Time eliminates the emotion of loss (I do not weep), that is all. ― Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
It seems almost unfair, now, to start this essay where I do: thinking about the tail-to-the wind horses I saw along a highway in a snowstorm and of the photograph I regret not taking and of their foals on the vanishing highway, and of Leonard, always, walking out hand in hand with our eight year olds into the softest of April suns, into the rest of our lives.
All I see are dead children, Leonard says.
We had just returned home from the Lamar Valley in northern Yellowstone, looping over from Gardiner, Montana to drive straight through Wyoming past signs for geological wonders: singing sand dunes and sinking rivers and those volcanic plugs—lava necks—I may never see. We spent three days without seeing children, our road trip planned between spring blizzards and the end of school when we knew a canyon wall of family RVs would cram the single lanes of Yellowstone and overshadow its fragile ecosystem of black bear and bison, collared wolf packs and grizzlies we’d watched for decades on National Geographic TV specials. But we were caught in the storms anyway as we drove along the Snake River and so it’s the wild horses I’m remembering now, the mares heavy-maned in that squall, their new foals tucked against their bellies in a darkening world we would soon know again.
We had traveled to Yellowstone once before. It was the summer of my pregnancy after years of “trying,” years foreshadowed at 16 when I stood inside the smeared glass walls of a telephone booth, dialing the sticky metal phone to call my mother because the gynecologist said I might never have children.
But it wasn’t until we had driven past the Grand Tetons and the great sprawling mud flats of a dying Jackson Lake on this trip that I thought back to that summer 32 years ago of “fric” and “frac,” those miraculous twin embryos the size of navy beans or walnuts I had carried in my belly since April. I don’t remember the drive through Wyoming that first time to see Old Faithful, persistent geyser within the caldera of a super volcano, only that I remember bleeding lightly, continuously. There were no cell phones then, so Leonard and I searched the blue highway signs for any town with an emergency room until I could lay on a table and a doctor listen to my belly, rub my skin with cold jelly and search the ultrasound for the quick fetal lights of two heartbeats like sheet lightning or fireflies we feared gone.
A mile away from our daughters’ elementary school the Columbine killers were hunting through the high school library with their 9mm firearms and sawed-off shotguns.
The deep late snows of Colorado have fractured the ash trees at the elementary school across the street that I have watched from my front porch grow for 30 years. It’s the same elementary school where our fric and frac, when they were eight, were locked in the school gymnasium: their teachers chaining shut the big double doors from inside and papering over the long vertical windows cut into the school’s concrete walls where sometimes on late winter afternoons I still see the lights of late-working teachers in deserted classrooms glow.
There is that famous painting by Pieter Bruegel of Icarus, mythic boy of waxed wings who flew so high to touch the sun that he fell into the sea, Bruegel catching him in a brushstroke, one white leg or arm barely discernable above the harbor water. But it’s not Icarus who matters to me here. It’s the old Auden poem about Bruegel’s painting, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” that matters, how the “torturer’s horse / Scratches its innocent behind on a tree” in the midst of Icarus falling, even in the midst of the worse suffering, my college teachers taught me, the oblivious world rolling on. All the while that day when the teachers were papering the windows, I was in a conference room of a company I would soon leave for good and Leonard was downtown in his community college office grading papers. And a mile away from our daughters’ elementary school the Columbine killers were hunting through the high school library with their 9mm firearms and sawed-off shotguns, and pipe bombs, I think, and our teachers were ushering my daughters and 300 other five- to 11-year-olds into the inner lunchroom where I had so often sat with my daughters at tiny pullout cafeteria tables, so full of love in the din of plastic lunch trays and stainless steel counters and the booming voices of cafeteria ladies in hair nets jettisoned above the chaos of spilt milk boxes and canned fruit slices and kids, everywhere, tumbling out of the opened doors into the playground, into the light.
“Big fire!” fric and frac said that day the world changed, holding Leonard’s hands after he was finally allowed to check them out of the school cafeteria, waiting in line with the other parents until he could walk across the street everything we loved home.
