Desire as Beauty
Simmons B. Buntin reviews Tracking Desire: A Journey after Swallow-tailed Kites by Susan Cerulean
“To me,” says Susan Cerulean, “kites are about surprise. Mystery. Being gifted.” But what they are really about—what her book is about—is beauty. From the author’s name to the illustrated front cover to the writing within, Tracking Desire: A Journey after Swallow-tailed Kites is a beautiful collection of interconnected essays, often personal, always accessible.
The book begins with “Origin Moment,” an introductory story not only about the first time Cerulean saw a swallow-tailed kite over South Carolina’s Edisto River—“how that bird swung into view and hung over me, suspended like an angel, so starkly black and white, with its wide-scissored split of a tail”—but also a review of the ecological and spiritual pursuits, and challenges, of the extensively migratory bird of prey.
Much of the book is dedicated to Cerulean’s pursuit of kites, both scientifically—most notably through field trips and conversations with Dr. Ken Meyer, a biologist at the leading edge of swallow-tailed kite research—and aesthetically, as she travels from her north Florida home south to the Everglades and west to Louisiana, and beyond.
In the second essay, “The Roost,” she lays out her personal plan and, largely, the initial context of the book:
I wanted to learn for myself, in person, what kites needed, what their bottom line was. I had to know what the essentials of their life requirements might be. If we could only isolate those needs into discrete packages, I thought, as I had learned in college biology classes—what do they need to eat? What habitats do they require to nest, to migrate, to forage, to overwinter? How do we protect them from predators, and by the way, what are their predators? If these things were known, then it would just be a matter of management. Then we—the lovers of kites, of all that is rare and wild—could see to each of those requirements, ultimately keeping safe the species as a whole, no matter what else happened in Florida.
In her pursuit, she excels. And just as kites are surprising to Cerulean, so there are passages in Tracking Desire that are surprising, unexpected, and brilliant. Though they may not, on the surface, appear to be central to her pursuit, they are central to her journey, as she explores her family and personal history as well as her impact—our impact—on the environment around us. And they are inexplicably intertwined with the facts and observations of her pursuit:
Mile after mile, Florida, and living in Florida offered up as effortless, at the expense of whatever lived here before. And yet every one of us, a staggering nine hundred new residents each day, arrives eager to embrace our new place, even if we don’t know what it really is or once looked like.
Just as I was when I first moved to St. Petersburg from New Jersey in 1970 to attend Eckerd College. Just as my grandparents Alice and Charles Isleib never looked back once they relocated to Bradenton in 1959 to live out their remaining decades under a warm sun.
How did we get here? What is it about us—my grandparents and me—that allowed us to slip loose so easily from the northern New Jersey soils that bred us, the family left behind, the communities, the familiars? Was it Florida that seduced us or New Jersey that let us go? Is it, was it, a failure of our own ability to stay in place, a rent in our spirits, or might we have been drawn here for some necessary purpose?
And the ramifications, directly presented:
It’s not so much of a problem that we want to come and embrace this place; it’s how we do it, how it’s done for us. For so much of Florida is build on the dead: the killed bays, the razed scrublands, the buried-alive gopher tortoises. We must close our eyes to loss in order to live orderly, guilt-free lives in these places. We assume the best, believe the cheerful corporate literature. We are pleased with the descriptive names of our streets and malls and subdivisions: the Oaks Mall (tress cut down); Turkey Run (turkeys gone), and so forth. We are guilty first of ignorance, second of strong self-preservation instincts, third of laziness; the land and its wild creatures always lost under this scenario.
Tracking Desire has a keen sense of literary timing, as well, invoking quotes from the likes of poets Linda Hogan and Adrienne Rich. And at the same time, Cerulean’s words are poetry even among scientific study, as in this passage in “Searching for Swallow-tails,” in which she actively participates in a kite radio-tagging trip:
A cool rain began as Megan rappelled down the brilliant rope. I could see how she’d wrapped the rope around her leg as a break, controlling the speed of her swift descent with a leather glove on her right hand. Faces upturned, we watched her. Rain fell into our eyes, rain from far higher than the nest and the young bird, from higher even than the adult kits that now hung noiseless in the air.
Like Aldo Leopold, who in the classic A Sand County Almanac explores and details and in turn evokes and transforms both himself and the reader, Cerulean also tracks her desire for the restless bird with her restless self, evoking and transforming, both in passages of a largely inward focus—
It was still early enough in the evening, so I gathered my son, my niece, and my nephew, and we walked a long time toward sunset. Under the wide sky, red bellies of storm clouds washed the clay surface of the road, the children, and the rain puddles into all one pink, all one joyfulness. David ran to me, offering a feathery globe of dandelion flower. I blew and blew the winged seeds, asking fiercely of each wild weedlet that it grow me into more passionate, intimate living.
—and in passages that draw the clear relationship of ourselves to our wider place, and our responsibility in that place:
I began traveling after kites with what I thought was a simple intent—to be close to a bird I had loved for twenty years. But the story that has unfolded goes beyond the natural history of the swallow-tailed kite: it is the natural history of us, in south Florida, us as North Americans in the early twenty-first century. The story penetrates how I perceive and satisfy my own needs. It includes the way I live my life, the size of my house, the food I eat, the things I buy, the way I travel. I chose kites, or they have chosen me, but I could have selected the monarch butterfly or the parula warbler or a Florida black bear or a Haitian sugarcane worker to serve this story. Each creature is linked to every other in the intricate web of life. The lives of the migrant workers who harvest the sugarcane outside my car window are just as degraded as are those of the kites who breathe the agricultural pesticides; as are the rivers and lakes that receive the cane’s nitrogenous wastes; as are the teeth of our children and ourselves, who eat sixty-eight pounds of sugar each and every year; as are the souls of the rich few who get even richer off all the rest.
At its end reached all too soon—Tracking Desire is only 179 pages, including end notes and acknowledgements—the book is both a field guide to swallow-tailed kites, and a poignant call for their protection: for the protection of their vast ecosystems, especially in Florida. But as the passage above so eloquently states, it is also a thesis, elegantly scribed, on the need for whole-scale change if in fact we want to save the kites, save ourselves. And that change starts with knowledge—“If you have not learned when an animal might be present or absent, nor its name, nor any of its habits, then you can hardly expect to base decisions on its appearance or activities when you do happen to see it,” she says. Both knowledge and wisdom—their own necessary beauty—are the welcome gifts of Tracking Desire: A Journey after Swallow-tailed Kites, by Susan Cerulean.
|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.