Finalist, 2016 Contest for Creative Nonfiction
I still miss the old way of looking at a black bird. I remember, from my days of less imperfect sight, watching a blackbird huff his wings. He shows the burning stars on his shoulders, the red quarter circle of his epaulet, its gold corona. He is common as dirt, his dinosaur feet clutching a cattail stem in some Midwestern wetland.
That bird is long dead. That day, decades ago, I rose early to see what had drifted or dropped out of the flying mass of north-bearing migrants, that miracle of bone and feather and magnetic north that brings a cloud of life to eat and make more life, a gorgeous, wasteful seasonal commute. Of all the possible ways of existence, this particular, ridiculous improbability–that is how things are.
I had risen early to glimpse this migration. For us northern-dwellers, spring belches forth an eruption of birds flung north along the river ways, sparks of color and life tossed at the coming hustle of bloom, hatch and swarm. After so much night, cold, drab and snow, it feels as if a phoenix has risen from the ashes as a million splinters of bird, somehow each whole, vibrant and carrying its own scintilla of the rainbow.
Back then I was drawn to see the rare, the out-of-place, the new to my eyes, the precious sight of feathers that could be added to my life list, a check mark in my field guide, its pages ruffled with a history of rainy wetlands. Wilderness tamed by naming.
I had no need to “collect” another red-winged blackbird, but stopped to look.
Look at this blackbird: his night sky feathers dark space full of dark matter against his star shoulders, burst supernova filling my eyes with red gold explosion, his declaration of lust and drive. He is multiplied, repeated, across the marsh. Each bird declares a clump of reeds his territory—his song both love song to his intended and razor wire announcing the defended border of his bird-sized nation. I stare at this one star in a sunlit sky.
To see a blackbird requires both perception and attention. I am not just talking about birds here.
There was a time when I looked at black birds like other birders: through binoculars.
A pair of binoculars is to the birder as a knife is to the chef: the tool that becomes the extension of the body. What binoculars can and cannot reveal is the first lesson of the birder. The expert birder knows the details of birds: flight patterns, eye rings, habitat, range, breeding, winter and immature plumage. She knows the details of binoculars: magnification, field of view, objective lens, exit pupil, eye relief. She knows the merits of Zeiss vs Nikon. She knows at a glance, without the least visible hint of noticing, the price-to-quality ratio of the optical equipment around any other wetland-wanderer’s neck. Almost as quickly she can assess the fit of that equipment to the human’s expertise or lack of it.
Birding is easy to mock: the pre-dawn excursions, the flocking of the ornithological-obsessed to unlikely sightings of a rare waterfowl on some cooling pond of an only mildly leaky nuclear plant, birders traveling to the ends of the earth to add one more arctic gull to a life list, expensive equipment. But I cannot promise I would have been any different if my eyes had held up. I joined the cult of birders not long before I first began to lose my sight.
The center of my left retina was already beginning to unravel when I spent the equivalent of a month’s rent on a used pair of binoculars. The beginning of the decay of my macula was actually an intriguing visual experience—a subtle heliotrope question mark hung in my field of view. Transparent, but if I shut my right eye, the spot could bend a straight line, warping windows and buckling sidewalks.
When I went to get the question mark checked out, my long-time eye doctor groaned as he finished my eye exam. I think he may have put his head in his hands after placing his slit lamp back in its velvet case. He sent me on to the retinal specialist. The diagnosis: myopic degeneration. In my case, I had myopic macular degeneration, which meant that the increasing elongation of my eye, which made me intensely near-sighted, also put increasing traction on the delicate tissues of my retina. They stretched, thinned and cracked, leading to damage to the macula, the area of the retina that provides fine detail vision when healthy. More than 20 years after that diagnosis, I’ve lost enough of my central vision to be declared legally blind.
I’m far from alone. Even though few people have heard of myopic degeneration, it is the seventh most common cause of vision loss in the US. The condition affects two percent of the population.
