“Tell me a story,” my dad would say, walking down the path. It could be fall, or spring, winter, or summer – we walked all over the place, at any time, given any opportunity.
“But what should it be about?” I was overwhelmed with possibility – I needed my options narrowed.
“Tell me about the chipmunk,” he said. “What was his name again?”
“Randy,” I answered. “He was being chased by a cat.”
When I was still small enough, I’d hang off my dad’s back in a child carrier. He passed me twigs and pine needles to use as scissors and combs on his hair. But then I grew out of the carrier, and his hairstyling appointments had to be cancelled. My dad made me tell him stories instead.
What do I remember? The smell of the damp, rotting earth, the way the afternoon light curved across the stones. I dug my nails into rotting acorns so I could rub my fingers on their soft, inner shell and break apart the bright white of the nut inside. I opened milkweed husks to rub the silk between my fingers. I popped wild grapes into my mouth, sour exploding upon my tongue. My cheeks turned purple from spitting out the seeds. We walked all over the escarpment, up and down its ridges and alongside its creeks. When we got to the top, we could see the lake, stretching across the horizon like an answer.
I remember those days in a blur, mainly through the haze of family videos, overexposed to the brightness of the sun.
My dad remembers me telling the story about Randy. He had to prompt my imagination along sometimes – asking where did he live, so I constructed a description of a hollow, a perfect home for a chipmunk. We were walking up a hill, I was breathlessly explaining how Randy was being chased by a cat. At the very top of the hill was a train track, but I hadn’t seen it yet.
“He and his friends dug a hole behind a rock, but the cat was coming. They were too far away from their home and, and….” I was struggling for words, I’d lost the line of my story, and then I saw it! The metal curve of the rails of a train track, dividing the forest from the hill. “And there was a train track between the chipmunks and the cat! A train was coming, and the cat couldn’t cross in time. They were safe.”
I read a lot of stories about animals. There was Beatrix Potter, of course, and Rascal (a story about a boy’s pet raccoon), Mrs. Quimby and the Rats of Nim, and an entire series on wolves and crows who formed some sort of symbiotic relationship. When I got a bit older, I decided I would write a story for every animal that existed. I started with one on chickadees, then moved on to a farm cat, a giraffe, a koala, meerkats, city rats, and owls before the immensity of my task hit me: I shoved my stories into an old binder and spent my summer un-damming the creeks in my neighbourhood, thinking I’d probably never write again. The other kids in my neighbourhood spent their mornings building dams; I spent my afternoons pulling them apart. I scooped wads of leaves out and removed all the sticks and twigs. The dams made the creek silent and stagnant. They clogged it up with so many leaves and sticks that any movement remaining was imperceptible. But with the dams removed, the creek could flow faster, wider – it danced and dazzled upon the silty clay banks. The next morning, the creek would be blocked again; I could have done this forever.
Another time, I decided to go through the dictionary and make anagrams out of every word I found. For example, “alpaca” would be rewritten into “cap”, “lap”, “Alp”, and so on until I ran out of options. I made it five words into A and gave up. When I was ten, I thought everyone might die in a global catastrophe, leaving no record of life behind. I started journaling, hoping that society would revive post-apocalypse, miraculously discover my journals, and breathlessly read them in the archives one day.
When COVID hit, I thought I was going home for a month. Instead, I stayed a year and a half. I packed up everything I owned and moved home to Burlington, back to the street where I’d spent my entire life before I moved away to university. One of my professors grew up in Britain, and she’ll often say how the houses there were built to last, that they look as though they’ve grown out of the land. My neighbourhood was built in the sixties. The land is crushed, bulldozed, run over to fit the squares of the suburbs. It is not given time to grow alongside the houses – before long, new people move in, change the landscaping, tear out the trees, add severe grey brick and install bright lights upon every corner. These houses overtake space; they do not take root and settle into the landscape, but seize your attention, applauding their distinction. They dictate the land’s appearance and highlight its degradation, only foretelling how briefly they’ll stay, how deeply they’ll harm. Tired of the houses, I went on walks to be around trees, and be alone by them. This is hard in the suburbs: there was a small woodlot a block over, but since all the ash trees have died, the canopy has thinned out. Emerald Ash Borers have accomplished this, methodically devouring the ash trees, tunnelling through their vascular systems, interrupting the vital flow of water, sugars, and nutrients. In their wake, they leave a network of grooves, looping and dividing the trunk they inhabit. Although these insects can only travel a few kilometres on their own, their preference for firewood, wood chips, and lumber has allowed them to hitch rides across the eastern side North America. The woodlot closest to my house was primarily made up of ash trees – without the restraint of their shade, wild grape and jewelweed overtook the forest’s understory, leaving the canopy empty.