I have been reading this book about photography, Camera Lucida, by the literary theorist Roland Barthes—“oh, semiotics,” my literary friend says, “impossible to understand”— who believes that “a photograph is always invisible: it is not it that we see.” And I think he’s right. This time, after this shooting, when the world changed again, Leonard and I were in Yellowstone, walking the boardwalks near Angel Terrace and its bleached limestone—somewhere close beneath us a caldera of molten magna and gaseous fissures. I was taking pictures of a killdeer preening itself along the blue acidic pools of a hot springs while those 19 children and two elementary school teachers in Uvalde, Texas were slaughtered in their classrooms with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle owned by an 18-year-old—I don’t really know what to call him—who shot his grandmother, just a few years older than me, in the face before driving to the elementary school to kill.
This is what I see. Not the killdeer.
A master birder told me, “You will change your life if you go into birding.”
I gather each Saturday now with the other hopeful beginner birders at cottonwood groves and rivers and tiny wetland ponds to search for birds. We hear the birds before we see them, each of us wandering off before the start of class to find them, the other birders with binoculars, and me with my camera trained at the sky. Barthes says that the photograph is like the haiku, that within it, too, is the “essence (of a wound)… an explosion… a little star on the pane of the text or of the photograph.” I keep rotating the dials on my camera to see into the trees, to see what sings.
“Neither makes us dream,” says Barthes.
I am trying to understand what that means.
Crackles, hoots, flute trills—today, my fellow birders make up words to describe what is already lost to us, 26 species of birds, all within a quarter of a mile from each other, dozens unseen signaling from the treetops, while the ash trees at the schoolyard—photograph of the mind, I suppose—are still the ash trees I cannot undream.
In the tiny shoals of the wetland pond, turtles sun and a black-crowned night heron preys close to the rocks, what I can’t see with my naked eye until I zoom my camera into its white face—the heron a smooth ghost above the turtlebacks. And then we see a nest in the cottonwoods, bursting like an enormous milkweed pod of fluff and plastic shreds. No one, not even the master birders, can say what has built it.
A master birder tells us the story of the house wren, “those stupid wrens,” she calls them, laughing, the wrens taking over every nest in the area, every tree hole, and filling them with sticks and twigs, then double-building their own nests—no other bird, no killer cowbird to claim the wren’s nest, to kill its young.
Along the path, I find a pair of wings like something to rise, but they won’t—here, written out in these dusty wings, is my haiku of chaff and cottonwoods and the little dark wound of a moment, owl or hawk gliding out of the clouds to nab some tiny passerine. I hold the dusty wings up for the other beginner birders.
“Do you see?” I ask them and they only smile.
I read the parents gathered at the chain link fences, begging to be let in, to let them save their own silent children. Under the picnic shelter where we gather to name the birds we spotted or only heard, I see a hole, a perfect circle drilled into the welded metal arches of the roof. And then something sleek and dark appears, a tiny insect, wings like frosted glass against the light, in its beak, cowbird or starling diving into the hole, into the dark, to feed its awakening young.
For days, the ash branches hung over the wire fence at our elementary school until one morning the chainsaws woke me, branches torn into sawdust, the ash trees scattering windward, the spring skies blurry with tiny souls, little dusts.
My students at the community college, 17 years after Columbine, still writing me poems and stories—haikus—about gunfire and the broom closets they locked themselves in.
My daughter teaches fourth graders by a beautiful river I am afraid to name now. So many of her students are the daughters and sons of immigrants who crossed rivers, slept beneath slim desert shadows, rode buses, dreamed. Just the weekend before the Uvalde parents stood at the chain link fence, my daughter and I laughed over the phone at how young her students still were, how these fourth graders on a school overnight camping trip, not even a whole day away, cried in their tents for their mothers.
All I see are dead children, Leonard says.
In Yellowstone, the other visitors were generous in this wilderness we circled so slowly through, before this other wilderness we returned home to. In the spotting scopes the visitors shared with us along roadways and parking lots, we peered at distant hills and scrub oak to see wolves and bison and black bears in treetops. Once, through the pixelated dark of my camera, we watched a grizzly, crimson-faced, lolling on an elk carcass, the elk’s ribs bellowing out whale-ish and white, where later a wolf would feed from the same carcass. And after we drove off, the grizzly woke to gallop at a nearby herd of bison close across the road and drove them up the hill, the camera-bearing crowd, we heard later, fearful, awestruck.