Back to binoculars. A friend of a co-worker was upgrading to Zeiss. They were way above my birder rank, but lovely in the hand. Those lenses made the most of any available light; it was like there was divinity in them.
There was this moment in my life where I still enjoyed the sense of bird in the trees or flirting along the undergrowth. I enjoyed my human eye following the movement. I enjoyed bringing the binoculars up to my eye fixed on a twitching dot in a just-leafing maple, the bird blob coming into shape as I rotated the focus on the binoculars. And, if everything went right, if the bird wasn’t silhouetted against the rising sun, or if it didn’t flit off, I honed in and saw: the spiny beak of the brown creeper. Or a doll’s thimble of red feathers that separate the ruby-crowned and the golden crowned kinglet. Or the flirty dance of a redstart fanning out its wings and tail as if I might help it find a mate.
Nowadays, if I see a bird at all, it is almost always a black bird.
A black spot cutting a great circle across the sky. Multiples are usually crows. Or the red-tailed hawk floating above the canyons of abandoned grain elevators near my house. I know it by its sky-shredding call, but when I look up sometimes I see a black scrap wiping the blue expanse.
The eye listens. The song of the red-winged blackbird translated to a sonogram, a shape on a page, a whistle heard in the head that has shape and volume. It triggers a mental image of yellow feet clutching a cattail, of a red quarter circle, so red against glossy black.
Lenses. Magnifying lenses of binoculars. The corrective lenses of the glasses I have worn since age four. The crystalline lens of the eye.
The lens of the eye focuses incoming light onto the retina at the back of the eye, the beginning of the interface between sense organ and brain. Light translated to electrical impulse. Because of the extreme elongation of my eye, the lens’ attempt to focus onto the retina falls short. My misshapen eyes, even before they started to fray at the central retina, made me intensely near-sighted.
Concave corrective lenses make up for this so-called refractive error. The concavity of my eyeglasses is calculated to correct my eyes’ very limited capacities to bring distant objects into focus. Even before my retinas began to fail, the farthest point at which I could bring an object into focus without corrective lenses was about five inches. The corrective lens, however, can do nothing to fill the gap where my retinas no longer function. So without glasses the visual world is mostly a blurry smudge. With corrective lenses, I see:
- a periphery of vagueness in the zone beyond the coverage of my glasses: light, dark, color, movement.
- a large, donut-shaped zone of more or less clear sight. Compared to a person of average eyesight, what I see as “clear” might seem rather indistinct. Even on the “clear” zone of my visual field, browns, navy blues and dark greens tend to read as black. Mouths tend not to have the detail of teeth. Faces tend not to have the detail of eyes.
- at the center of that donut, my blind spots manifest as irregular areas of visual buzzing: Each the exact shape of the scar tissue on my retinas, each a purplish scintillation faithfully following any attempted gaze, blotting out whatever I try to focus my visual attention on.
Now let us layer on top of my concave corrective lens the magnifying lens of binoculars. Binoculars magnify the small disc of world they show. A magnifying lens is convex, more or less plump and rounded. When we talk about magnification we talk about power. The simple, brutal trade-off of magnification is this: the greater the power, the smaller the field of view.
Often, the first tool a person with central vision loss is handed is a magnifying glass. This never made sense to me. Any birder will tell you that using the magnification of binoculars to follow the arc of a peregrine falcon as it slices across the sky at something like highway speed is no mean trick of hand-eye coordination. Using magnification as a strategy for dealing with vision loss is also tricky.
A magnifying lens inevitably narrows our focus. And for people with macular degeneration, it narrows our focus to the most damaged area of our visual field. There are other senses, other ways to take in information, to take in the world.
So add another lens: the distorting lens of thought, training, culture. Humans are such visual creatures. If born fully sighted, big swaths of our brain are allotted to the processing of visual image. I still wear eyeglasses most of my waking hours. As if I don’t trust the white cane, the auditory, the braille, the tactile. A refractive error of thinking?