I had only a very vague sense of self during that time – by walking, I got my blood moving and left my head for a while. Behind one of the schools is a forest, packed between the soccer fields and the 407. It’s full of maples and oaks, giving it an edge against the onslaught of ash borers. The only other people who go there are teenagers, usually at night. But in the day, I could go there and be alone. On the edge closest to the 407, there’s a tall berm. I could sit up there and watch the cars flash across the highway on one side, and on the other, I’d overlook the forest – an escape from the monotony of the suburbs. Squirrels dashed about; I could see the branches shiver in their wake. The shadows shifted across the forest floor; the sun seeped into my skin. I grew heavy in its warmth – it held me firmly to the earth.
The sky was like a polished stone, evenly grey. The cracks of the sidewalks were slowly filling with snow. I’d been on Zoom all day, switching from one class to the next while I sat in the same spot, crouched over my desk. My eyes felt crossed, my head dizzyingly sore. I forgot what it was like to have a body: to have limbs, to feel the cold numb my cheeks.
I went to the forest. The path was soft, mud hugging my boots. Nothing moved: every twig gently cracked the sky into shards, smooth as slate.
The heaviness within me only thickened as I walked home. But I had essays to write, readings to finish – I couldn’t stay outside forever. So instead, I watched the trees empty their leaves outside of my window. Each day, the light shifted – the days shortening. Yet each one felt long, unendurable, broken only by the depth of night.
Evening is for lamp light thickening
across the floorboards, laughter blurring
into motion. Across the street,
the sky is turning pink. Twilight, like a final
breath, sharpens all the light. The curtained
windows, softly yellow, hug into the dim. Gently,
the curl of newborn buds smudge and haze
my burning eyes. Forgiveness tightens up
my longing. I hear
a voice, bouncing off the roofs so
I wait, but the minutes carry nothing, and the
warmth wraps itself up and
curls deep within its walls. I close the curtain
against an ocean of stars. Onset of amnesia,
filtered night, heavy sleep.
Every evening, I stayed up late to feel something again. I laid across the kitchen floor to look at the stars through the skylights. As I watched the moonlight cross the tiles, I felt like I’d sunk through an ocean of dark. Then I’d pad around, sit on the counters, make myself a grilled cheese. The intimacy of those hours freed me, loosening the nagging wonder of how long it would take before I could recognize myself again.
The summer of 2020 – the first year I’d gone back to Burlington – was marked by loosening restrictions. It was a luxury to start walking on the Bruce Trail again. I ate wild grapes again; I got swarmed by mosquitos. I stained my hands from peeling open walnuts and broke my nails trying to crack open acorn shells. Retracing those paths was strange, murky business. I kept running back into the memory of who I was when I’d walked there as a teenager – how the air bubbles trapped within the ice on Fisher’s Pond looked exactly like they had on the winter I crossed the ice, eight years ago. Of course, there had been change, but it was slight. There is a sense of eternity in these places – the slow growth of plants is easy to miss, the careful shift of seasons is entirely expected – I have no doubt that this growth will roll on forever.
Those days are a year and half away, I live in a different place, I’m surrounded by a new season. I’ve come to know myself, as the trees empty their branches, letting go of everything they don’t need. We had our first snow. My new neighbourhood doesn’t have sidewalks, but the sleet filled the cracks in the road instead. And there’s a lightness now: I can walk around without dreading my return.
I could go home to Burlington today, but I won’t.
I’ve lost track of time again, it could be four-thirty in the afternoon, or eleven thirty at night. The house shifts and groans as the furnace fires up. Every now and then the toilet whines from a leaky valve. Somewhere downstairs, I can hear my housemates laughing, easing the stillness of the night.
Now, when I drive back to Burlington, something like a love for the place flickers inside. As if the year I spent wishing I could get away, get out, go anywhere else forged an unconscious intimacy here, in spite of the suburbs and squared-off houses. What happened?
