It is a silly and random number, especially when applied to the chaos of life.
I have counted 399 species of birds over the years, my life staggering and flowing with the number. With them, there are little drab stories and big colorful ones too. Births and deaths and hopes and losses, and fears and little reliefs and bits of joy. Like how, when she addresses me as “my love,” a bird flies through me. And gratitude for those who counted with me. With poems and stories and letters and sometimes just a line that says, I saw this bird. A bird, like a thought migrating over arbitrary borders, that reaches me and perches on my heart.
So many gifts.
Like the story about the man who paints. We met long after we lost Takeyoshi, meeting only because we both lost precious Takeyoshi. So how could it be that we both have spent our lives making artwork from birds.
And some of those who have taken it to the other side with me. We easily slip into the private language of obsessive details about where that bird was seen and when. Daily reports of who arrived and who left. Remember that time? And all the while, I ask myself, why does this young man, and that old man, and this lost soul, and that serious cynic, why do we devote ourselves to birds. Track them. Count them. Photograph them. Why not butterflies? Or pieces of rotting fruit? What of them drives us to beyond which we can go no further, knowing the bird might be long gone.
He once whispered, It is not like I need to see all of the birds. I replied, I need to. He added, Well maybe it isn’t necessary to do so in one year.
I climbed several thousand feet up a fog-covered mountain twice in three days to see a small group of Bell’s Sparrows, a species not even listed in most books. The second day the wind opened the curtain of fog just long enough to see the tiny apparitions.
Or the other times, like Prairie Warbler who visited from far away. I waited patiently for weeks at the pond where it drinks. My friends saw it. I never did.
How futile to argue with a Prairie Warbler.
And then the ones that flew over like signs from dreams. Sometimes it was when the heart was heavy from an absence. Or there was an unexpected blessing. Like when, in my grandmother’s land, the golden pheasant was digging through trash at the hastily-restored ancient wall, or the little wren that sang outside the window of the home that stands guard over displaced immigrant bones.
Or the magpie that comes to her door, reminding her to stay in the garden rather than retreat inside. How magpies risk themselves for shiny objects, reminding us all about the unfolding, if not wayward, path. Along which there are no repositories, because shiny objects have no use in the next season, the next life. Because there is always a next season.
And scooping up the dying and dead ones, sometimes trying to save them, as if I could. In the hand, they weigh at most one or two nickels, and are soft and fearful, and heavy with mourning. How they persist so dutifully against so many odds, storms, predators, just to succumb to human ignorance and interference and land in the bottom of a muddy hole I have dug for them. The point at which finally I have learned: it is witnessing, not intervening, that heals.
In some cultures, they remove themselves from their kindred to shift their senses towards the animal world, and away from the human ones. They perform rituals to cleanse and purify themselves. Then after a few days, the animals appear to them, what we have survived upon since the beginning. And we follow.
In life, I never have had the emotional strength to keep up with where the birds take me, especially Fox Sparrow. But somehow the discomfort eases just enough to comprehend the next rare bird who I must change my life for. And less and less do I know where that will take me. But the 401st bird is already just in view over the horizon, trailing off towards this choice-less path, and I have already devoted my life to it.