- Lee Conell
It was six-thirty in the morning, too early to be awake at a writing conference, and yet here I was, a lone fiction writer standing outside the Sewanee Inn for a bird walk with a group of poets. The [End Page 707] genre imbalance made sense to me. I'd long felt that it was only poets—only good poets—who could do justice to the beauty and the weirdness and the rhythm of birds. While I was looking forward to the walk, I was also a little anxious. After almost two weeks of attending readings and lectures, of nonstop close listening, I wasn't entirely sure I had it in me to listen to birds, too.
As a kid, I'd been obsessed with birds. I'd gone bird-watching with the park rangers in New York City, learned to notice not just different types of pigeons, but the different types of hawks that ate the different types of pigeons. Then I'd entered middle school and become self-conscious about outright geekery. I put the binoculars away and tried to look like I wasn't noticing anything, not even my own existence. As a writer, too, I'd tried to avoid showcasing my interest in birds, worried they'd feel like easy narrative symbolism (freedom!), or like I was trying to be Jonathan Franzen (Freedom!). Yet somehow a bird-watching scene between two important characters had lingered, persistently, in my in-progress novel. I'd tried to get rid of it, watched Portlandia's "Put a Bird On it!" to help shame me into revising away all that potentially overwrought symbolism, the stupid emotional truths revealed via bird. But the scene—maybe because of the stupid emotional truths—proved pivotal to the book.
And the bird walk I took that day in Sewanee also proved pivotal to the book, though not in a way I understood at first. Its importance had nothing to do with seeing the bluebird that was so blue it shocked me, or the birds we saw hidden in brush low to the ground, like feathered spies. It had almost nothing to do with hearing Mark Jarman and Sidney Wade, whose reading voices I loved, list off bird names in a cadence that reminded me of listening to them read their work.
What wound up lingering with me wasn't the birds we saw or identified, but one of the first moments of the walk, when a bird sang especially loudly as we passed beneath its tree. The group grew [End Page 708] quiet. How strange it was—to see the faces of poets I'd just heard give readings stilled into a new, surprising hush. We'd been listening these last two weeks to craft talks and readings, listening intently to each other's work. That listening suddenly felt like it had trained me to be silent here.
And of course that was what the stupid emotional truths in the bird-watching scene needed too. I was getting too worried about all that noise around symbolism, around beauty, around birds. I needed to be silent in some different way with that scene. If the stupid emotional truths were really stupid, at least I'd try to hear them, to identify them more clearly.
Then someone guessed at the name of the singing bird. And someone else guessed too. There was a rush of naming, an energy that felt a little bit like writing.
Later, we were emailed a list of the names of the birds we saw on the walk. I shared the list with my friends at home like the lilt of the names was something I'd composed myself. Rock Pigeon, Mourning Dove, Chimney Swift, Northern Flicker, Eastern Wood-Pewee, Eastern Phoebe, Blue Jay, American Crow, Tree Swallow, Barn Swallow, Carolina Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Eastern Bluebird, Gray Catbird, Brown Thrasher, European Starling, Chipping Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Eastern Towhee, Northern Cardinal, Brown-headed Cowbird, and House Finch.
I woke up early the next morning. Too early for a writing conference. I went back to the stupid birding scene, and I listened.
Lee Conell's debut...