That day the children died I was focused specifically on the edge of that killdeer’s wing, a vibrant brown and red against the limestone catacombs of a hot spring. I was thinking aperture and f-stop, not children in a classroom. Not how many rounds of ammunition, 142, spent.
Barthes says that photography is something different from writing, “which, by the sudden action of a single word, can shift a sentence from description to reflection.” At 63, I am a caldera, an erupting fissure of memory. Sandy Hook. The Amish kindergarteners lined up at the blackboard. The girl soon to be shot in the Platte Canyon high school texting her parents, “I love U guys.” My students at the community college, 17 years after Columbine, still writing me poems and stories—haikus—about gunfire and the broom closets they locked themselves in.
Leonard and I wander the harbor of ourselves, lost in the camera obscura, in the darkened room, the hole of no light.
This week, we beginning birders meet at a nature center near a canyon to watch the spring birds banded—the migratory warblers and finches that trained volunteers catch in mist nets.
Unfurled along the understory of the woods and the river brush, the mist nets are invisible even to us. Every 15 minutes the volunteers walk the mist nets. They must purchase them with permits because of how injured the birds can become, so tangled in the deep pockets that the mist nets form that the volunteers must carefully extract them bit by bit, by feather and beak and claw. Stunned, some open-beaked and panting, the birds are placed into their own little cloth bags and pinned to a clothesline rigged above a table ladened with books where the captive birds will be examined and weighed, banded and freed.
“Here,” the master birder says to me and drops a tiny yellow warbler into my open hands.
It is a beautiful morning, the air sun-spaded, a broad-tailed hummingbird ferrying thistle and spider silk to its nest, the tiny flotsam of its body shivering into the woven hollow.
And I cradle it all, feather dust and quivering heart, until the bird flees.
One of our master birders is a retired fourth-grade teacher. She teaches us to connect the smooth letters of the words Cooper’s hawk with the raptor’s rounded tail feathers and the sharp letters of the sharp-shinned hawk with its squared tail.
She calls me “Bright Eyes,” as if I were a child.
“Our late snowstorm this spring killed off most of the nestlings,” she tells us. “When the snow began to melt, there was so much silence.”
Pretend you’re asleep, the teacher told the children hiding under the classroom tables.
“What do you see?” this master birder keeps asking us.
What should I tell her? For almost the whole of my daughters’ lives, I have lived across from their old elementary school and its opening day ice cream socials and morning orange juice tables and its first day kindergartener parents half-crying with the morning bell. Once, from my front garden, I heard the slightest of bird sound from the school playground. It was a small princess, dressed that morning by her mother in gossamer and pink tulle, who walked down the sidewalk crying, her silver crown tipping over one ear. I ran across the street, wanting to hold her, but afraid, stranger that I was, to touch her. She had gone out the wrong door to go to the bathroom, she said, and “gotten lost” outside. She held out her little wooden hall pass to me.
“You’re okay, okay,” I kept saying, suddenly so full of the old love, and she followed me until we stood outside the main doors of the school where a kindly office woman listened to me through the video camera and unlocked the doors to take the child in.
Writing this now, I remember how the beginning birders, all of us, kept seeing yellow birds, yellow warblers, but we kept saying the word “goldfinch” over and over, the one small and yellow bird we’d all heard of, wanting, I suppose, just one tiny gold beauty in this world we could know by heart. But we never did see it that day. Later, I stumbled upon the image of an altarpiece by a 14th-century painter, Luca di Tommè—Mary and four angels and the infant Christ, who I never believed in, holding a goldfinch in his hand that one day, the old myth goes, pulled a single thorn from the infant’s crown, one drop of blood spilled forever after on each goldfinch’s breast.
“Do you know what the small birds do when a windstorm is unleashed?” our master birder asks us.
We have learned that the cowbird pushes out the eggs in other nests to lay its own so the other birds will raise the cowbird’s nestlings. We have learned that hummingbirds and woodpeckers have tongues that wrap around their skulls. And that those nesting birds, so long silent in the spring snows that crashed down my ash trees at the elementary school, returned to singing, to blue eggs they laid again, newly shelled.