I don’t live there anymore. The pandemic has eased – for now, at least. Grief isn’t so sharp, my seclusion not so fierce. The summer of ’21 softened me, pounding apart the cement of my numbness. In June – while I was still at home – I stalked the fireflies. I squinted at the shadows, impatient, and then the first one would flicker, so slight it seemed like a trick from my eyes. But then an entire host would get to work, their light unspooling throughout the dim. At times a slow blink, and then a burst of flashes, a ricochet of sparks. They were drunk on the pitch of their own solar system – each a sun unto themselves. In the minutes I watched, the position of things corrected, my thoughts dimmed, more voiceless by the second. July, and I swam out in Hope Bay. I tried to see underwater, but all was a blur of green, and a wave hit me, broadside, pulling me back down, so deep I lost my footing and gulped water like air. Late August, and I went boating on Lake Ontario with my friends, through Hamilton Harbour, out and across the water along Burlington Beach. It was warm, humid; the water was as dark as the night. The moon was orange and swollen, warped across the lapping water. Jumping in felt like I turned upside down and fell straight into the sky. The waves were small, dark on dark on dark, swallowing my limbs. On one side, the skyway shredded a line of lights across the horizon – the opposite side was ultramarine, softness blurring everything I couldn’t see. I wrote a letter to the lake in my journal: You’ve closed upon my lungs, making me feel simultaneously sunken and afloat. I’ve wrapped my life around your perimeters, I make pilgrimages to your centre and emerge empty, dazed and lost.
My year in Burlington was a timeless maze. Once I came home, there was no telling where the darkness began and how long before it would break. I don’t have to run away from the walls that trapped my hours anymore. I’ve never known a place so well, nor resented one so much. It held all the wasted days: the moonlit meals, the sleepless nights and slept-in mornings –each of these formed me. Even those walks still map my mind.
If I picture that home, I picture it in winter. If I were to step outside, I wouldn’t have to think twice before turning right. Then left. Another right, and I’m in the woodlot. Each turn is a muscle, guiding me without command. I cut through the woodlot, cross the north end of the neighbourhood, and enter the forest. There’s a hole in the fence: I duck through it, walk along the forest’s length, and loop back home.
That was the route I liked best, a haphazard, lopsided rectangle, but it was more than just an escape. If I picture myself when I feel most like me, I’m outside, or writing, or talking with a friend. And although the activity may change, the feeling is always the same. I’m unconscious of everything but what is before me – the world has split open, pouring out its brilliance, and I’m enraptured by its story.
So I’ve trudged along, trying to keep warm. I have gone outside to phone my friends or stretch my legs. I’ve walked along, wondering what I’ll eat when I get home, and an old, tired tree along the path has stopped me in my tracks and crashed into my thoughts. Everything has gone still. All the mess of thoughts (what I have to do when I get home and who I have to email) has been flushed down the drain.
At the Sycamore
love doesn’t need to be told.
to say that I’m leaving it
to sink within the leather of my
car seats, from where we
burned hours faster than gas.
It’s enough to say that there’s
a piece in this place that will
always be empty:
the sidewalks on your street
the slopes of the escarpment
the edge of the water –
the paradise we’ve never known,
where all the cormorants sit.
When salmon migrate from their spawning grounds to the ocean, they create a “scent bank” to help them find their way home when they make the trip back. Years later, on their migration back to their spawning grounds, they’ll recognize a smell they met on their last migration and know whether they should follow it or not. This bank works like photographic memory does for humans. It propels them forward, against the current, back to their freshwater creeks.
This familiarity is unfailingly generous to me! Just as salmon have scent banks – so I have a bank of memories, layering the places I’ve lived. Randy Woodley, an Indigenous writer, said that “the universe is a system of sacred circles, all related to one another. All needing each other. We are never alone”.
I can’t separate my present place from my body of words – they are inseparable, connected and growing like layers in a tree ring. Like circles, rippling when a stone breaks the water’s surface.
Words give knowledge, and knowledge acts like a new dimension in a landscape. Yet the unknown hovers at the edge of everything, pulling you deeper.
When school ended last spring – the second spring of the pandemic – I began my job as an environmental educator. I developed lesson plans throughout May and June, and run camp programs in July and August. It got me into the practice of identification: forcing me to slow down and pay attention to the life around. Frankly, it’s exhausting. I thought I’d get the basics down in a few weeks, but the immensity of this task threw that plan apart. Did you know that there are over 2400 species of praying mantises? How on earth can anyone keep track of such exhausting variety?