A hand sees. Once, in my more fully sighted days, many years before I learned braille, I saw a black bird with my fingers. A starling the cat left as a gift on the back steps of the one Chicago apartment nobody ever broke into. Black bird splayed there on the doormat: yellow legs, toes curled tight around themselves. A skin of feathers turned inside out. Pinkness.
I imagined that black body in the cat’s pink mouth. That gray cat, claws retracted as it padded down the alley, past the dumpster, past chain-link fence, up the long flight of wooden stairs to drop that inside-out bird at the back door. All the shine gone out of the feathers.
I gloved my hand inside a plastic bag, but I still couldn’t shut the eyes of my fingers as they picked up the stick-twig legs and that noodle-mess of intestines.
The retinal specialist calls each blind spot a scotoma. He uses it to refer to a distinct area of damaged or completely destroyed vision on the retina, especially when surrounded by an area of better or even undamaged vision. A scar. A spreading dead zone like the delta of a polluted river. Scotoma. Doctors do not like to call a spade a spade. A blind spot a blind spot. As if that word, blind, might spread from one dark exam room to another, a bad smell, an infecting blight.
But there is a sort of honesty wrapped in the word scotoma. It comes from the Greek word for darkness.
The zone of damage to my retina is at most a couple millimeters across. It has completely consumed my fovea, the part of the eye most dense with cells capable of sending information about detail to the brain. Those wrinkles and puckers and burst capillaries were a devastation to reading eight-point footnotes, to hand-stitching quilts with stitches the size of sugar ants, to discerning interrupted versus continuous eye rings on birds aloft in the canopy.
But that left a broad swath of retina undamaged, and one of the things that I could do was discern movement. For many years that helped me still notice birds. Their flit. Skulk. Flutter.
To see a bird demands both perception and attention. For years I supplied the relatively subtle gaps of perception with attention. Over time, this was not enough. Motion was less my friend. I needed time to make things out, to dart my eye back and forth and up and down to try to get a glimpse of something, to see around the edges of my blind spots, sending a set of broken, incomplete messages to my visual cortex, which on a good day, would assemble a convincing hypothesis of what I was perceiving.
This is all any of us ever do.
Relative magnification. There is one kind of bird you can get close to. A dead bird. Coming closer to an object or bringing it closer to our eye is a natural form of magnification. Vision specialists give it the fancy name of relative magnification. It has less of the disadvantages of a magnifying or zooming lens, where for every gain of magnifying power you lose more and more of the world around you.
Once I found a dead goldfinch. I picked it up to take a closer look. It was so light in my hand. So much smaller than its swooping flight or call note. Black wings so black, yellow body so bright. It lay still in the palm. So lifeless. But a dead bird is a patient bird. It gave me the gift of long looking.
I tilt my eyes this way and that, trying to use what is left of my detail vision around my blind spots. It’s about as efficient as spinning around in front of a mirror and trying to catch a glimpse of the back of my head. But layering up the looking, I see the sharp delineation of its markings, its unruffled, fresh breeding-plumage, the thick finch beak, and, at last, the small body cradled in my palm, inches from my eye, one gold feather lying neatly on another, the air between each feather… I have perfected it in memory.
Having an eye for detail outlasts the actual tissue of the eye.
Dreams. Neuron fire. Once I dreamt of a fire, bright orange flames and shiny black embers. The fire shone the exact, gorgeous colors of an oriole in June, whistling his jazzy improvisational ballad high in the cottonwoods. The strange, dream-thing about this fire was that it was burning underwater, seen through clear green waves on a storm-washed beach.
In 2005 I spent a rainy June in a cabin along the Saint Croix River, scribbling poems. Around me were river, floodwater, rain, gray fox with her husky bark in the woods, bird song. By then my eyes had cracked enough that I listened to books on tape from the Library of Congress, on a special beige tape player with big red and green buttons. Nothing says special-ed like that beige plastic.
I sat in that cabin perched on the top of the river bluff, reading a book about water, that precious, non-renewable resource, as water dripped down from the heavens and the river gurgled past in flood stage. There were also clear nights. I remember being annoyed at the boater who had decided to leave a bright light shining in the darkness, a long smear of light on the river. After several hours, I realized it was the full moon, walking her reflection on the water.
