Monday, March 11, 2019

Free flying

K and I watched Free Solo last night, which, like everyone else who isn’t a rock climber, I had initially assumed was a Star Wars spinoff. Nope. Rather than spotlighting Leia’s daring rescue of Han from Jabba, this focuses on one man’s attempts to make the greatest number of people say “oh hell no.” The title refers to a rock-climb done by one person (the solo part—duh) without any ropes. That’s the free part, and after years of listening to Tom Petty I can’t help but follow the word “free” with “free falling.” Which is unfortunate, because without ropes, a fall of only a few dozen feet could potentially kill you. El Capitan, where this climber went, is 3200 feet. Yeah, I’m free

Spoiler alert, he doesn’t fall. There wouldn’t have been a movie otherwise, though even one of the cameramen turned his head and shut his eyes at a particularly ridiculous section of the climb. As an ultrarunner I’ve heard plenty of people ask, “Why? Why would you do that to yourself?” but to me ultrarunning seems infinitely safer and saner than going up the side of a rock cliff hanging on quite literally by your fingertips. The nearest the climber, Alex Honnold, gets to explaining why he wants to do this is when he says he seeks perfection. Rock climbing at this level is a dance, precisely choreographed, with no room at all for error. You have to be perfect, or you die.

As appealing as that sounds, I’ll pass. I’m glad there are people in this world who seek that level of perfection—they accomplish amazing things—but I’m definitely not one of them. My life has never been about being perfect. If anything, it’s frequently about the opposite: messing perfectly fine things up, often deliberately, just to try something new. I sometimes think there is way too much emphasis on getting things right, making things perfect—or at least making things look perfect. Obviously nobody wants to screw up their entire life. Luckily, my life has not been a free-solo climb. I’ve run far more bad races than great ones. Every draft of everything I’ve ever written was worse than the finished product. And I didn’t meet Mr. Right until I was 45 years old. I’ve gotten things wrong in life far more than I’ve been right, and I too am still here.

And the sweetness of getting it right later on in life, when you didn’t think it might ever happen, is I daresay as satisfying as anything you get right the first time. I didn’t start running until I was 37 years old, but then if you read this blog, you probably know that story already. Here’s one you don’t know, and it’s a doozy. Fred, our adopted green-wing macaw, is 27 years old. His flight feathers had been clipped when he was young, a common practice and one considered practical for most bird owners. The flight feathers eventually grow back, but they’re absent during the critical time when birds fledge, so Fred simply never learned to fly. That was OK; he still had a good life with caring people. When we got him, he had spent his entire life indoors and had probably never even seen a bird fly. And then he saw Boston and Phoenix. Something would seize him whenever they took off: he’d start squawking, anxiously, and flapping his wings in a frenzy. It was like something awakened in him, seeing creatures who looked like him doing something he didn’t realize until right then he might have been capable of doing. Except that he wasn’t capable of doing it. He could imitate flight, but that was all. K didn’t think it likely he ever would fly.

Yesterday, Fred flew.

It was windy, which actually tends to make flight easier for our boys, since they can ease into their landings by simply floating down to K’s arm against the breeze. Fred, on an outdoor perch, spread his wings and flapped frenetically as usual. And then a gust of wind hit him and next thing he knew, he was airborne. Gliding isn’t flying, of course, but rather than simply being carried by the wind, Fred did what he’d tried to do in imitating Boston and Phoenix, and he flew. It was wobbly, and he landed unceremoniously on the ground after about a hundred yards, but it was flight.

Back in the aviary that evening, Fred still seemed a little surprised at what had happened. But it happened. Unlike a free-solo rock climb, in much of life we don’t need to be perfect, just persistent. Free-falling can become flying after all.

Photo credit: Laura Anne Welle

Sunday, March 3, 2019

The big reveal

This year March came in like a lion disguised as a cuddly kitten, luring you into thinking “how sweet!” and getting all comfy-cozy. Nope. Today the lion is back out. The sunshine, mild temperatures, and calm winds of Friday are a faint memory becoming ever fainter with every miserable snowflake. Stupid lion.

Speaking of animals, ours have had a tough winter. The polar vortex cold spell we had back in January necessitated an alteration in living arrangements. Chickens and goats had to be moved into an enclosed space with heaters and heated water sources, as well as kept separate from each other since the goats’ favorite thing to eat in all the world happens to be chicken food. Everyone survived frostbite-free, but no one was happy with the arrangement. The chickens, used to having an enormous space for their free-range pleasure, now seemed perplexed by the fencing around them and seemed to keep thinking a door was almost certainly going to open any minute for them. The goats meanwhile stood on the other side of their partition staring forlornly at their food. It wasn’t just for the chickens’ sake that we kept things this way; chicken food would not agree with goat tummies, no matter how much they craved it. And so the forlorn staring, like lactose-intolerant children at a birthday party with an ice cream cake.

