Such are the hidden uses of adversity.
— Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
Woozy from the sun, we go Thelma & Louise-ing
our way across the desert, kingdom of desert spoon
and shin dagger, longhorns like brides of dust,
waiting for a kiss of rain, and cowboy hips
bountiful with shotguns. We catch coyote on her daily beat
tallying the days without. She’s not quite hamstrung
with hunger yet; she’ll eat mesquite beans
if it comes to that, but she’d rather flush jackrabbits
out of snakeweed. Move on, gringos, she says,
and we do; we’re not hardwired for hardship
the way she is—we weren’t born under this hot dead-
pan sky. You anchor me, fingertip at my knee.
We’re not prudent like the barrel cactus, built
to store water in drought, or patient like the century plant
that waits fifteen years to bloom. We’re fiery
like the ocotillo in spring that rises from twisted spires
to advertise clusters of exuberant red blooms,
vivid slips of tongue, to hummingbirds and carpenter bees.
I try out the language of wooing in this parched land.
Vertical means sun. Beeline means let’s go!
Red means Drink, traveler; drink this sudden lushness.
Death interrupts me.
I know her shreee-shreee
means it’s too late to run.
she is owl, white as bone
with wings that surround me
like a royal robe. Up and out:
a vector of leaving off.
Up: a syllable, a talon point
finding the veins in my nape,
the seams of me ripping,
the heat rising, a weave of feathers.
A flood, a love I can’t name, passes
all around me, and for a split second,
I am upside-down, caught up
in her down and wind-scoured
by her desiring speed.
And when she beds down
above the forest, I am already dead.
No seams up here. The sky is hers
and mine. I never ebb.
I enter her dreams.
Her body takes me traveling.
As Told by a Raptor Rehabilitator
What is belief to a bird but the compass
of the stars and skies? If the forests wilt,
as they will, and the stars and skies
are all that are left, the raptors will
last longest. I believe this, just as I believe
the owl in its aviary will recover someday
beneath an indifferent moon.
We are not so different:
both blinded in one eye, our pinions tied,
we are ghosts to the day, prisoners perching
in our cells by night. We know in our bones
the calculus of the wait, the rubato of the hunt,
but our recovery is slow. Still, I know
someday you will go stooping again,
and a creature will freeze in your eyeshine.
It will taste the razors of your talons,
and from its fretting and final sputter,
you’ll hollow out its heart,
squeeze it in the parenthesis of your beak.
Your reflexes will be a revelation to us.
Kill with ease and be released:
this is the test of your freedom.
And there will be other tests: someday
your breeding range might be hijacked,
slashed down or burned away.
They could lease it out to Liberty Trust,
break ground below the slippery elm,
mistake your birthright for just a nook,
phony up a house or office and call it a day.
But agile bird, as long as you sleep
here, as long as you breathe,
your every wet inhalation is a defiance
and every bone you crush in your beak
is a victory. Don’t break.
Here, in this holding place,
I will feel out cold meat
from the funk of a bucket;
I will feed it to you by hand,
whispering to you as softly as rabbit’s dewlap
of your powers: ghost-swift strike,
eyes cut from onyx and blade,
your hunger to make a clean kill.
Header photo of hummingbird among ocotillo blooms by Simmons B. Buntin.