Letter to America, by Tina Kelley

Letter to America

By Tina Kelley

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Dear America,

The world provides, so maybe my hike in the woods is a narrative, a lesson, a Language-of-Flowers bouquet, one of those Victorian conceits where each bloom means something romantic intended just for me from my beloved.

But it’s birds, not flowers, and the sender is South Mountain.

Which ones, in which order, matter.

That cardinal, at the first left turn with the first yellow blaze on the tree, reminds me of Rebecca, a woman who hosted me for two days on a work project, and whose energy I loved. One brain tumor took her from her three daughters in seven months, and her favorite bird was the cardinal, and everyone saw it during or after her funeral, which reminds me of our floor installer’s friend’s son, who died, and his favorite bird had been the, was it house finch? and at his funeral luncheon this finch flew in the house, and around its center, and into the young man’s bedroom, and back, and what do you make of that? (And as I write, four cardinals fly by. Four.)

Then again, our friend Sam died in March, which explains why, on the way to his wake, we saw the bald eagle, and Rebecca died in cardinal season, and it’s always finch season, so it makes sense we’d see them and take them as a sign.

But if the cardinal appeared at the end of this walk, instead of the beginning, it would remind me to worry about tumors. Instead, it reminds me of the giant faith of three daughters and the stories they could tell themselves to keep from shattering.

Near the beech grove I saw a blue jay alight on a side branch, silent. And there is my mother, somehow. Nanny, her grandmother, had always wanted to decorate a room in the colors of a jay, and I fulfilled that wish last year during our kitchen renovation, which Mom’s bequest helped pay for. Nanny died a year before I was born, but Mom adored her, and it felt good to make a long-gone dream come true. Now that exquisite bird reminds me of Mom, a wave hello from beyond.

Then as I cross west, along the high grove, there’s a nagging, indigo scolding, a “you’re not going out with your hair like that?” Yes, that was part of Mom, too, that and the liquid chimes the jay also sings, and its kindly whisper song.

When the trail opens up by the flagpole, near the evergreen a friendly widow decorates every Christmas–tarnished gold ball remaining now, out of her reach–I hear the water-drop-from-a-height of a cowbird, or the birthmother bird, as I see her. She leaves eggs in the nests of other birds, as that 23-year-old girl had done with me, in a way. While very frowned-upon by naturalists, as cowbird chicks are ravenous and far bigger than the rarer, endangered songbird chicks they displace, the act worked out well for me.

It’s a mystery, how cowbird chicks learn their songs, since they’re raised by other species. Yet they all sing the same. Must be something innate that knows how to address the greenery, that learns how the woods provide.

Overhead, a vee of tenors, Canada geese, the Dad birds. I remember them walking around at the cemetery, and their dead-eye hiss, and the green slurry they would be leaving on his grave. Disliked them extra ever since. How I miss him in the woods. We used to walk in them back home so often, and he would head up the woods road to show me trees he wanted to bring down for firewood, “widow makers,” something no one says anymore. With both parents gone, I don’t feel so much like an orphan, as everyone had predicted. Instead, I see how the old fashioned, which I grew up with, is gone now, rejected, then forgotten.

The hill provides a leafy seep for the dog to drink from.

A quarter mile before the farthest point out on the hike, the wood thrush. An old boyfriend once saved a thrush feather because he knew it was a favorite bird of mine, a sign that the woods are deep enough for magic. Around here we don’t hear thrushes near edges, near civilization. I had gotten far enough away.

We see only 20 percent of the birds in a habitat, but can hear up to 80 percent. Calls, songs, warning calls, mid-day, prove I’m wrong if I think no one’s around.

But I hate to think of percentages of birds, so few days after news broke that one of every eight avian species is threatened with extinction. I hate the lies of the politician who promised to drain the swamp, now trying his best to drill the refuge and let oil companies leave their waste pits uncovered, pits that migratory birds mistake for fresh water. Hundreds of thousands of them die slowly each year, slicked in black, sinking to the bottom, seldom noticed, so profits can rise. I turn back towards the light, and see trees unloose a shower of pollen, sperm falling from the sky, the sun spotlighting it. Duly noted, sex is everywhere. Necessary. In the air we breathe, in the downy woodpeckers right there playing tag around the bole of the maple, and yes, in the homecoming.

Off to the left, in a shaft of sunlight, another jay, doing an arabesque, no, a dogfighter’s rolling-scissors move, crashing, but just long enough to grab the gnat and recover neatly on a branch. The air feeds us. Hi, Ma.

And along the back downhill, the same territorial thrush, moving me again with its fluted gracenotes and grupettos–no word for it in English other than turn (so plain!)–for the playfulness above and below each note.

Zipping through the understory: two goldfinches, four dits each, H in Morse code, announcing their hunger, or horniness, or homing instinct. To me they invoke my second-born, as I watched them all the winter of my pregnancy, as they somehow took in oil-black Niger seed and, with alchemy, ripened from dull to bright yellow, until springtime and the birth.

Oak a lee! By a pond!

That’s all I need to know from the red-winged blackbird.

And closer in to the parking lot, where the backyards abut the parkland, maybe the shouting house wren is something to learn from, adamant, hollering, “My opinion matters, my confidence is that of strong stock, come my love and see the three houses I have started for you, choose me, enjoy me, love me!” Such artistry embroidered in the air.

And one flits and perches here, in the backyard, as I try to get it all down most accurately, to share the joy birds bring while there’s still time.

Let me never find a still yard or woodland. Let my favorite places never fall silent, like a grave when the last friend who visited dies.




Tina KelleyTina Kelley’s third poetry collection Abloom and Awry came out in 2017 from CavanKerry Press, joining Precise and The Gospel of Galore, which won a 2003 Washington State Book Award. Ardor won the 2017 Jacar Press chapbook competition. A former The New York Times reporter, she shared in a staff Pulitzer for 9/11 coverage and co-authored Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children.

Header photo by NatashaG, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Tina Kelley by Kate Newman.




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