But winter is the worst of all for our macaws. Even though they have a large habitat that’s a good 20 times larger than even the biggest cage you’ve ever seen a parrot in, it just isn’t enough. They’re used to having access to all of outdoors on a regular basis, after all. With arctic wind chills and limited daylight hours, outdoors was not an option for many weeks. Nobody felt this lack more keenly than Phoenix. While all three of them were clearly going a bit stir crazy during the worst of it, Phoenix missed being outside most of all. He wanted to fly again, and he couldn’t, and it reminded me of every moment in my running life when I was injured or sick or the weather sucked and I couldn’t go hit the trails.  

The thing is, even after spending nearly four years with them, I still find our birds difficult to read. Stir-crazy in a macaw is not always obvious. Nothing in a macaw is always obvious. They never smile, they never scowl, and the things they say—the things we say that they’ve picked up—are often used differently from their original intent. When Boston was learning to fly, he spent so much time stuck in trees with us down below calling “Boston! Boston!” that the boys have come to understand his name to mean “Come back here!” and will yell it at us if we’re clearly heading to the car. So when I say Phoenix reminded me of me, antsy for winter to be over with so we could be free again, I’m mostly projecting. The truth is much of the time I have no idea what’s going on in his crimson feathered head.

Despite the nastiness of this winter and its fraying effect on all our nerves, for a while Phoenix and I were getting along magnificently. If I held up one of his favorite treats, he’d fluff up his feathers endearingly and reach over with almost exaggerated gentleness to pluck the nugget from my fingers—as if to emphasize that he meant me no harm. He would follow me around the macaw room as I filled foragers and scooped poop, not in a scary, stalkerish way but more simply out of a need for companionship. Or at least that’s how it seemed. Or at least that’s how I wanted it to seem. In the back of my mind, though, I still wasn’t sure, because after weeks and weeks being all sweet and companiony, Phoenix flew to me one afternoon, perched on my arm, accepted and consumed the treat I offered him, and then bent his head and bit my forearm. Then he flew to a perch some distance from me and we stared at each other.

“Why?” I asked him, neither expecting nor getting an answer. Later I asked the same question of K, who had no answer for me. What had I done wrong? Possibly nothing. Phoenix had not seemed angry or scared. It was possible he had been simply trying to get a better stance given that the heavy winter jacket I wore was slippery. If I’d wanted to be charitable, that’s what I’d say. But I did not want to be charitable. I was disappointed. I had thought we were finally becoming buddies—and now this. When I got over my dismay, what it began to seem like more than anything else was curiosity: he wanted to see what my reaction would be.

Macaw brains are complex; they are capable of a great deal of, well, everything—emotions, puzzling-solving, learning, memory. And curiosity is certainly a hallmark of a developed creature. Nobody has to be curious, and indeed a lot of the activities one does to sate one’s curiosity aren’t always good for much else. Pet macaws that are given their food in big dishes are missing one of their wild counterparts’ major activities—foraging—and so often become destructive of their habitats and their own selves. They pick their chest feathers, break their toys, scream. They need to do something, and that something has to be more than just looking pretty and saying amusing things so their people can post videos of them.

After that incident, I remained wary of Phoenix for several days. Then March began to purr. On the first of the month, K got off work an hour early and let our boys outside. The big field in front of our house has been set up with various standing perches with a footworn path between them, which we called Macaw Mini-golf. K would carry Phoenix out to the field, let him go, and walk down the path to a perch. Phoenix would circle the field and return to K, who would continue this way to the next perch until they’d completed the circuit. This didn’t always happen, but today Phoenix eagerly went from perch to perch all the way through to a full round. His joy was palpable, and irresistible. Back in the aviary, I held up a treat. He fluffed up his head feathers adorably and reached slowly forward with his beak. So slowly, like a flower reaching for sunlight, his beak brushing my fingers like a petal.

Chances are these birds will almost certainly outlive K and me, yet I imagine I’ll never fully understand them even with the rest of my life to try. That’s not a bad thing, nor a good thing for that matter, because it’s not a simple thing to live so closely with another creature. The title of this post refers to the “cover reveal,” which is what publishers term it when a soon-to-be-published book gets its cover designed. My new book, due out in June, does indeed have a cover, one that features Phoenix himself front and center. But the big reveal is also about the book’s title: Bird People. It has been a revelation to me that I would ever call myself a “bird person,” given how perpetually challenging, frustrating, and literally bruising it is to deal with our boys. It is, however, accurate. Birds and people, as I’ve discovered, share a great deal, including curiosity, complexity—and yes, companionship.