Everything must be sorted into families and split apart from look-alikes. I wandered around the forest with field guides, in a daze, feeling as though I was re-entering the world without a single word for the things I’ve walked past my whole life. I didn’t know where to start – I spent one week on trees, another on visual bird identification, a third on audial identification. In the midst of that, I’d take breaks to look at insects and wildflowers. I downloaded apps that could identify flowers with my phone camera, and then I discovered they gave different answers from my field guides. Back to birds, only to get headaches from the haze of calls that surrounded me. I lost focus; I was swamped.
By this time, camp had begun, and I was attempting to teach kids what I’d been learning. They demanded – “what’s this?” to any passing insect – “what’s the difference between a salamander and a newt? Does Lyme disease start in the tick or the deer? How did the bacteria first grow? What is this flower? Why does it grow here?”
There’s a whole language for life out there – dizzying in its complexity. I thought I could memorize things in the same way I’ve crammed for university courses, but that is short-term learning. This is different. Time tested my knowledge, I forgot and had to re-learn and revisit, over and over again. I was disappointed and discouraged, but I am learning, ever so slowly.
Now that 2021 is nearly over, silence fills this place when I step outside. There aren’t any bird calls to catch me off guard or wildflowers to hunt for. The action has gone inward – it has to be hunted down.
This past week, I took my class of seven-year-olds out to a forest at the far north end of the property, a place they’ve never seen before. They were ecstatic. They poked puffballs; they climbed every tree they could. They found hollow tree trunks and squeezed inside. In the midst of all this adventure, their questions were calmed – for now, at least. I was delighted; I hardly had to entertain them at all. At the forest we normally visit, they have their landmarks: the heart-shaped stump, the stream, the rocky hill where all the beech trees grow. They know where to walk and what to look for. But move them to a forest half a kilometre away, and they became explorers, busy making paths and finding trolls in the mossy boulders. Give it a week – and the boulders will join a host of new landmarks, mapping up their own visual dictionary.
I can sit in a field and learn the stories that are built from each species, starting at a large level as I look at how they work together as a community, and then zooming in to see how these species act as individuals. But the word “individual” just doesn’t fit. The farther I look at a species and the life that supports it, the bigger their stories grow. It’s mesmerizing: it reminds me of looking through a microscope. The further you zoom in, the more you see. I taught kids how the health of our trees affects the health of our streams, which then impacts the fish, plants, nutrients, and micro-invertebrates within the water, each a story growing into another one. We have layers of knowing, layers of building and communicating with the world around us. When I started university, I vowed to learn enough that I’d be able to step inside a forest and know everything that’s going on. But I was mistaken. I got hung up on learning everything when it’s clear I’ll never know it all. There’s humility here – it’s enough to know one thing, and to know it well.
I complained to a birder friend that the diversity is overwhelming. He told me that he learns birds in the same way you get to know a friend.
“You recognize the people you know by the way they walk, the way they move and the way they sound,” he said. “It’s the same with birds. After a while, you’ll pick out a call from the chorus, just like you know the sound of your friend’s voice.”
That cleared up the headaches. In the face of so many stories, perfection is a pipe dream. There’s comfort here, a freedom to immerse yourself in something so immeasurably large, so impossibly vast.
This – my backyard, my city, the lake – is enough to know. I don’t need to look further to be amazed. Outside my door breathes an entire world. No matter how many layers I peel back, there will always be more to see, more to be struck by. I know the trees in my backyard because I grew up climbing the same species in Burlington. The familiarity between the forest at work, the Bruce Trail, and my home in Hamilton have never made these places mundane or boring. The trees and the birdcalls I know are landmarks, drawing me forward. They give me the tools to differentiate the complexity between the spaces I inhabit. They are the teachers that I have known since I was born, and my future is propelled by their mystery. Each year, each day, every second is a layer of wonder, unwinding stories we miss, because they are told in silence. Their language exists outside of the bounds of the culture I’ve grown from and the communication I know. Can I trust myself to listen, and hear them?
You stand, all ash and empty
heart, your scars a violence to my eyes.
