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“…the fine print, the small type, of a meadow mouse.” — Thoreau

Behind my eyes is a geometric pattern, the dark blue lines zig zagging and dotting in that 1970’s way around white, repeated ad infinitum on the wall of my grandmother’s breakfast nook I haven’t been in for almost 15 years. It’s there when I rub my eyes in fatigue, who knows why.

On the other side of my eyes, you might see fibers of dark grey, green and ochre around a black circle.

But around the black center of a white-crowned sparrow’s eye is a dark mahogany-red. Inside the abyss of his eye, I can only imagine he is terrified as his heart races in my hand, little short breaths heaving his feathery chest. With the most delicate of touch, I run my finger up and down his body and make promises I can’t keep, still horrified by the thump of his body against the car window. His eyes blink fear and innocence straight into my eyes, but he has no control of his body, which has collapsed belly-up into my palm.

Minutes later, I declare it a minor miracle that he hops out of my makeshift hospital box and is gone. The next day he is returned to the glorious flock of 50 birds working over my now-expensive winter feeder.

Meadowlark by Summer Lee, 2012. watercolor on paper

(A recent watercolor: Yellow happens to be the precise spot where the eye tunes into the sequence of color frequency — it has the same vibration that stimulates the retinal nerve-ends and causes the phenomenon we call light)

Obviously, these birds are my favorite words, my favorite swath of paint — and I am ever envious of those musicians who have such mastery over the wild flocks of notes and melodies, every single beat tamed at the same moment they are also alate.

— and yet, among the most rigorous creators, there is a holy acknowledgment of the not-coincidentally aleatoric. Who knows to where those wings will fly.

After 8 years of minding this winter feeder, I know every resident from migrant as I welcome new offspring and pray for the missing. They are a light, a moment of solitude along my bustling path in and out of my home in this dark time of year. Their hearty feeding is proof of a cold darkness stretching longer than what daylight allows for warmth and food. And maybe my dedication to their feeder is an understanding of these fickle and insufferable days.

Anyone can sing, but there is astonishment that the wonder of words still visits me, like the small group of diminutive, navy-blue and chestnut nuthatches, who for some reason are eagerly taking my sunflower seeds for the first time this winter. They dive into the top of the bare tree, then climb with their powerful claws head-down along the branches like woodpeckers, whom they are always adjacent to in field guides. At the feeder, they grab a singular seed into the tips of their needle-tipped beaks and with a few nasally yank-calls, fly out of sight along a bobbing flight path, into the mysterious.

The next day my son playfully repeats, “dammit” as I scurry out of the car to grieve the little brown body lying below the same car window next door. He also says I am going to eat this bird after watching me consider its life, its body, photograph it, then gently wrap it into the freezer — not an absurd conclusion on his part. I don’t tell him that this bird had not yet developed golden plumage along his crown, being this sparrow’s first winter. He was born last spring in a forever-unknown location on the western coast of Alaska and followed his flock over a thousand miles, maybe two, to our feeder. Probably just like his genetic ancestors have done since time immemorial. But even so, my son asks me if the bird cries. No, but the song says it all.


The loving details of this bird life in my mind’s eye are already fading — I’m no master at this — but I can hear his song and his eyes have gone dark.

“…to face the possibility
that your innermost core may hold nothing at all,
and to sing from that – to fill the void
with every hurt, every harm, every hard-won joy
that staves off death yet honours its coming,
to sing both full and utterly empty,
alone and conjoined, exiled and at home,
to sing what people feel most keenly
yet never acknowledge until you sing it.
Anyone can sing. Yes. Anyone can sing.”

— William Ayot