Born Again Rural
I was sitting around a campfire in my backyard in Oregon with a handful of friends, staring into the flames and talking the loose talk of campfire nights.
“Ya know, they’ve got red-tailed hawks in New York City,” said Tony, my red-headed friend.
“Really?” I said, surprised. Tony knew his birds. I liked birds, but could only identify a few I’d learned over the years when I happened to be with birding friends. Someone would tell me that the upward spiral of a song I heard at dusk was the Swainson’s thrush, or that the bouncing ball call—a hooting that sped up towards the end—was the western screech owl. And ever since someone told me that a turkey vulture looks like a tottering V in the sky compared to the flat, steady soaring of the red-tailed hawk, I could spot the common raptor. I had lots of opportunities in the Pacific Northwest. Red-tails are to country folk what pigeons are to city denizens. A day wouldn’t go by without hearing their call fall from the overcast skies or seeing their quiet silhouettes perched on a fence post, billboard, or tree branch. But in New York City?
“I heard about a poodle that was attacked by a hawk in some park, too,” Tony said, taking a swig off his beer. “And they have peregrine falcons.”
“Really? Falcons? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one,” I said, poking at the fire with a stick, tucking the smoldering ends into the heat at the center. I couldn’t imagine anything other than pigeons, gulls and rats in that concrete jungle.
Tony, like most of my friends, couldn’t believe I was moving there. To New York City. Neither could I. Born and raised in Jersey, I fled when I turned eighteen, with no intention of ever returning to the refinery smokestacks or beaches littered with people and pink, washed-up tampon applicators. After three universities in as many years, I moved to Seattle when I was twenty to finish my undergraduate degree—just me and my bad choice of a mate and our U-Haul truck. I quickly fell out of love with the boy and in love with everything else—the cold clear waters of Puget Sound, the looming snow-capped mountains that appeared out of the clouds as in some mystical Chinese painting, and—maybe too soon—another man. I met him in the high-mountain valley where he’d been born. His skin smelled of honey and wheat, and when he told me he loved me six months later, my world shifted in some unexpected way, and I was happy.
After a few years, Seattle seemed too big. We moved to Tacoma and lived in his grandfather’s sea shanty on stilts above the waters of Puget Sound, watching harbor seals from the deck and catching crabs with a fishing pole, saving up money for a roadtrip that would lead us, eventually, to the end of a dirt road in a little town in Oregon, near to where I now sat with Tony and a clan of close friends around the fire.
We lived at a sustainable-living school that doubled as a community. The nearest store was six miles away, but who needed an easy gallon of milk? We milked our own goats, collected eggs from the hens and mushrooms from the forest, grew food in a two-acre garden. We gathered wood in the dry, hot summers to feed the stove through the wet, dark winters. I was 26, born again rural in a wild, wet land of salmon and fat, ancient trees, green forests filthy with life and oxygen. The land had been worked over, the woods mostly cut, the salmon runs depleted, but I didn’t see any of that at first. New Jersey was my basis of comparison.
We stayed on the edge of that little logging town for eight years. I felt like I’d found a home I hadn’t known I’d been looking for. I thought I would never leave.
I stepped away from the fire to pee. I get a deep pleasure from dropping my drawers and squatting above the ground and pissing into the earth as I look up at the stars. I wouldn’t be able to do this in New York. Nor would I be able to sit around campfires with friends drinking beer. Or have a flock of hens that gave me fresh eggs with deep golden yolks each morning. But red-tailed hawks? Falcons? Really? I’d have to look into that when I got there. As I pulled up my jeans, I heard the screech owl that lived in the woods behind the barn we had made into a home five years earlier, where I now lived alone. I fell asleep to its call nearly every night, and sometimes awoke to the yipping of coyotes, which I had once seen from the window by my bed as they stalked deer in the back field. Cougars roamed the hills behind us.
Our breakup was a bluff on my part, but he didn’t call me on it. We split the pot—he got the bird book, the power drill, and a new girlfriend. I got the beat-up pickup and the complete independence I’d never had. On a whim, wondering if one can learn to be a writer if one merely likes to write, I applied to New York University’s Journalism program, somehow getting in with my one published piece about ending a seven-year streak as a vegetarian by butchering a deer, plus a handful of clips from the zine I produced with my girlfriends, all of us drunk on wine.
So whether because of fate, or love crumbling, or me growing, or all of the above, I decided during a long walk in the woods that I would return to my East Coast home ground, frighteningly close to my place of birth. On the night of a full moon, I left the western green side of the Cascade Mountains, a landscape I’d come to know as intimately as I had once known my lover’s body.
It was only an eighteen-month program. I’d be able to better tell the stories we were making out there in the woods. I repeated it like a mantra, “I can always come back…” I had forgotten what Heraclitus said about the river. How you can’t step into it twice. Neither the river, nor the one who steps, remains the same.
“Who’s this ‘Jaylo’?” I asked my friend Casey as we sat on tall stools at the 11th Street Bar in the East Village. He was my one friend from out west who now lived in New York. I left my Mushrooms Demystified field guide and Backyard Barnyard with a friend. I gave away my gum boots. I arrived with two duffel bags of clothes and bought a MacBook. Pieces of the city were familiar, but I couldn’t connect the dots. Was it Bronx to the north, or Brooklyn? I got myself a New York City Not for Tourists guidebook. I bought myself a fancy pair of shoes, but not, I would discover, nearly fancy enough. They were too comfortable.
“Jennifer Lopez,” he answered, as though I were an idiot. “Get it? Her initials. J. Lo.”
“Oh, ok.” I didn’t want to ask, but I had to. “And who’s Jennifer Lopez?”
While my fellow journalist students had been studying art in Paris or Foucault at Yale, I had been chopping wood and getting a fair amount of my information from the Earth First! Journal. I had some catching up to do. When people stopped to ask me for directions, I thought I was playing the part like a pro, but then realized they were just asking me because I was the only one not plugged into an iPod. I didn’t understand the aesthetic of gigantic sunglasses that covered half of your face. And stores selling nothing but a few pairs of underwear?
But most confusing of all was the unspoken language of dating that was uncharted territory for me, on either coast, so long had I been cloaked in the mantle of serial monogamy. One long-lashed man came, and went, and I remained an island in a sea of people. By Christmas, I remembered the fireside conversation with red-headed Tony and went looking for Pale Male, the world’s most famous bird, the red-tailed hawk who resides at an exclusive Fifth Avenue address. I read Marie Winn’s Red Tails in Love, and following the hand-drawn map, found Conservatory Waters in Central Park, the miniature lake where Stuart Little won his boat race. It was something to do as I wandered the city on long walks alone, learning its paths.
I lurked along the edge of the birders who congregated on the park benches with their binoculars and powerful scopes. I scanned the nest at 927 Fifth Avenue, perched upon the cornice of the 12th floor window, but it was empty. I let my eyes drift across the geometric lines of the neighboring facades until, almost immediately, I saw a form that broke the symmetry. He was sitting placidly on the balcony railing of a nearby building, flanked by the linear expanse of Fifth Avenue on either side, looking down across Central Park. I paused. Contemplated. Caved. Despite having seen more red-tails than I could possibly recall, the anachronism of this wild bird doing its wild thing, right here in the middle of this decidedly unwild city, for one brief moment, did something to me that I hadn’t yet experienced in this city. It made me feel at home.
Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at meerasub.org.