And what of the smallest of birds, like the goldfinch I have since seen at my feeder after a tiny girl, whose mother loved her into a princess, followed me down a sidewalk, the double doors of a school closing behind her? Barthes says everything which happens within the frame of a photograph dies absolutely, but that there is a kind of “subtle beyond” that is left behind, the image “launching desire beyond what it permits us to see.”
“The little birds fly up into the wind,” the master birder says. “They go further than you can imagine.”
What I desire.
There is something about my wolf picture from Yellowstone I do not want to publish on Facebook. I am fine with posting the blur of a wolf carrying her pup up a far green knoll, a wolf I didn’t actually see that morning but only aimed my camera toward where all the spotting scopes were aimed and clicked at random. And I am fine with the picture where I cut in close to a wolf sitting, then trotting down a hill, a tiny blackness I could only see with my camera masking me, its telescopic lens, its aperture opening up to a little light and darkness, the wolf, thin and nervous energy, pinned forever in pixels.
But this picture, I crop and edit and re-crop. In Barthes’s Camera Lucida, he describes how “from a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here; the duration of the transmission is insignificant; the photograph of the missing being, as Sontag says, will touch me like the delayed rays of a star.”
Perhaps this is what is happening.
“Go to the seven o’clock of the lollipop tree,” a wolf watcher advised me that morning as I searched for wolves with my camera. We had found the wolf watchers in a Lamar Valley parking lot, the ones who name the wolves by their tagged numbers and offer newcomers like me their spotting scopes to see the wolves they guard over.
“And then go to the six o’clock of that, to the plateau of dead grass, the den of wolves.” But I could find nothing.
Back at her scope, the wolf watcher shouted to the small crowd that kept gathering: “The pack leader just brought out the pups. Like salt and pepper.”
Perhaps I am only bringing something of myself to the picture now and the wolf in this photo is only a wolf, but I don’t believe that.
Are wolves lonely when they howl? Google asks for me now. Do they mourn their dead?
“Look!” the wolf watcher said from the parking lot. “The wolf is wet.”
We did not know what she meant until we drove out of the parking lot, across the bridge and up the rise to perhaps better see the wolves. And we did—a black wolf alone, stopped in the middle of the bridge, framed by steel girders. And that’s the picture I got that I can’t fix.
Sontag calls photography “an elegiac art, a twilight art.” The very act of photography touches what is photographed with “pathos.” The wolves of Yellowstone as I have learned since that morning have been decimated to 94 from a high, just a few years ago, of 500. “A year of unprecedented killing,” this past year has been called, within just two months of it, the Phantom Lake wolf pack considered “eliminated”—all shot.
Alone on the bridge, the wolf looks sad enough. But, if I pull the image back, allow the whole picture to fill the frame, let horizon expand past the steel to the “human” girders, the river dropping mysteriously below, and cars, trucks, people, cameras jamming either side of the bridge, one car stuttering closer to the wolf in each shot I took, its sadness, its pathos becomes unbearable. And this is the moment that this mother wolf aborts the bridge.
“Look!” someone said. “She’s carrying her pup,” and we watched her climb the green hill, wet from the swollen, spring-crested river, this mother wolf returning again and again from the main pack den to dangle from her jaws, across the dangerous river, pup after pup.
“There is something predatory in the act of taking a picture,” Sontag mercilessly reminds me. “Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder.”
We have no pictures of these children, no permanent record of their bodies in the mortuaries emanating, I am sure of it, a kind of light.
I remember Columbine. I remember the teenage boy across Coal Mine, a highschooler picking his way through the drainage ditch weeds while I waited one afternoon at the stop sign. This was months before the shooting and I knew nothing about trench coats and I don’t even know if it matters now—the moment the boy and I stared at each other through the car windshield, how so much darkness—I don’t know what else to call it—emanated from him that I thought I should call someone, but who, and I didn’t as he walked away from me, his trench coat lashing out in the wind.