The little cabin was dwarfed by a stand of cottonwoods. From those treetops, even in the rain, the orioles carried on their song smackdown, trading their jazzy tunes. They would have been invisible to anyone, high among the silver, shifting cottonwood leaves. Those songs poured down from the treetops and lit up that dream, orange fire and black-shining charcoal. My cracked retinas don’t see. But my neurons see those firebirds, flames running along my neurons.
An ear sees. As the decay progressed, I began to learn bird song. I invested in “birding by ear” CDs, the little platters spinning endlessly in my cheap boom box. At my most tuned up, I probably knew 150 songs.
I would have kept the old way of looking at a blackbird if I could–it takes a good sized hole in your life to fill all those hours listening to bird tapes.
But there is this to looking at a bird through its song: Your eye, even a good eye, only looks at one thing at a time, only focusses on one bird at a time, but the ear listens in all directions. Paddling across a Canadian lake, red and white pines tall around the shore, the bird song comes from every direction, every compass point, every point on the whole half dome of the world above the water and shore.
I will tell you this: I have never seen a winter wren, that tiny brown skulker of a bird. But its song, moving up through the trees, past the topmost branches, into the sky, its song is a sustained tingling, high and intense. It pulls me both into the woods and into the memory of the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute. A rising virtuoso exuberance. So much more than the mere glimpse of a bird.
Zoom lens. Take a train down to New Orleans. Admire the live oaks buckling the sidewalks. Walk along the Bayou Saint John to City Park. Admire the fat, live oaks festooned with Spanish moss, and wander around behind the art museum. Be grateful for the enormous water birds, big enough to see without binoculars: Egrets. Herons. Ibis. Be startled by a huge heron startled by your footsteps.
Head to the sculpture garden behind the art museum. There is a strange blob on the ear of a Deborah Butterfield horse—that thing she does so well, again and again, making the curves of a horse of driftwood or metal scraps, the bits of material framing empty space.
With my camera zoom I can see it as a bird perched on the head of the metal horse. On those pieces framing an empty space that somehow still says horse. Real bird on an invented horse. Real bird seen through layers of lenses—eyeglasses, the zoom lens of the camera’s eye.
Later I will download these photos onto my computer, and later still I will come across them. And I look at this bird (not really black—it is a mockingbird), and zoom the image to 400% to examine the blurry markings. I zoom back down to a lower magnification, admire the sassy stance of the bird and look and look and look.
What better place to be reminded of the power of magnification, both to bring this bird closer and to narrow my view?
Ten years after Katrina, of all the possible views of New Orleans, this one bird. When I am looking at the bird and the sculpture, I am not looking at the city, the buckled sidewalks, the refugees who were never able to return. The streets, those still empty and those with rebuilt houses painted more brightly than warblers or orioles, filled with newcomers. But I am just looking at this magnified image of a bird perched on a sculpture.
The greater the magnification, the smaller the field of view. To see a bird requires both perception and attention. I am not just talking about birds here.
Blackbird. The word appears in Wallace Stevens’ poem thirteen times, fourteen if you count “blackbirds.”
In braille it has no contractions, none of the braille shorthands that quicken reading and writing. There is no speeding through the reading or writing of “blackbird,” nine cells with dots. I look at it with my fingers, a particular pattern of bumps under my fingers, and all that I have written smokes up from this, this learning that this pattern under my fingers means “blackbird.” The word “blackbird” sets up a flutter of memory, flying among the branches of my neurons. Dots gather to form characters. Characters gather into words. Words become wing. Wing becomes bird. Bird becomes flock, a flying storm of hunger.
To say that I loved your essay is a vast understatement. This piece was the height of elegance and craft, Naomi. I have not stopped thinking about it, and I’m a big fan of your style! Congratulations on being a finalist and on such a fine piece of work!
Pamela, thanks! I’m thrilled to appear on Hippocampus, alongside such other amazing prose.