Bird Girls by Jill Christman


Found in Willow Springs 68

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I WAKE UP, a wife and mother, at five a.m. on a July morning in the middle of Indiana, not because my baby cries or my husband snores, but because the birds are going wild. Early bird nothing. They're all early—and their racket shakes memory down from the maple trees in my mortgaged backyard like seeds from a feeder hit by a marauding squirrel. Everything shivers and trills. I'm in a Proustian moment, fifteen years ago, zipped into a tent with my then-boyfriend, Stevie, listening to this same cacophony of whistles and peeps, breathing in the smell of wood smoke and coffee.

Still dark on a late spring morning in Oregon, not much past four and the professor of Stevie's birding class is about to take us on a trek through the woods. I know nothing about birds. Ignorant and cold, I shrug into the requisite Patagonia fleece jacket, duck through the nylon flap at the front of the tent, and join the others following the bearded ornithologist into the dawning forest.

Soft stepping over brown needles, he is our Pied Piper and we his captivated children. When he hears a particular bird noise, he holds his hand up to halt us, twenty or so bleary-eyed college students. Pointing to his ear, then to the source of the sound—sometimes visible, more often not—Bird Man whispers the name of the singer to us: Hammond's Flycatcher, Lesser Goldfinch, Mountain Chickadee, American Dipper, Bushtit. Stevie, and the other students, scribble these names down in birding notebooks. I listen, impressed, and shuffle along behind the group.

I cheated just now with the names, of course, although I did remember Bushtit and Flycatcher and also seeing the spellings of the bird sounds—pzrrt, pip-pip, treip—and thinking, Huh. Bird words. (Stevie majored in biology; I didn't wander far from the English department.) I remember riding in a university van to our campsite and I remember that early morning walk, but the thing that wedges in my brain between Bushtit and pip-pip is the sticky feeling that I didn't belong, the black-tar goo of old insecurity.

I wasn't in the class. I was a girlfriend tag-along, but there was more to it than that. I was the prissy one. I was too much lipstick, and not enough crunch. All of Stevie's bird class friends were of the outdoorsier-that-thou category and I had brought along an inflatable sleeping pad and tiny jar of half-and-half for my coffee. I can't remember anybody ever saying anything, just this sense that somehow I had been mismatched with my dreadlocked, kayak-paddling, pottery-throwing, Teva-wearing boyfriend. I felt girly in a bad way, as if my painted toenails and snug jeans were a romantic liability—no, worse, an identity liability.


MY LOVE OF BIRDS hadn't brought me to that twittering Oregon glen: Stevie had to be watched. My adversaries were young women in tie-dyed shirts, hemp bracelets and baggy cargo pants, pockets stuffed with hand blown pipes an big-belled goddess figurines, and I wanted to say, You know what? You want to know oudoorsy? You want to know hippie chick? When I was a teenager I lived on a mountain in a plastic house, okay? I rode a horse to school. We weren't camping. Yeah, I shaved my armpits, but I melted snow in a bucket on the wood stove to do it. 

This was all true. I had come to appreciate the pleasure of a soft bed and creamy coffee the hard, cold way when I was thirteen and my mother packed all our worldly belongings into a Chevy pickup tied down with fishing twine and moved us to a mountaintop in northeastern Washington. We were so far off the grid that in the winter, when the roads were impassable, we pulled orange sleds loaded with our groceries and pack animals. My mother claimed this was the kind of activity that built character, but another lasting effect of those frigid hikes was my reduced tolerance for those who thought a weekend in the woods was roughing it.

Stevie knew my mountain-girl history, of course, but I felt I needed to remind him of the tough girl that lurked beneath my feminine exterior. I wanted him to know that I could feather a soft nest and still hold off the egg snatchers with my piercing beak. Or something like that. Maybe I missed the day in biology where we learned that the females choose the males in the bird world. The males are the pretty ones. Think peacocks. Think the blue bower bird posing on his well-decorated threshold. In retrospect, some careful consideration of the actual facts might have saved me a few proprietary pre-dawn treks into the trilling woods. But like the Bird Girls, and like Stevie himself, mine was an identity in the process of becoming, and we were all involved in the awkward process of molting and feathering, craning our necks to check out our butts and see how our plumes were shaping up.

With more than a little shame, I recognized that the lessons I'd been learning in Women's Studies 101 about the patriarchy perpetuating woman-to-woman competition hadn't exactly sunk in. The Bird Girls weren't my only rivals, and they certainly weren't the crunchiest. The Ceramics Girls got dirtier, the Ultimate Frisbee Girls ran faster, the Kayak Girls, well, the Kayak Girls were tough—even I gave them that.

I tried to be the girl Stevie could love. I listened for birds in the woods, I straddled the pottery wheel and let it spray my jeans with clay juice, and I developed a mean (but ultimately ineffectual) forehand on the Ultimate field. I even paddled a small plastic boat into crushing rapids and thanked all the appropriate earth goddesses that I'd been born bottom-heavy and therefore managed to roll back up to breathe again. But I never felt tough. Worse, I never felt like the girl I was pretending to be.


YOU KNOW HOW this story ends. Not long after the bird trip, Stevie moved out, and when he left, as I predicted, he paired up with one of those gritty girls. Her name was Jill. This new Jill was everything that I was not: the anti-Jill Jill. In one of those too-honest, unnecessarily painful, post-breakup conversations, Stevie confessed that he'd felt smothered by my girliness—with me, he said, that was too much feminine energy.

A couple of months after we broke up, the Other Jill approached me on campus—baggy pants splattered with mud, shaggy hair not unattractively mussed, square hands holding a rope leash attached to a giant, drooling St. Bernard. She asked me if I'd seen Stevie. He hadn't called in weeks, she said. Unsuccessfully, I fought the urge to feel pleased.

I shrugged. Nope, haven't seen him. Poor Jill.


WHERE ARE YOU, Bird Girls, on this dawning Indiana day? The raucous songs of morning send me back to you, fifteen years and two thousand miles away. Settled, finally, in a nest I know to be mine, do I miss the parts of me that were you in those restless years of feathering and refeathering? Of never really landing?

Where are you, Bird Girls? Are you still sleeping? Perhaps you're lying awake, like me, remembering walks in the woods with birds and boys, all long gone. Maybe you're already up or haven't yet slept—rocking babies, typing reports, finishing shifts.

On this morning in Indiana, the sun colors the sky pink and my baby girl rolls over in her sleep. Having learned to hear my daughter's every shift and sigh, I know how I could have behaved on that forest path, tuning my ears rather than my jealous eyes. On the sidewalk with sad-eyed Jill, I might have said, "No, I haven't seen him. But it isn't you, you know. You're okay just the way you are." But I didn't, and of course, I couldn't. Sometimes we take our whole lives to feel safe in our nests, sometimes we miss that chance entirely. I am lucky.

Hey, Bird Girls, where are you now? Mine was a failure of empathy—for you, and for myself. Where are you?

I am here.

Hello out there. Pzrrt. Pip-pip. 

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