Some of the parents of Uvalde wanted to take pictures of their children’s bodies before the coffins closed over their unspeakable wounds, so we would know. I don’t know if the kid I saw in a trench coat was a Columbine killer or just a kid, but I kept thinking about the time when our girls were in preschool and I was hiking the red paths of Roxborough Park, far from the visitor center and its t-shirts. Suddenly the stink of wet cat and urine soaked the air and every hair rose up on my body, my skin in goosebumps—somewhere in the dense scrub oak, I knew, a mountain lion watched me.
I used to think that what I felt then, how my whole body responded, was to the same kind of darkness as the boy’s I watched at a stop sign, but I don’t think so now. In Yellowstone, we traveled the rim of an ancient valley of glacial drift, visitors to cycles and creations millions of years old: grizzlies stalking the willow banks of a river, wolf pups sleeping in dens beneath old volcanic earth, everything knowable. Instinctual. Nothing like the aberrations of a boy, an evil—I think that now.
Barthes says that photography of the landscape gives him “a kind of second sight,” which can take him to a “Utopian time,” or back to somewhere inside himself—what I feel, too. I go from place in nature to place in nature now, from wetlands to poetry to bird watching where I carry my camera to catch the goldfinch or the yellow warbler tilting its head in the ponderosa pines. Or I ride my bike up narrow canyons to see the mountain sheep staggered like boulders across rock walls, a sudden goldfinch spiraling beneath my bike. I envy Thoreau, thinking him lost in a woods far from any city, myth as that might be, no internet, no phone, no coming home from a trip a day or two without Wi-Fi and finding out that, here, this person died and this one murdered and these children gone.
The tree men finished long ago chainsawing the ash trees at my elementary school across the street, broken by the coldest of freezes and the heaviest of snows. We have no pictures of these children, no permanent record of their bodies in the mortuaries emanating, I am sure of it, a kind of light.
At the Audubon poetry workshop I teach for kids now at a summer camp called The Art of Nature, the kids are nine and ten. A little girl wears a green baseball cap with a stuffed turtle perched on top. “My parents and me bought this in Mexico,” she tells me as she hops along the same river bend where I once watched for the migrating birds that we untangle from such deep pockets of our own mist nets, study, change our lives, then lift for the wind.
I take my children to the river to listen to the house wrens in the trees and the pine siskins and the hummers streaking in crazed love above our heads. The children draw pictures of birds in their journals and write questions for me like “What is the sky?” and “What is love?” And they will answer those questions with the beautiful things of this world I can show them: green-eyed ducks and sweet lavender and rocks smooth and red as fire. They swoop up from their seats—little birds—and raise their hands to my questions, giggle over words in their poems like banana.
I don’t know the terror those little school kids felt; I don’t know what they thought when the only adult who could help them was shot dead, the teacher’s arms, I have read, around the children near her, who I know she loved, dead, too.
One little girl at the summer camp keeps running her hands through the underbrush, searching for what the naturalist and I have warned her not to touch, the three-leafed poison ivy with its red stems, the only danger I can remember from my childhood.
“Is this the poison?” she keeps asking me.
No, I say. No.
This summer at our cabin I keep stumbling across little nestlings, all down and bulbous dark eyes beneath tufts of hairgrass and wildrye, the dusty birds who hatched them, vesper or grasshopper sparrows, I don’t know which, flinging themselves at the sound of me out of the nests they’ve woven to run crooked-winged down the cow path and save their young.
Once, later, I went back to kneel down in the grass to see if the nestlings had blossomed. The nest was too soon empty. I wonder what else might have lifted that tiny veil of grass, as I had, the parental sparrows flushed from the meadow again, and the nestlings, perhaps this time, knowing only the light, the hand of the sun falling over them, a sudden dazzling in the wind storm.
Kathryn Winograd is a Colorado essayist and poet who divides her time between a high-meadow mountain cabin above Phantom Canyon and the suburbs of Denver. She is the author of seven books, including Slow Arrow: Unearthing the Frail Children, which received a Bronze Medal in Essay for the 2020 Independent Publisher Book Awards, and Air Into Breath, a Colorado Book Award winner in poetry. More of her writings and publications can be found through kathrynwinograd.com.