outside, weighted from it all, I looked up, hoping for outstretched wings.
But no wings were giving praise to God.
For a while, there was silence. Enough to produce noise.
Then, there came outrage, not a moment too late but one breath short.
There came pain, enough to string words together that made feelings real and hearing possible.
Interpretations informed by racialized narratives distort possibilities. A body pressed against concrete can be at once an individual who committed a crime but also a loving father and kind soul. This applies to a body out for a jog or a man enjoying the simple existence of bustling birds. Those bodies deserve more than one interpretation, but fear overrides the multiplicity for a stereotype. In the wild — man’s wild — the bodies that indeed speak, offering alternative viewpoints of their existence, often have little hope of being heard. Their realities are inscrutable for a lack of interpretation.
Equally interesting is sight, for it is intricately connected to interpretation. Sight gives words to physical expression, present and imagined. Within the brevity of a glance, stereotypes may arise. They sometimes surface when a body of difference is seen. They call into remembrance racialized narratives that sprint across the landscape of reason. If not placed in conversation with reason, they give way to prejudice, bias, and fear. It is from stereotypes, among other variables, that countless individuals were silenced when their crying bodies tried to speak. Stereotypes are not definers of man, but rather, a shared behavior between man and nature.
While out back one morning, I looked to the pine tree and noticed that the hawk was experiencing avian mobbing: an aggressive and noisy tactic smaller birds use when a predator is within close proximity to its territory.
At the end of May, I witnessed another mobbing, this time on screen. A similar occurrence: a smaller, female bird attacking a perceived predator. But the predator was different than a hawk. The anxious female sounded the alarm against him, “pulling the hand grenade of race.”
I heard her alarm rise to its pitch, the threat woven into calculated words. I noticed the privilege of perceived fragility and the curse of being viewed as an unsubstantiated threat. All the while, in the midst of the attack, Chris Cooper remained perched, the invisible branch bowing from the impact.
Little black bird, fly. He did.
I went outside. I looked up.
The hawk’s wings were giving praise to God.
Chris Cooper defied interpretation. He wore blue jeans, a navy blue T-shirt, and a filigree-laden bandana, blue and white, tied around his neck as he walked through Central Park. Every paused step prolonged the beauty found in the grace of his watching.
“Flicker. Great crested flycatchers,” he called out, relying on sound to identify the birds. He slowed and briefly paused. “American redstart. . . . You can hear him sing if you listen.”
You can hear him sing if you listen.
There is a voice that always speaks. It is clear and distinct though muffled because of chaos. It is a voice that gives utterance to twittering birds or groaning earth. This voice remains present in that which is alive, but we have forgotten how to listen, so we know not what we hear and see.
Cooper remembers to hear.
His story, I hear: that to be witnessed without judgment is a practice of respect, and when our society, challenged by the reality of racial injustice, is unraveled and laid bare to see, it reveals itself as a cultural wasteland.
While I watched Cooper’s interview, I wondered what was buried in his pauses. I wondered if he was listening to a voice only audible to those with the gift to hear. Then I realized that this is a man who has learned to fly. A little black bird whose wings have healed. A man whose wings are giving praise to God.
Like so many others, I exist in the middle, not knowing where tomorrow will take this country. The unknown bewilders me so I go outside and look up. The hawk is in flight, and I begin to make connections. I begin to listen so that I may hear.
Wildlands are universal—part of our reality in so much as it is the hawk’s.
Pain is a unifier and a meaning maker for joy.
Plagues are cyclical, death is inevitable, and extinction, permanent.
Broken wings heal and soar again.
In the middle, the wasteland also possesses beauty. A place denying escape can offer sight; it all depends on the angle from which you look.
I sit and watch as the gentle summer breeze ripples across the grass.
I listen to the wind growing loud like waves as they rustle through leaves.
I hear a passing car—its swoosh, a reminder that there is air yet to be breathed.
I look up.
The hawk’s wings are giving praise to God, and so will I. O