Reading Audubon in the Light of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act's "Clarification"

Audubon's Birds of America cover

I just happened upon the current administration’s “clarification” of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act about the same time my husband handed me an old book buried in our bookcase, the 1950 Popular Edition of Audubon’s Birds of America. There was no grand public announcement by the administration on a decision made back in 2018, (you can read about it yourself because I can’t anymore ), in which the “incidental” death of a dozen (or a million) birds is A- okay.

At the same time, my daughter, a senior educator for the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (ACES), had just gotten word that the transfer to ACES of a once broken-winged golden eagle rescued near the National Sand Dunes by the Frisco Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation center in Del Norte, Colorado was a “go.” She would drive the truck to Minturn to pick up the bird, the hand-off approved under the auspices of the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act.

No “clarification” needed.

The Popular Edition of Audubon’s Birds of America was Macmillan’s effort to give “everyman” access to at least a truncated version of Audubon’s original 435 illustrations collected in the early 1800’s in double elephant folios. I am thinking about this now because amidst the charming forewarnings in the introduction to the book, such as “all the mythical species have been omitted” in this Audubon edition,  Ludlow Griscom, a pioneering ornithologist, addresses the destruction of habitat that was happening seventy years ago and accounted for the loss of birds far beyond the then public perception of the numbers shot down by hunters and target shooters and small boys “popping away at the birds on the lawn.”

Rather than succumb to the pessimism of the day, Griscom sought to rally his readers over conservation efforts such as the creation of federal and state parks and a “great chain of federal wildlife refuges.” Griscom was a pioneer who shifted ornithology from the study of dead birds to binocular observations. He reminds his readers of what could happen when “every nature lover” and “every bird watcher” keeps tally of the birds in their own backyards and contributes data that could lead to better conservation practices and laws.

Yesterday’s backyard bird watchers and nature lovers . And today’s non-profits.

Despite the news that our administration will quietly suggest that the disruption of nesting grounds, in the form of a bridge and tunnel, for 25,000 migrating sea birds is “incidental” and, therefore, A-Okay, I’ll continue Griscom’s rally: there are still those who care, those that still follow the heart and soul of legislation created in word and spirit to perpetuate in our skies wing and song and cry.

ACES lost its much beloved thirty-some year-old golden eagle just this past year, much to the despair of the whole Roaring Fork community. The eagle had been a successful educational ambassador to thousands of children over the years, not only because it was a living ambassador, but because it possessed a rarity of calm that allowed the kids the chance to see the golden eagle up close.

“The kids liked to squawk at it,” my daughter said, “to say ‘it’s pretty,’ to ask its name,” (which it had none in order to reinforce the eagle’s status as a wild animal, not a pet).

ACES Beloved Golden Eagle of 30 years

When Frisco Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation heard of the death of ACE’s golden eagle, it offered the eagle it had managed to repair, except for the bird’s desiccated flight feathers, necessitating life-long protective care. Acting under the watchful eye and good graces of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, my daughter loaded a wooden box with air holes into her truck in a small town in Colorado. And because two organizations carefully adhered to a protection act passed in 1940 to prevent the needless and unlawful harm or killing of even one eagle, a law generations of us have proudly grown up with, a golden eagle waiting in the half-dark of that box reached its new “mew,” its new home, where a rabbit and open skies beyond the wire mesh and a thousand new children awaited it.

The book I hold in my hands is a beautiful book, hard-bound in a crosshatch pattern of feathers (why do I have a Kindle?), its inside cover bearing the faint small-boy penciling of my husband’s name. In this popular edition, Audubon’s golden eagle tilts upward, open-beaked, carrying a white hare in its talons over rock and sea. “Wandering in winter to sea level,” the caption reads.

Audubon’s picture seems to capture the grand wilderness in the bird,  but I would be remiss not to mention that Audubon himself was responsible for the death of thousands of birds, using wires and threads to tie the bodies of the birds he killed into “life-like” positions for his drawings, a fate, I’m sad to say, that the golden eagle he drew did not escape.

Shocking? Yes. Barbaric?

Almost as much as the flimflamming of a word.

Golden Eagle Illustration from Audubon's Birds of America

Pre-Orders and the Journey of a Book in a Year of Yes

cover of slow arrow with description of book

Perhaps it’s the few new minutes of light since Winter Solstice or the still days between the end of Christmas and the hopes of a new year. Or just simply being stuck in bed with a lousy cold. But today seemed like the perfect one to begin the next stage of this long journey I’ve been on, the journey of the book in a year of yes.

I don’t even remember when I first heard about “the year of the yes” or when I first thought to turn monthly environmental columns I’d written into a collection of essays that braided together what I’d learned of this land at 9600 feet with what I’d learned that first year my 85 year-old mother came, here, to be with me.

I do remember describing it, haltingly, at a lunch for a writer being hosted by Regis’s Mile Hi MFA program. “Twelve months . . . twelve essays . . .one year . . .one book,” the writer said. “Perfect.”

But that was years ago. How did I know how much work it would be to find the metaphoric connections between the familial and the environmental that spoke to me, that linked beauty and wonder and the real environmental issues of this 40 acre microcosm I love with the journey of a woman I love, waiting to end this life, who asked me to share these moments with her?

I gave up. Often.

But then I read–again, I curse the fallibility of memory and my poor Internet search techniques–about a writer, and I think she was profiled in Poets and Writers, who did one of those famous years of the “yes.”

“Yes” to everything. Yes to finishing the book. Yes to sending the book out.

The hot spots were there, as I always tell my students. I just had to seek them out in the language: the carbon fossil images of leafs we found at a Florissant Fossil Quarry entwined with the images of my father’s face pressed against the glass in a hospital ward; skyglow and luminescence and the warmth of bodies here and no longer here; gravitational waves and the fears of a husband strapped to a heart monitor.

I remember when Natasha Trethewey, before she became Poet Laureate, visited Ashland University’s MFA program and how she described writing for the buried narrative beyond the historical marker. I realized that even within what seems like sometimes the desolation of these high mountain meadows I wander is the buried narrative of these places that connect history and nature and family: Indian princesses bewailing lost lovers, elk sunk to their bellies in a stoppered creek, stone trees and extinct volcanoes and mother lodes and streets of gold and Keats amid 400 billion stars.

When, finally, I thought I could write no more, that I was done (of course, as I found out in the editing and proofing stage, I wasn’t!), I thought of one more “Yes” to punctuate the “Done”: send it out, right then, to just one place before the long slog of agent searches and editor letters and marketing plans and submission spreadsheets.

I’ll give it a year, I thought.

So, with that “yes” in mind, that metaphorical period penciled in at the end of my manuscript, I looked up what place or two I could find on the Poets & Writers database on Small Presses . And there was Saddle Road Press with its stated editorial focus: “For 2019 we are seeking poetry and hybrid prose/poetry collections and collections of short stories or lyric essays.” Lyric essays? Okay.

And eight days later, this:

Dear Kathryn Winograd, 

We love “Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children” and would like to publish it. Thank you for giving us the opportunity! 

We’ll be contacting you soon about what happens next. In the meantime, congratulations on your wonderful book! 

Ruth Thompson 
Saddle Road Press 

Lesson learned from this journey? Believe. Find what speaks to you. Say, “Yes.”

sheep slippers
From Sick at Home Kathy