I grow upon your feet, a persistent, useless
presence, like a dying man denying death –
I’m a witness to your wounds.
There’s smashed glass against
your wood, fires lit within
your roots the faces I’ll never find
burned out all the weight within your trunk. And I cry,
for your gravity to be gained, for your strength to
grow green within the burns, to crush the hands
that gouged your heart.
Yet benign, you do not sway, your
silence holds a love I cannot learn –
in strength, you gather height,
and grow into the light.
And in the spring, I’ll come to hear your
voice, leaning in the wind, your words
a whisper on the leaves. Your scars
the ridges for my spine, firmer than
the ground from which we’ve grown.
Late fall. I walked through the forest two days ago, pushing through the dense cedars and out into the beech trees, where open shafts of light fell everywhere. I was exposed, uncovered. Open to the wide eye of the sky.
I walked over to the stream – it had flooded everywhere. There were stagnant pools extending past the stream, what had used to be dips in the forest floor were beds of water. Everything’s going dormant, shutting down, moving inward. I feel caught on the outside of things; my body hasn’t even registered the time of year yet.
I’ve grown up believing that you start each day at a deficit – you wake up and must check off whatever’s on your list in order to fulfill the day’s quota. You start at zero and have to complete your list in order to achieve a “ten”. Time is a gift – it can’t be wasted. A friend told me that he started to think about his days from the opposite angle, that before he gets anything done, he tries to think of it as a ten, sufficient on its own. Anything he does throughout that day is simply a bonus to his sense of productivity.
I don’t really know how to make sense of time. I’ve been trapped on my couch for the past while, writing a paper. I lost all sense of reality, morphed into a lump of sweatpants and hoodies. All I was aware of was my research and my words and the paragraph ahead of me. No one was home for this stretch of time – I didn’t talk to anyone for 48 hours and fell to whispering my sentences out loud, trying to string them into fifteen pages worth of meaning. When I finished the last paragraph, the lights came on again. I thought, it’s been three days of this. I went on a walk, came back, still dazed. I felt like I’d lived through a fever dream, exclusively through the word processor on my laptop.
Trees sense time; they mark it on their own bodies, year after year. They grow so fast, gain such gravity. And yet they are stationary, moving only to the wind, nurturing the soil around their roots. In that stillness, in that being, creation is unfolding. Water is being pulled from the roots to the branches at a staggering rate, transporting nutrients, opening leaves towards the light.
And now, in the fall, they’ve let go of their leaves, their accomplishments.
This past Wednesday, when my class of kids was out in the forest, one of them said, “There’s so much light in the woods now! What are we going to do with it all?”.
Fall so slow. I walk into the forest – who knows how long it’s been. Something about the light is warped – there’s gaps the leaves used to fill. Wild grapes, dark persimmon. I’m learning to resettle, ever so slowly. I walk through the horizontal arms of October haze, burnt leaves cushioning my feet. My tired body leans into the climb, pain hiking up my legs. In an answer, the tired trees whine into the wind. I’ve been hungry, I’ve been lonely; I’ve buried my own heart and watched it turn to wood. October is unanswered forgiveness, burning up my skin. Sour apple, stained fingers. On the path is a bird’s shredded wing, skull intact, claw off to the side. Smell of rot and fresh blood, high in the grass. Vultures scale the wind, a thousand breaths away. I’m reaching for what’s left – remembrance fading. I’ve lost all the green I grew in the spring, and any growth that’s left has begun to look like death. Late sun, arcing through the leaves. Overturn, overgrow, sink into this earth and let the soil do the rest.
Fall turns into winter, losing light by the hour. The earth shifts, the light grows once more, lengthening the days even while the cold lasts. As the ground thaws, everything emerges – salamanders from their burrows, birds from their eggs, plants from their seeds. While winter’s life is subtle, summer hides nothing; demanding your attention in every moment.
Summer is for the senses. You emerge from the door, blinking in a haze of heat. There’s work to do, extravagance to prune. A garden to handle. The first lettuce leaves are a gift, unbearably slow in arriving. Then the tomato vines collapse, and they must be re-staked. And then there’s a twist in July, and the balance tips. A gratuitous pouring forth, seeds transformed into tables of food. I spend my time eating tomatoes, one after the other, as our counter is gradually overtaken by bowlful after bowlful. One winter, we threw squash seeds into the compost, and by August, the garden was bursting with butternuts. And where does this all come from? How are a handful of seeds transformed into such abundance? How does urban soil, patched with faulty sunlight and crammed alongside a fence, give us this? It isn’t a balanced equation. The returns overwhelm the input. I fill my composter blindly, all year around. In the winter, it steams, constructing life out of death, closing the loop between what I take in and the things I cast out.
