In the end, this is a kind of Mother’s Day story. But it starts this way:
When he was 16-going-on-17 my friend David, the atheist, ornithologist, environmentalist, and retired Fedex pilot, hitch-hiked from his Hudson River home to the Gaspé, where he spent the first of many summers watching birds. It was 1956, year of the Montgomery bus boycott, the sinking of the Andrea Doria, the world’s introduction to Elvis Presley, and passage of the U.S. Congressional resolution adopting “In God We Trust” as national motto.
In the spring of 1952 David’s family had moved from Long Island to Rockland County where, with only a couple of months remaining in the school year, David started riding the bus to and from Nyack Junior High.
David and another boy, Tom, lived at the remote end of the bus route. As the pair were walking home one afternoon, Tom noticed David searching the trees and asked what he was looking for. David explained that he’d seen a bird, a particularly beautiful bird, and he was anxious to spot another.
It was an oriole, David learned from Tom, who a year or so earlier (as luck would have it) had developed a keen interest in birds. The two boys spent the summer with German binoculars (Tom’s), bicycles, and books, exploring the woods with the kind of abandon that was possible in 1952.
For Christmas, 1953, David received his own pair of binoculars (Japanese, he would note). By summer 1956 Tom had left birds behind in favor of castles. But for David, that initial sighting of a brightly colored oriole had ballooned into what would become a singular, lifelong passion.
In the fall of David’s senior year in high school, his uncle attended a business dinner and was seated next to a stranger. Making pleasant dinner conversation, the stranger mentioned that his work had to do with birds. David’s uncle told of David’s adventure to the Gaspé. “I’d like to meet your nephew,” the man replied.
He was Robert Cushman Murphy, curator of birds at the Museum of Natural History, and the introduction marked both David’s formal entry into the world of ornithology and his introduction to environmental activism. “When we moved to Rockland County,” David said, “there were three peregrine falcon nests within biking distance of my house; less than 10 years later, there were only three nests east of the Mississippi.” Though he might have eventually written for The Auk and founded rare anyway, David’s meeting Murphy was pivotal, giving a particular shape to his teenage hobby.
David, the poetic misanthrope, tells me this story one clear, sunny April afternoon. We are sitting under an umbrella on the patio of a bookstore café enjoying a late lunch – something we used to do intermittently, sometimes with years in between, and then annually, and now whenever he is in town and we both have a free day, because David is striding (reluctantly) toward 80 and worries about running out of time.
As he’s done almost every summer since I met him 18 years ago, David and his wife (also an ornithologist) will soon pack their things and head to Percé, where they’ll stay from early May until late October, marveling at the migrations and lamenting the accelerating cataclysm.
“We’re dying people on a dying planet. But it’s a beautiful day, and it sure is good seeing you, kid,” David says.
The doorbell rings mid-afternoon on Sunday, Labor Day weekend, and he races down to answer the door.
I am sitting in the sunny room we call a library (because it is full of shelves of books) trying, without success, to write about having a 16 year old child, about teaching a child to drive, about the feeling of independence.
“Um, Mom, the girls brought me a birthday present,” my son says, as he climbs back up the stairs.
“Hi, Mrs. Balink,” one of the girls says, standing behind him. She is holding a large glass case, and in the case is a hamster. I say what a surprise this is and ask if their mothers helped them think of all the things they would need. “Oh, our moms are out of town this weekend,” another girl says.
After some debate and discussion (about the cat, and the dogs, and general housekeeping issues), the hamster, with all of her belongings, takes up residence in my son’s room. “They don’t have a very long lifespan,” I say to Bernard (who is not happy with this development) as we get into bed that night, “and it was sweet of the girls. They were worried because their friend wasn’t having a big 16th birthday celebration, and they wanted to do something exciting.”
Six months later, a few days before he graduates from learner’s permit to full driving license, my son drives us to the pet store to buy hamster food, because the birthday present bag has finally run out. On the way, we talk about (among other things) giving and receiving gifts, about nurturing friendships.
He uses money he’s earned stringing tennis racquets to buy the enormous bag of pellets. “Wouldn’t it be ironic if we buy all this food and then, you know, she goes? They don’t live very long, hamsters. It’s kinda sad, actually; they spend their whole, short lives in cages. But I think she’s pretty happy – as happy as a hamster can be. I talk to her and stuff. She’s funny.”
Three days later, the hamster dies. He comes home from school and finds her lying still in her freshly cleaned cage. In retrospect he realizes that it was quiet during the night, that he slept through an entire nine hours without the sound of a wheel spinning, for the first time since his birthday. He is prepared for this moment, but he is still sad.
The next afternoon his friends come over for a burial service in the backyard. They are quick about it, because he has to get to tennis practice, because tennis has become his passion. They say a few words, capture the moments on Snapchat, and then disperse. He will call, after practice, to say he’s going to grab some dinner before coming home, because it’s almost eight o’clock and he knows we’ll have already eaten.
I remember the power of this feeling, the independence of being 16 and having access to a car, of temporarily being out of the nest, free.
“OK,” I say, “see you soon”
“Why did you have children?” David asks. It is a clear, bright day in March, a month before our lunch at the bookstore. We are sitting on a different patio, this time not under an umbrella but in full sun, because the air is still a little chilly. We had been talking about the oceans, which led to talking about the future, which led to his question. “The science is incontrovertible, and you’re a logical person. You brought kids into a world that’s a collapsing, catastrophic mess because of what humans have done to the planet. Don’t you worry about that?”
I try to explain that it was an intentional but not necessarily rational decision, that being a mother was simply what I wanted to do with my life. Whether it is more selfish to have children or not have them is a matter of perspective. “Who knows,” I say, “maybe one of them will invent carbon-capture technology.”
The most optimistic people he knows are the ones with children, David concedes. And then we shift subjects (though not really), and he tells me about the nesting habits of puffins and great cormorants, the against-all-odds migration of barn swallows.
When we meet again in April we resume this same conversation, though from a different vantage point. I ask how he first became interested in birds, how the pursuit began. He tells the story, recalling the precise moment, including the date and time, with absolute clarity. He tells me about Tom, and the binoculars, about the falcon nest in the elm tree at the end of his driveway. He describes riding in a chauffeured car up the driveway to Robert Cushman Murphy’s house.
I picture him at 16, imagine the person he was then, which is very much (I suspect) the same person he is now. And I wonder (I say to David) if it isn’t this same story taking shape in my house, right now: the prologue of everything that leads to 16, and the story that then takes flight.