The birdsong is different here.
At home – at my house in Portland – robins are my alarm clock. Turdus migratorius are large, almost comical thrushes, with a massive red bib tied around their throats against the mess they’re about to make of some earthworms. They’re probably pretty, but I can’t separate them from their song – about which the less said, the better. You can go outside and hear it, starting around 4:30am. I can stay inside and hear it, too, through closed windows and a cinched-down pillow.
We have an embarrassment of towhees as well, whose trilling buzz makes me smile.
I am just back from the redwood forest, and I can no longer hear the spiraling song of the Rainbow bird. It has been a few days; by now I’m remembering once an hour, instead of every waking moment. Every hour, then, that blue-green hollow behind my throat aches with longing.
The July that I turned five – or maybe six – my parents and my aunt and uncle decided a family camping trip was in order. They picked a park, consulted a map, rented a couple of RVs, and hauled their collective four children eight hours north, to the fog-bound farthest reaches of coastal California.
I have no idea if that’s really how it happened the first time, but it’s true enough that the eight of us – in various combinations and with many additions – have made this trip nearly every year since. We pack an obscene amount of food (and, these days, alcohol), stuff our vehicles with bedding and flashlights and bug spray and warm clothing, and meet in the same place, a little after midsummer. What we do here together is not grand or unusual – we hike along the creek, swim in the river, tell ridiculous stories around the campfire – but it has the flavor of ritual. We are a disparate group these days, divided by geography, politics, generation, and circumstance, but we perform our communal rites with the enthusiasm of the convert and the devotion of the true believer. For me, at least, they are the anchor of my life.
I’m not trying to write a melodrama, or a Romantic poem. That’s always how this sort of thing comes out, though, to my own eye: a sort of crazed nostalgic longing for a place and time that colors a whole life the particular shade of water and slant of sun, steals the writer’s originality and turns it back on her home. Yet – I would not be a writer without my home. I wouldn’t be a complete person without it, either. I moved often, growing up, but this place was constant. I left a dozen places, but to this, I have always returned. We have always returned.
It’s not called a Rainbow bird, of course. I gave it that name years ago; it took me several more to wonder about its accepted taxonomy. The present establishment calls my Rainbow bird a Swainson’s thrush, and his song is often described as ‘ethereal,’ which is an accurate choice. To me it sounds like a 1980s cartoon kid-superhero, gleefully shooting rainbows from her hands.
Swainies are evasive creatures, and even if they popped about in the open they’d be hard to see – they’re feathered in a dozen shades of brown, with ultra-subtle spotting. I’ve seen one maybe twice. I hear them in my dreams.
Leaving camp the first few years of my adulthood, I thought I’d been ripped in two. I wanted to go home – which was camp, which was childhood, and a dream of the future I couldn’t yet imagine.
I did not love northwestern Oregon, I merely inhabited a piece of it. Every mile south at the beginning of the week shouted liberation. Every mile north at the end reduced me to throat-clutching tears.
It is not just the place, of course, although I cannot separate the ecosystem from the effect. It’s family, and memory, rooted by these trees. It’s the sacred space we create, hollowing out a timeless time each year to remember who we are. I don’t need a clock at camp. I don’t even need the sun to guess by. The hours are told in birdsong, in meals, in solitude and conversation and silent companionship. Camp is the time before the world begins.
You can see how leaving that behind every year felt like death. At twenty years old – twenty-two, twenty-five – I stood in a river I didn’t know and it knocked me off my feet every day. How to go back to that, over and over, when my true home held me up, let me float? For a couple of years in there, I didn’t breathe outside my redwoods.
The first bird to sing in summer, just at dawn, is not the Swainson’s but the Varied thrush. It’s not a complex song, not charismatic like the Swainie’s or long and bubbling like a wren’s, but once heard, you won’t forget it.
Otherwise quiet and neither fond nor overly shy of human company, the Varied forages unmusically in the leaf litter most of the daylight hours. Its distinctive orange-and-charcoal feathers move like bars of light and shadow – are you sure it wasn’t an optical illusion?
I got lucky once, and watched one sing. Otherwise, how could I believe that strange purity of sound – a single, sustained chord, high in the world’s tallest trees as morning imagines the daytime forest into being?
Picture the last quiet hour before the rest of camp wakes up. Sunbeams strike slantwise through the understory. Redwoods – tall and straight and politely spaced, stately as a circle of standing stones – take the pale gold light and turn it over in their hands, send it shining through lichen-bandaged branches of tan oak. Near the ground, it rediscovers a last, threadbare sheet of mist, and pierces it to striated beauty.
If I could paint the voice of the Varied thrush, it would look like that.
It got better, of course. Is that right: “of course?” Does time truly soften all things? It did this one.
And thank goodness, because I missed breathing. Portland and I – or maybe it’s the greater Columbia River Basin and I – are in it together for the long haul, and yes, it’s been a rough ride so far.
The seed was planted early, though, and I don’t wish to imagine the force that could root it out. The redwoods and my river give me solace in the way of nothing else I’ve known. This year I have needed solace more than ever since those early days.
I sent my final email and set up my last calendar reminder on a Thursday afternoon, desperate to leave behind this alien mess of a professional life I’ve created, entirely on purpose but who knew it would turn out to sap me so? I did, and I’ve kept it up anyway, which was the fourth or fifth mistake, I can’t keep track. The packing was easy. (It’s a pain in the ass.) I wasn’t preparing to visit my forest and my family. I was making ready to run.
