One of the main reasons K and I went on this slightly crazy journey to the southwest with our birds was to fly them in the vast, open spaces of New Mexico. Where we live in rural Illinois is vast and open, too, but it’s a privately owned vast-and-open, and a person can’t exactly wander into some random field to launch a couple of macaws, not that too many persons besides us are ever tempted to do this. New Mexico is checkerboarded with BLM land, a lot of which is open to the public for recreational use, and the terrain is perfect for our particular form of recreation: not many trees, good sight lines, starkly beautiful. To the desert we went.
After a quick stop at the Carlsbad BLM office to pick up a map (and to ask for suggestions on the best areas to fly birds, which the helpful BLM officer gave after only a brief pause of surprise), we headed out in search of the vastness. We found the suggested area fairly easily and pulled off the paved road into the parking area. I say “parking area” because there was a letter P on the map indicating that we could park there, but really this was no more than a slightly wider part of the dirt-and-gravel path. Because the path beyond there looked heavily cratered and the camper often has trouble on-road, much less off, we pulled over and stopped.
This particular patch of land was fairly close to town and featured jogging trails, so it wasn’t nearly as remote as we had originally wanted. And though it was a weekday and we clearly would have the place all to ourselves, there were immediate—and disturbing—signs that other recreational activities had occurred here in the recent past. Next to the truck was a huge pile of garbage, or at least what looked cursorily like it: a filthy rolled-up carpet, a used condom, empty soda bottles, torn packaging for cookies, candy, and chips. On second glance, there was an eerie sort of order to the pile, suggesting that it had not merely been dumped there and abandoned but stored there, on purpose. A little further up the path, K spotted the carcass of a coyote and the severed head of a deer amidst the scrubby bushes, along with a large blue water carboy. Again, the juxtaposition looked purposeful.
This is the point in the movie where everyone in the audience is screaming “GET THE HELL OUT OF THERE YOU FOOLS.” I was kind of screaming that in my head myself. We didn’t, though; we’d come many hundreds of miles for the privilege of wondering what we’d gotten ourselves into, so we kept ourselves into it.
K took Boston and Phoenix, whom he launched immediately; I got Fred. Fred and the boys have gotten along reasonably well, but there’s far more wariness than chumminess between them, and we’re a little concerned that they might never become the Three Amigos so much as forever remaining the two that fly and the one that doesn’t. But a funny thing happens when Boston and Phoenix take off: Fred notices, very keenly, and reacts. First he’ll start squawking, loudly, with an edge of panic, as he watches them go, and then he’ll lean forward into the wind and flap his wings as hard as he can. When he started doing this that morning, I stretched my arm out to give him more wingspan space and began to move. Fred flapped. I walked. We were flying together, sort of.
If Fred had never come to us, he would never have seen two other birds that look like him who could leap into the air and stay there, soaring, swooping, gliding, flying. Since he did, it’s hard not to believe that something awakened in him, some realization of what he should have been able to do but couldn’t, what he should be but wasn’t, not completely. I wonder if we did him any favors. This was not a child on a bicycle which I would have to let go of. His claws digging into my bare arm hurt, but he had to hold on to me and I had to stay with him. Though sometimes when the wind caught his wings just right, I could feel him lift just a little, it wasn’t enough.
My relationship with our birds has been difficult. They are high-maintenance pets, certainly, but all pets are if you do it right, and that wasn’t the difficult part. I was having a hard time figuring out what these three animals were supposed to mean to me, and I to them. I helped care for them, but K did most of the work there, and they knew it—every creature who wants to survive figures out very quickly where its next meal is likely to come from. I admired their beauty and chuckled at some of their antics (Fred has this trick he does where he picks up a stick in his claw, waves it up and down like a symphony conductor, and then pretends to scratch the back of his head with it), but everyone who saw them could do that. I was still anywhere from mildly to violently afraid of being bitten by them, mainly by Phoenix, who was the best at both flying and breaking things. I certainly did not wish them any harm, because it’s hard to witness any living creature being harmed regardless of what they might mean to you personally.
And the truth is I did not know what they meant to me personally. I had loved the dog; the birds were like tropical fish to me—beautiful and remote. I could admire them and see to their welfare, but so far there had been nothing personal in it, no deeper attachment. And sometimes, it’s true, I hated them. I hated them for fairly obvious reasons: they were noisy, they were high-maintenance, they took up much of our free time and disposable income, and we had precious little of either to spare. I also hated them for some less obvious reasons; hate is frequently more complicated than you think and often reveals quite a bit about the hater. In this case, I hated them because they were unpredictable. I don’t mean that they were likely to suddenly do something random; there were clearly patterns to their behavior, but I was unable to read these patterns. A lot of things are unpredictable, and I accept that—every true control freak must do so at some point—but accepting what you can’t control is quite different from actively inviting it into your home to be an everyday part of your life. I did not understand them, and I could not see anything recognizable in them at all.
Until now. When Fred stood on my arm trying to fly, there it was, understanding and recognition.
It wasn’t until a couple of days later, though, that I realized something else. We were in south Texas now; we had driven for several hours through an indescribably ugly area of oil rigs and suddenly all of that ended and we were in a beautiful land again, mountains and valleys and even some color despite its being mid-December. Spotting a rest stop off the road, we pulled over to once again stretch our legs and wings.
It was windy again, but much colder; a storm was coming in following a freakish heatwave, and Fred’s claws this time sank into a thick coatsleeve instead of my bare flesh. All three of the boys like windy days; Phoenix and Boston love to go zooming by with the wind at their backs, turning sharply and then floating gracefully back down to K’s arm. Even Fred seems more willing to faux-fly in the wind, but not this day. The wind had teeth, and instead of leaning into it and spreading his wings, Fred fluffed up and huddled close to me. While K worked with Boston and Phoenix, Fred and I wandered slowly around the rest stop, watching them. At that point I looked down at the big red bird sitting quietly on my arm, who looked back up at me, and I felt it: love.
There are wrong reasons to love something. Ideally, at its best, we love a thing not because of what it does for us but because of what it is and because what love can do for it. But let’s be honest, most love is at least a little, and often a lot, selfish. I fell in love with my husband because he is exactly what I want and need. Yes, I also fell in love with him because he’s a good person, but Jimmy Carter is a good person and I’m not sending him so much as a Christmas card. At that moment I knew I loved Fred because I was with him while he experienced one of the saddest emotions of all, one that doesn’t even have a proper name (at least not in English, though I’m sure the Germans have one). It’s not quite regret—you can’t regret something that could never happen in the first place—so much as impossible yearning. I loved him because he looked so calm and peaceful there on my arm, but also so vulnerable. And I loved that these were all things I recognized, potently, in myself.
At that point Phoenix suddenly swooped toward us, so I held up my other arm for him to land. This had happened a few times over the past week, Phoenix and Boston each deciding to come to me instead of K, and while it surprised the heck out of me, we took it as a sign that they were including me in their world, that they trusted me and maybe even liked me. I looked down at the two birds on my arms, one I loved, and the other … well … “I’m working on it,” I murmured to Phoenix. That seemed to appease him, so he turned and flew back toward K, up into the wind and then down, all radiant color yet still full of mystery, descending like an angel.