I've got a bird feeder out along the covered porch that gets the occasional visitor. Most of the birds I can recognize, sparrows, my favorite the Cardinal and the occasional dove. There are ways to tell birds apart other than looks or color. You can study what they eat and of course what they won't eat, by whether they sleep high up or snuggled down safe in low covering, by whether they eat more in the morning or at night. By the shape and size of the nest, if there is one. By whether they find shelter so close they can touch it or whether they migrate for miles to find it.
But there is one thing birds have in common. Birds are meant to fly free, not be caged in. My Mom Grace always had a Budgie, which she'd train to sit on her shoulder and eat out of her hand. But I always wondered. When you hold a bird in your hand it closes its eyes in resignation. Trust. Or fear?
I've told my readers about a neighbor I had out in the country once who kept a quail in a cage, just so he could hear the "bob white" of it's call. I'd watch the bird in there, reminding me of a prisoner in a small cell in a prison camp, sending out small Morse code signals in hopes of someone hearing him and rescuing him. But no one came to rescue him and I could only think of him growing old and dying there in that tiny cage, his prison cell, his will deflating, his spirit becoming drab as his prison uniform over time. I don't believe the man did it to be cruel, he simply thought like others, that he could take a wild thing in and tame in, that it would only require the creature to make an adjustment in it's lifestyle, to shift the center of its desire from one thing to another.
One day while the neighbor was away, I went over and quietly opened the cage door. The bird was gone in a flash, with the urgency born of prisoned spring and the awakening of burgeoning true; to itself, the sun and the wind, not the man who caged it.
I think about birds as I go to the airport to take a little flight while the air is still and before it gets dark. It's the perfect fall day, the trees not sullied by a breeze, the clouds wispy strands of sea foam against an ocean of sky. As I takeoff, I do a turn over my neighborhood. The pond at the end of the road looks sullen, like a glaring eye, as if it intends to ask a question. With a pull of the stick and a tap on the rudder, I pick up the wing and and move away from the pond, my response to questions that have already been answered.
I climb on up into clearer air, the throttle at full power as the little engine struggles against the decrease in air density. Still pushing on upwards where the air is clearer, and purer still, out of the haze layer of Fall, the smoke, the traffic, clouds at every turn, their dark reflections playing across my wings like shadow puppets. I should probably head back down, to denser air, to the safety of the airstrip. But I like the altitude, the spaces way up here, where up, under the contrail of something much larger than I, order rules.
I think back to a job I had flying when I was young, building time in a small corporate airplane as I waited to go into service for a commitment that would take years of my life, given without regret. I got a lot of hours in that bird, feeling about it like a dear friend. Sometimes, on my day off, I'd come into my hangar, without telling anyone and get a hose and a soft brush and wash it myself til it gleamed, even if that wasn't part of my job. It wasn't mine but I took pride in its care, thinking if I tended to it, giving it care and loyalty, it wouldn't fail me. Then one day I came in and it was gone, the owner having sold it, simply sending me a terse note that he didn't need me any longer, not having the decency to tell me in person. I didn't even get to say goodbye. The last flight in her . . .where was it to? I couldn't even remember. I wished I could have remembered.
If I'd known it was the last flight, I might have paid more attention. I could have pulled the remnants of the flight into my memory before the hangar doors closed so that on late nights in a hotel alone somewhere I could draw them out slowly over a cold beer and the quiet. But, at the time, it was just another happy day flying, another early wake up call, the rush to get the bags loaded up, the weather checked one last time. Just another launch of hope and adrenalin that 10 years from now, will only be remembered by myself.
I think about that little airplane as I soar up with the birds, drinking in deep of the day, quenching a thirst not born of the body, but of the spirit. A single goose flies past me. I pop the window open to catch a scent of the earth and hear the drone of the little engine. Time settles comfortably into itself, resetting my own internal clock with the reassurance of continuity. I wonder how long these birds soar before they are stilled, just a few years perhaps. For us all, time shortens ahead of us, shaping our chances and shortening our hopes, even if we have no more doubt of our flesh and our bones than we do of our will and our courage.
But today is not about the shortening hours, it's not about, even, the airplane. It's about absolution, those things we do that lay bare our humanity and relax our defenses, as we simply slow into the quiet pool of ourselves for a few moments, bagging a little transcendence from the murky waters of an earthbound life. It's about trust, with a little craft that moves in time with the motions of my hand, like geese that fly in formation with nothing but trust, choreographing something that have no experience with, yet is as instinctive to them as life.
I hope to get to fly this little bird another day, but none of us know when our last flight will be. So I take in everything around me, holding in the memory. Taking in one moment that you trust will never be the last, keeping it in, like breath underwater, to sustain me in the airless days ahead.
I bank and turn back home, anxious now to get home and pick up the phone to talk the evening away with the one that always stood by. Trust and hope. The air is smoky this afternoon, corn fields all around me have been brought down and some farmers are burning off a field down to its roots, so it can be planted with something new. From the smoke the birds escape the flames, up from the dense remains of grain, into the veined complexity of sky, where space and freedom interface. From aloft they spot my feeder, simply looking for some shelter from the storms, some sustenance, while keeping the freedom of their wing.
For isn't that what we all desire.