Words often fail me, there. So I walk to the river. First morning this year, I matched my father’s footsteps – a rare hour together, no one else. At the old boat ramp that drops toward the summer footbridge, you emerge into the serpentine and sunlit curve of the river, walled to the west with rarest old-growth. We both know it from ancient days. Nothing needs to be said.
To see it – and to notice – for the first time must be like birth: a shock and a wonder. In the days following, I shepherded several cousins, all on their first visits, and they seemed, indeed, struck. I suppose I look nonchalant, by contrast, but I am only inarticulate. I am greeting my own soul, falling into a physical wholeness I never spiritually leave.
If I do not often stop to wonder here, it is because I am always in wonder that this land, in some small way, accepts me, and offers the gift of its intricacies.
As summer peaks, the air in Portland begins to smell like camp. Stony tang of river, peak-ripe maple leaves, long-sliding sun on conifer tops – there must be a hundred ingredients, and I’m helpless before their alchemy. I know when it is nearly time. I will touch – not merely remember – my river.
On the flip side, it’s back to work, back to things done and left undone. If only I could forget.
Instead, I learn to re-inhabit a world that I recognize as beautiful, desirable, and to some extent, earned. I chose it; in important ways, I’ve shaped it. I like it.
It’s this time every year that I remember it is a shadow on the cave wall, and I am facing the wrong way. My perfect form, though – it cannot be held. It is the river through my fingers. At least it is real, and I can touch it. Once a year, as long as it lasts.
It’s like a magical gift given by my fairy godmother for my fifth birthday. Or maybe more like a geas.
On the river, morning is the best time to leave the sound of humanity behind. (Unless you come at night – a different tale altogether.) In camp, things may already be warming up. Early skateboarders and a few loud-talkers rattle over the rest of us, who quietly sip our coffee and listen to the thrushes call the day to order.
Out here, on a modestly sized yellow boulder, camp sounds remain behind the curtain of ancient trees. I sit level with the ruffled green water, watching the fish jump and the swallows flash. There is no one else in the world.
I can hear the swallows, too. They make a quick, heavy flutter every few minutes, like strumming the pages of an antiquated dictionary. They are dipping into the water, chasing their arthropod breakfasts. The sound might be them shaking the river from their feathers.
It hasn’t been this bad in years, leaving camp. The violence of separation – years after the last battle, after the victor’s prize at last of equanimity – surprises me. I knew I was unhappy. It took the contrast to show me just how much.
I want to go home – which is camp; which is also the person and the life I have built away from it, the life I loved only recently.
These are separate griefs, and one points up the other. It is always true that when I am not physically present here, a part of me is missing. It’s an old wound, the price I pay for love. It pulls every year when I leave, and plenty in between, and I live with it. It’s mine.
But the other – that points to something wrong.
I watch a Varied thrush in my mind’s eye. It’s ignoring me, but maybe it will sing. I feel my family circled up, cooking and laughing and fighting about things that matter so much less than our togetherness. I listen to the river’s song rise up, as the campground stills beneath the first stars.
Then I cease to think about these things, and awake, I remember I am broken.
I am broken? This year’s reunion has stripped my defences. Instead of the hectic success I’ve spent the past months building, all I can see is what a mess I’ve made. I’m exhausted and I barely know myself. I went to camp to heal, and I left it bleeding. I seem not to have known that understanding the wound comes first.
There’s a high, slanted bridge not far from camp, which marks an excellent swimming hole. Fifty feet down, the water is still halfway made of light, green and gold inseparably entwined.
My cousins and I paddled upriver to the next beach, which doesn’t have a path. We brought three boats – not enough, so that two of us had to swim. We stayed all afternoon, in and out of the water, catching up in the shade beneath overhanging cliffs, picking through piles of multi-colored stones as smooth as eternity.
As if I was still there, I am watching one of our smallest members learn to navigate a small rapid. We’ve been down it together already, and he’s keen to try it alone. Nervous, and it takes him some time to get going. I sit alone at the base of the rapid in question, holding myself in place against the current, eyes and ears on the level of the green curling water. He picks his moment and shoots straight toward me, shouting excitement, golden-haired in the sunlight.
For anything else, I might hide here in my separate realm, alone and apart, until the last moment. I stand and make a triumphant fist, catch hold of his boat and offer a high five. We float into deep water, and I’m grinning like a nine-year-old, too.
I cannot actually be broken. I am loved, and I love deeply back. I have work to do, food to eat, a lake to circle on foot, and a nice-looking roof over my head. I have this place as retreat. Every piece of evidence I stack against my panicked perceptions says I’m over-reacting. And it is dangerous to assume your emotions are always right.
There is something here, though; truth laid open by the knife-blade beauty of this forest and this time and these people and all that can never replace them in my heart.
It’s a curious turn of phrase, to say that a place can get “in your blood,” but I accept it. The sound of the blood in my veins is the song of my river – what else would it be? From experience, I bleed red like everybody else. But when I am here I think, if I cut this vein in my arm, it would spill out serpentine green. Look: you can see it, under my skin.
It won’t show me the path, though. I’m still wriggling on a hook here of my own devising, with entirely non-mystical tools my best hope of getting free. I’d like to slice my arm and speak a prayer or a spell and watch the river boil up and rinse my pain and frustration clean. That’s a little crazy, though. What I have to work with is patience, will, compassion, time. That’s not to say that I own those first three, it’s to remind myself that I must find them.
But if there’s anything redwoods and a river and a family can teach, it’s time. So there is the gift, again. There is the grace I couldn’t shake if I tried, and the one that isn’t a big showy miracle, either.