There’s no going back to early nights now. These full, starlit evenings crane my neck in uncomfortable angles, they force me flat on picnic tables, only to get drenched in dew. But the meteor showers are unrolling: star after star shreds the sky. I pull out star maps to twist my tongue over names like Tarazed, Altair, Arcturus. I forget about my life down here and get sucked into something deeper, a dimension unforgivably quiet for its largeness. How is it that I close my blinds to such a world every night? How is it that I can escape the city’s deafening light pollution in such a short drive to the country? My friends and I fled the city one night to sleep outside and watch the meteor showers. We warmed bricks in the coals of our fire and cradled them in our sleeping bags, watching the sky until the sunrise washed away the stars, minute by minute.
Summer’s weather is loud, its humidity pervasive. I grew up without air conditioning. The heat dragged us to the water – to our friends’ pools, to the lake. My parents insisted on embracing the heat through frequent hikes; I balked unless there was a stream to crash into.
This is what I love about camping. Your senses get swamped on all fronts – there’s no hiding: it is cold, then wet, now hot. You light fires and burn your fingers. You go on hikes and swim in freezing water. You sweat more than you ever thought you could. You smell damp moss, rotting bark; you gorge yourself on crappy food. Every time, your heart is broken by a loon call, a wolf howl, the sound of the wind in the hemlocks.
Summer demands to be seen, to be felt. I spent hours and hours outside, in gardens or in the woods, teaching kids how to observe and name the things they love. Each day I’d come home, caked in sweat and mud and mosquito bites.
I chased a Green Darner for a whole week in August. Darners are fierce hunters, part of the biggest family of dragonflies in Ontario. I saw my first one when I was in a field with kids, trying to teach them how to catch insects. The darner whizzed past, and I took after it, running as fast as I could. It zipped high above me, a thin cross against the sky. It hung around long enough for me to exhaust myself chasing it, and then vanished. A week later, I was walking along the path to the same field. I heard the rattle of its wings as it landed in the goldenrod two feet away from me. I took a step, and it took off and landed a little further. I had an insect net with me – I was prepared, I knew I could actually get it this time. I couldn’t let it go.
“You’ve got one step,” my co-worker told me, “and it’ll take off again.”
I blinked – I couldn’t see it anymore. The goldenrod was a haze of yellow and green – how was I supposed to find a dragonfly made of the exact same colours? I took a step, and it burst towards the tree line. There was no point in chasing it anymore. We headed back into the field – it was another day for catching insects, so I swept my net along the edges, dying to see the darner again. The campers I was with were hoping to catch a praying mantis. Every two minutes, they’d ask me where to find one, and every time, I’d have to say, You’re looking in the right spots, it’ll be in the long grass. Just be patient. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the darner flash by, so high above me, and my heart started pounding, adrenaline narrowed. Before I even had the time to chase it, it dropped, landing on the wild carrot next to me, wings wide open, too easy to be real. I swung my net, and got it.
“You caught it!” yelled my campers, and our enthusiasm broke over each other like a wave. I rested the net, caught it between its wings in my left hand. Its legs gripped my right fingers, its eyes greenish domes. It was so big, so strong. I was giddy, my hands were shaking, but time had slowed and thickened, sharpening every second I held it.
I let the darner open its wings and it rested on my palm for how long? I couldn’t tell you. It felt like ten minutes, but it was probably three. There was a flick of motion, and it was gone. The kids got back to their own insect hunting, and scattered over the field with their nets flying like wisps of cloud behind them. I stayed very still. This gladness was growing inside – I was blinking, wrung out, dazed in the aftermath. I heard a distant cheer, and looked over to see the kids marching towards me, their faces lit up.
“We got a praying mantis!”
