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The Literal Landscape
by Simmons B. Buntin, Editor/Publisher, Terrain.org

Even the Smallest Migrations

In the Chiricahua Mountains of the Arizona-Mexico border, there resides an elusive bird called the black-eared bushtit.  Now it's not, say, as elusive as the thick-billed parrot, a colorful and raucous bird indigenous to the thorny scrub of northern Mexico but occasionally venturing over the border.  Nor is it as sightly.  The bushtit is perhaps four inches from head to tail, blandly gray with the exception of black ear patches just behind sharp gray eyes.  Its calls are generally light but constant, like its movement between the intricacies of branch and twig and stem. 

It's true that in a former life, not really so long ago, I wanted to be an ornithologist.  Actually, I wanted to be a wildlife biologist, but it was something about birds especially that intrigued me.  They truly are indicators of the health of habitats around them.  It is more than a bit ironic that birds reveal the first signs of environmental degradation—DDT in the eggs of bald eagles, for instance—and yet have the ability to pioneer so many different habitats, and do so quickly. 

The summer before my freshman year of college was my initiation to field biology.  While I always enjoyed watching the airy halls of the forest fill with a tapestry of flittering birds and their comical bantering, I was never a certified bird-watcher.  I don't recall a backyard feeder brimming with glistening seed.  Besides a thankfully short-lived experience with a nasty-tempered nanday conure, and my mother's small flock of golden pheasants, I never tried to keep or tame or otherwise control the birds around me.  But they were always around.  So when I volunteered to assist the local U.S. Forest Service wildlife biologist, it was no surprise that we turned our attention first to birds, and specifically the red-cockaded woodpecker.

That summer I learned a great deal about the endangered red-cockaded: how the family groups, called colonies, will only inhabit old-growth pine;  how they peck smaller cavities around the main holes so the pine's sweet green resin drips to guard, some speculate, against tree-climbing snakes;  how the family stays together to help raise the brood.

Red-cockaded woodpeckers are not migratory.  Neither are the black-eared bushtits.  But like many Americans, I am.  After the summer of cataloging red-cockaded woodpecker colonies in the majestic wire grass-longleaf pine habitats of the Ocala National Forest, I moved west.  And after a year of introductory wildlife biology classes in Colorado, I moved southwest: the Chiricahua Mountains and an ecosystem research station in southeastern Arizona.

In Denver's Berkeley neighborhood, Jake and Mary have lived in their simple brick house for 48 years.  They moved in when it was first built and haven't lived elsewhere since.  That's across the street from the house my family and I moved into just this fall.  It's a diverse neighborhood, especially in architecture.  Our house was built in 1903, what the Realtors marketed as a "Victorian" bungalow because really it's neither.

Just next door to Jake's and Mary's 1950 ranch, Bill and Cricket live in an 1895 Victorian—this one just about as Victorian as Denver gets—with original leaded stained glass and woodwork from craftsmen of yesteryear.  They've been in that white beauty more than fifty years.  And a block or two behind us, Dot and Beryl live in an alley house that just kept growing, now somehow flip-flopped on the lot (the front on the alley and the backyard on the street) because they never received the permits to build a "permanent" house.  They've been in that house, and its generational add-ons from father and sons, since the 1940s.

What the bushtit lacks in dazzling color it makes up for in homelife.  Finding a strip of lichen here and a shred of cottony leaf there, bushtits construct a soft gourd-shaped nest with a round side entrance.  Nests dangle, though not lightly, from a bush or tree, concealed effectively from predators and all but the fiercest of elements.  These are not the nests of overpowering raptors or business- minded redstarts, mind you, but rather of artisans.  They are groomed and primed, smooth and complete.  They are built to last in the glorious surroundings of crooked mountain trees and rocky streams and fiery cliffs.

That is to say, they are built within binocular distance of some of the most uncomfortable places to sit west of the Mississippi.  But that is the life of a field biologist, and so I crouched as statue-like as I could behind fragrant juniper in the wee hours of the morning waiting for the light to reveal the tiniest of colored bands on the birds' legs.  And I shifted to get the good angle as a gathering of gossiping bushtits danced nervously from tree to tree, disappearing and reappearing suddenly yards to the rear or right or left. 

There's a lot of time to think with small notebook and pen in hand, scratching out the colors of legbands, watching the mountain's shadow sink against the far cliffs as the warming sun rises at my back.  Too much time, in my case.  The thoughts started out inquisitive: Is that a cave beyond the stream?  What lies within that grove of shimmering trees?  What if I left my post for just a minute or two, explored a bit...?  But it wasn't long before my mental wanderings, at least, were more directed: What's the significance of this particular bushtit group?  Is this really the best use of my time?  Isn't there anyplace just a little more comfortable than this unforgiving granite seat?

Like the birds I was so earnestly trying to keep keen notes on, I was jittery.  And like those birds, it didn't take long for me to move on.  But I kept going, migrating back to Florida, back to a place familiar and comfortable.  It turns out I didn't have what it takes to be a field biologist.  Two weeks with the bushtits was all it took.

Migrations are often measured in hundreds or thousands of miles.  That summer, my migration—the return leg of my trip out west—was about 2,000 miles.  But the significance is not so much in the length of the trip as the type, as the process.  In the three or four days on the road between Arizona and Florida, I came to the conclusion that field work was not for me, that perhaps the political arena, where I'd learn to play the game, was more fitting.  Certainly my rump would be a little less sore.

The migration of the goose ahead of winter or salmon in the summer is important not just because of the length of the trip, but because of the change that journey creates in the migrators.  For the geese, flightless for up to two weeks because of the preceding molt, it is perhaps the renewal of flight itself.  For the salmon, it is the physiological change enabling the spawning.  Migration is transition.

Earlier I mentioned that bushtits, like red-cockaded woodpeckers, do not migrate.  That's not entirely true.  Red-cockaded woodpeckers will leave a whole colony if they are threatened: if there is nearby logging, for example, or if scrub oak and smaller slash pine encroach too closely upon the nesting cavities.  Likewise, bushtits will leave an overly disturbed habitat, finding a new home, crafting that new suspended nest.

These movements, in a way migrations because of the transitions they represent, are not lengthy.  Perhaps a hundred yards, perhaps two or three miles.  While minor in distance, they are significant in meaning, in purpose.

The twelve-mile move from our previous home in suburban Westminster to our "new" home in urban Denver is the most significant migration of my life.  It represents far more than the distance between the houses.  It signifies a new way of living: from that of the all-too-common suburban house to the hand-crafted, time-tested neighborhood home; from auto-dependence to pedestrian freedom; and from a quick hold that forced both my wife and I to work, to the cognizant lifestyle change that has enabled my wife to stay home with our amazing daughter while only I must go to work in the "corporate world."

I can't say that we'll be in the same house as long as Jake and Mary, Bill and Cricket, and Dot and Beryl.  But we certainly have no intentions of migrating back to the placeless suburbia in which we both grew up and then owned a house for five years.

Even the smallest migrations can change us the most.  The black-eared bushtit flits around a familiar habitat but otherwise stays where it's at.  The red- cockaded woodpecker delineates the colony with resin streams and plans to stay put.  These familial birds leave only when they must.  Like the distressed bushtit, my family and I migrated a short distance but made a major change.  Even the smallest migrations, you see, move us the most.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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