I was four or five the first time I saw a Redwing Blackbird. Riding in the backseat of my parents Impala, up on my knees, my face pressed against the triangular back window. This was over a half century ago. A generation before we imprisoned our children, most often screaming, in specially constrcuted car seats, strapping them in as though preparing them for the inevitable lethal injection. In 1955, we drank water from the tap, chewed tar from electrical poles like free gum and got up to make our choice of two television channels.
So. Back in that Impala. We're somewhere between Eureka and Arcata in Humboldt County, California. Along that stretch of Highway 101 that skirts the slough. When I notice a shiny black bird clinging to a shedding cattail. In late Fall, the six foot stalks decay and loose their stuffing, so that the soft brown fluff hangs like the velvet on the antlers of the bucks my Dad shoots each October. As I said, I'm on my bony, kid knees making breath prints on the Chevy's passenger window, preparing to write my name with my finger. That's when the Blackbird takes flight.
The surprise of that flash of brilliant red against the shiny black feathers and the dying cattails, is my first memory of joy. My heart jumped in my scrawny chest. A sharp squeal escsped into the car. No one else had seen this miracle. My sister was asleep on my mom's lap in the front seat. My dad was driving, his eyes on the road. That unexpected gift of color seemed aimed directly at me.
I live now in Northwest Arkansas. Last month a thousand Redwing Blackbirds fell from the sky here. No one knows why. There is speculation that fireworks frightened them to death, that a mystery virus struck them all dead of blood clots to the brain at the same instant. One pundit suggested that a flock of Canadian Geese forgot to honk, thus running into the smaller Redwings. Sort of a mid-air collision of feathered Hummers and tiny Smart Cars. The last explanation seems as likely as the first two.
When I heard about this phenomenon, my first thought was of that lone bird fifty years ago, taking flight over a ragged patch of dull estuary. An instant of pure joy, an unexpected glimpse of intense gemlike red. It feel like yesterday. It feels like now. Pain haunts us but joy bursts forth in electrical moments that, while we understand are memory, feel more like a re-living of the moment.
Still, I can't help seeing those dead birds. Imagine. One second you're soaring above the earth on wings feathered in shiny blue-black, that finger touch of jeweled red exposed proudly to the warm sun. The next instant, you're a falling bundle of death, bouncing off the dead Bermuda grass or steaming roof or gray concrete below.