I’m learning to be here, to show up for the small moments as well as the darner-catching moments. It requires so little, after all. I put my scraps in the compost, and seeds in the garden. I turn around, and a dragonfly sits beside me. I step outside, go to the woods, lift a rock, and find a salamander. I did not ask for this. I barely have the words to name such generosity, one that does not even ask to be seen. But as you sit and look and wait, the inevitable naming of things begins. Do you feel it? The names of species emerge as you learn them; as you watch, their role in the cycle of things becomes known, thereby asking – or answering? – the understanding of your own belonging. There’s a language here, filling your heart, pumping out wonder.
One and a half years into the pandemic, and I decided to start bird banding. It’s early September – the fall migration is just getting started.
I get up early so we can meet at sunrise. A man named Rick runs the place. He spent the past summer counting seabirds around the Arctic. He’s been to Kazakhstan to monitor raptors, has run educational programs in Kenya, and has banded during every migration season since the seventies. The other banders are two high school students named Liam and Aliyah. Together, they know more about birds than any identification guide I’ve encountered.
Silence unspools around us as we wait for birds to fly into the nets, hidden within the trees behind our station. Sunlight waxes across the table, dragonflies whip across the field. Ants wind up the stems of the Jerusalem Artichoke towards the flower heads, heavy with seed.
The goldenrod flush against the asters. Annual Fleabane snagged in between. Rick’s voice threaded through the drone of cicadas.
Liam, one of the high schoolers, is saying, “I love being around birders, they’re so much nicer than other people! And I learn so much here, so much more than in school!”
“After all,” Rick says, “why wouldn’t you come out here? We only have about twenty migrations left.”
“Exactly!” Liam nearly yells. I’m startled by his enthusiasm – “I have to be here!”
We band an American Redstart, a Yellow-Bellied Flycatcher. We’re hoping for Cedar Waxwings, but none of them show up. Three catbirds fly in. A Bluejay, two Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. One of them escapes, and I untangle the other as it lunges at my fingers, squawking. A Wilson’s Warbler, Northern Parula, a Blue Jay and two chickadees. Liam goes crazy when he discovers what he thought was a Hooded Warbler is only a Blackburnian Warbler. We count up the tallies: we’ve banded 27 birds in one morning.
My finger is bleeding from where the grosbeak stabbed me. I think again of what Liam said, I have to be here, how Rick’s – we have about twenty migrations left – only seemed to ignite his excitement further. What kind of bravery is this? There may be twenty migrations left, there might be five, there might be a hundred. All we know is that there is a vast and unprecedented uncertainty ahead of us. In the face of this unknown, is my love for these creatures as strong, as fierce?
“50 American Robins,” Liam is reciting his bird counts to Rick. “One Broad-winged Hawk, three Turkey Vultures. one Pileated Woodpecker …”
The bird banding station is located close to the Bruce Trail. By midday, most of the migratory bird activity has died down. We pack up, cross the bridge over Grindstone Creek.
A goldfinch darts and drops, catching itself and flying up, up, up, into the trees. These birds of the air, so freely tethered to the sky.
“The sound of the water is so nice,” Aliyah says. She’s been quiet all morning, but as she watches the sunlight pour over the creek, she whistles at the robins lurking along the shoreline.
We cross through the gate and step back onto the Bruce Trail, twelve kilometres from my home in Burlington, twenty kilometres from where I live in Hamilton. I wish I could count how many times I’ve walked along this path, never knowing that the bird banding station was set up across the creek. A year and a half ago, I returned to the place I knew best, and here I’ve been formed, I’ve been surprised, I’ve been granted belonging. The pandemic pushed me indoors, where I grew dormant like an animal hibernating throughout the winter, but the forest was there to pull me out, teach me the names of the life encircling my home. These names will last longer than I; they are words unraveling an echo for every particle of this place.
I have a tangle of questions – how long will this life exist? Will we ever appreciate it enough? Will the history of this time be marked by our failure to care? – but time hasn’t unwrapped the knots. Your kingdom come into these trees, past the gate where I feel it in the grass. In the Pileated Woodpecker we saw, in the Hooded Warbler we never saw. Your kingdom come, here. Take over the years, the twenty migrations left – if such a kingdom exists, its roots grow here: in the asters and goldenrod, purple on yellow on brown on green.
Renessa Visser is a graduate of Redeemer University where she double majored in English and Environmental Studies. She’s passionate for the way language and stories can awaken and deepen our connection to place. When she’s not writing or reading, Renessa loves biking, birding, hiking, and getting to know her neighbours, both human and wild.