The beauty that wills us on
The birders are old, intensely alert. Twenty or more of them move through the brush slowly, weaving like dreams. They have arisen early to meet their passion. It’s cold—a February dawn, down near the Arizona-Mexico border, south of Tucson. Whenever there is movement back in the brush, the birders all stop and watch, waiting—some keen-eyed with binoculars still hanging from their necks, others with binocs already raised, their eyes gifted suddenly with the quick-sightedness of gods—and no matter how drab or dull the first bird of the day may seem to me, a non-birder, to the old people, these veterans of beauty, it seems amazing. They rhapsodize about sparrows.
They’ve been coming here for a long time, down near Madera Canyon, one of the premier birding spots in the world: well over 400 species funnel through here, twice a year. A local industry worth $3 billion a year: gazing at passing through beauty that possesses a fiery heart, a will to survive. It is here that the proposed Rosemont copper mine will suck up the water supply to bathe the damaged soil and stone in acid, yielding the glitter we affix to our wrists and fingers and necks in order to feel beautiful.
Some of the old people are couples who hold hands as they walk along the birding trail. Others are friends, each of whom rests a steadying hand on another’s shoulder. They stand peering into the brush as if into the great mystery of their lives, hoping that in time an answer will present itself. My informal survey indicates that most of them believe the Rosemont mine cannot be stopped. Every one of them will do what they can do, but they have been defending beauty and integrity for a long time, and they have seen a lot of loss.
I will likely never see any of these old people again.
Sometimes I get tired of arguing for or against things, and yet it seems I always answer the call, always show up whenever there’s a fight, or a need to stand and defend. Might I one day feel tired and worn out, my imagination dimming so that I might not be able to envision a way to win?
The beauty of the birds at Madera Canyon feels to me like a little oasis or wellspring where we stop and sit before pushing on in our own migrations. Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Say’s Phoebe. Some kind of pipit. Vesper Sparrow, Lincoln’s Sparrow, House Finch, female cardinal: one by one, the birds are stirring, going about their business, taking little dust baths, feeding, singing, courting. There’s a dew and in the rising sun the grass blades ignite, rainbow prisms incandesce, and the birds fly up as if uninterested in these temporary jewels that will dull quickly as the sun rises higher.
We peer through sunflowers as if into a kaleidoscope. Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Gila Woodpecker, Savannah Sparrow, kestrel. We cross over a a narrow wooden footbridge where there used to be deep water, but where now there is only a web of cracked mud-plates. A man named Al tells me he used to see mallards, snipe, rail here. Today there is nothing, just dust. We move on, searching, or rather, looking.
An owl—no one’s sure what kind—leaps up from the grass and flies away into the sun. No one, not even here among the experts, is willing to make a guess, and they squint after it eagerly, hoping for a second clue, hoping it might for some strange reason turn around and come back, but it does not.
Just to the south, a great anti-immigration wall has been constructed, physically dividing one county from another. It blocks the flow of humans back and forth, and impedes the natural passage of animals that for hundreds of thousands of years have passed across that invisible line with the freedom of birds: jaguar, ocelot, coatimundi, Sonoran antelope, wolf, bear. Now all are cut off, all isolated. Only the birds can pass over and through, and where they are coming, there is already often no water. They come following the old pathways of memory, or perhaps hope.
The old birders tell me that often on these outings they encounter people who have crossed the border illegally following these brushy water courses, or courses where water once ran. Immigrant trails exist everywhere here. Lawrence’s Goldfinches, Lesser Goldfinches, the birds far more brilliant than the mineral for which they are named, flash and rise and fall, sparks among the brush, delighting the brief humming life of our brains.
Great Horned Owl. Bewick’s Wren singing with a song like an old-time rotary dial telephone. How much change these old people have seen, how much more we will all see. Of course everything is temporal, everything is flux, but surely too at some point to stand quietly in the face of violence and injustice is to condone it with that silence.
We come to a barbed-wire fence and note where the prongs have snagged not only the hair of deer but also scraps of faded shirts: a natural history of exodus.
Black Phoebe, Cooper’s Hawk. White-crowned Sparrow, Green-tailed Towhee. Later in the spring, Flame-colored Tanager, Elegant Trogon, 36 species of wood warblers, and an entire planet’s worth of hummingbirds.
In war, one has to write or speak about war, but one has to write or speak about beauty, too. When to do which? No one knows, I think. Perhaps you know only each morning upon awakening. We must have courage, we must have fire, we must have energy. There is a war and all hearts are tempted to grow numb, to withdraw and tuck in as if about to roost for the long night. We must not allow this to happen. We must burn, we must travel on, with morning’s fire in our hearts and beauty everywhere we turn, amidst a great burning.
Rick Bass is the author of 25 books of fiction and nonfiction. He lives with his family in Yaak and Missoula, Montana.
Kathy Adams Clark/KAC Productions