A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
From the age of 10 until I was 28 years old I spent none of my birthdays at home. August was always the time for travel: my 10th birthday in a tent at a girl scout summer camp, 11th in a convalescent home, 13th free and unsupervised in Salzburg, 15th accompanying an elderly great aunt to Wales, 17th as a maid in a dilapidated hotel on a North Sea island, 18th in London, 19th in Prague, 20th high up in the Alps, 21st a Sunday a few days after arriving as a graduate student in Dallas Texas, 22nd at a Jewish wedding in Paolo Alto, and so on. I left my home in Germany to have my American adventure – without knowing if I would ever go back to live in Germany. I never did, apart from visiting my parents for a few weeks in the summer. When I was a young woman it seemed to be a sign of my destiny that I awoke on that special day every year in another place, with other people, and without a birthday party. It made Salzburg, and London, and Prague special, and I made sure I took my solitary “birthday walk” on beaches or through the mazes of city streets every year and touch the hearts of these places.
My husband Michael and I moved to a house in Mt. Washington after we came to Pittsburgh. “We have travelled far on this mountain,” he wrote in a poem for me after our son was born, and over the past 25 years that line has captured for me a different way of travelling. We have lived on the same mountain since 1987. We have walked the same streets, have seen children grow up, witnessed funeral processions, saw old houses fall and new ones go up, and have looked out over the Monongahela Valley too many times to count. I still travel to Europe every year, but the direction of my journey has gradually changed. It all began with birds.
Our back porch had a canvas awning that was pulled up in the winter, and every spring a pair of rosy house finches nested in the folds. A pair of mourning doves has been recycling a nest on the ledge above our back door for more than a decade, and they are probably by now the offspring of the offspring. I have to make sure every year that we do not use the porch too early in the season because as soon as the door opens the mama bird goes whoosh and flies away in a panic. Every year the same visitors: they come and stay for a few weeks, their babies fledge, and they move on to other places when the season ends. Birds, I noticed, don’t just fly around all the time. They make their home in one place, and they live there for the season, just like we do. They share this place above the Monongahela river with us. They are our neighbors, which means that they are our nah-gibur (Old High German), our ‘near-dwellers’.
I began to notice other birds returning over the years: the chimney swifts who come in May, the magnolia warblers who pass through around the same time, the scarlet tanagers who flash through the woods in June. Early May is the best time, because through the still sparse leaves you can see the ruby crowned kinglets in the thickets, and my favorite neighbors, the coopers’ hawks, refurbish their nest and engage in their courtship dance.
My daily walks through the neighborhood streets and woods are now overlaid with a soundscape of birdsong. I slowly learned to notice and differentiate the territorial melody of the wood thrushes or the warning chips of the chickadees. They don’t seem to mind me — I guess I am nothing compared to a feral cat or a red-tailed hawk. Slowly, year after year, I have come to “travel far on this mountain”, and it has become more varied and full. My travels do not go far away anymore, but they go deep.
Going deep in a place means to understand its rhythms and its web of beings: the change of light over the rivers at dawn, the migration of birds, the first toad lilies of the spring, the ebb and flow of human and non-human beings who are my neighbors. I imagine that women in hunter-gatherer societies had deep relationships with their places, and they cultivated a particular knowledge of life in one place. That knowledge was inscribed into their bones: the legs that walked, the hands that touched. Their ears understood the cries of animals, their eyes knew how to see, their hearts welcomed the turning of the seasons, even if they were cold, wet, and uncomfortable. And the stones, the stones under us, the bones of the earth: how rarely do we actually see them here in Western Pennsylvania. They are hidden under layers of leaf mold and concrete, but sometimes you find a clearing in the woods where the beautiful red sandstone juts out from a cliff. Shiny jet coal pieces are flung across old trails, and during the great depression people would gather them and burn them in their stoves. Going deep means to look at the stone and ask: what is under there. How did it come about? How strange to notice that all our hills have the same height! And then you find out that they are not hills at all: in this area, there are only valleys carved out of a plateau by glacial melt water during the last ice ages.
True ecological awareness means to go deep in a natural place. You begin to understand its web or relationships and how it changes in time. You remember the animal fellows from years back, and you look forward to their return and the birth of their babies. You care for this place because you have walked it and it lives in your muscles and bones. You care for this place because you have seen, and heard, and scented it and it lives in your senses as a differentiated perceptual landscape. It lives in your memory and it lives in your thinking because it asks you questions and you search for answers. It lives in your dreams as the landscape of your soul, and you are here to be its witness. Your breath is of it and in you, and you give it back. After the last one your body will be of it and your soul will pour itself over the river valleys and you are finally able to read the braille of the air currents as they carry other winged friends toward their other homes.
By Eva Simms