Bobolink

 

                                                                                   “Brave Bobolink"

                                                                                                             —Emily Dickinson                                                                                                          

 

 

It is time.

 

Everything says it is time.

 

                                                                In the lingering corners

                                                             Of original prairie

 

                        In the thrumming

                                            And tossing meadows

 

And hayfields ready for reaping

 

It is August

In Michigan

And it is time.

 

Now! Say the shortening days,

Like the angel imploring Joseph—Go!

 

This way!  Point the stars

And the Earth’s magnetic poles.

 

“But they had only arrived in May!”

 

Now!

 

“A ten-thousand mile

Ordeal by flight

From the Pantanals!”

 

Go! 

 

“And their young

Are but three months of age!”

 

This way!

 

And they are off

From their natal fields,

 

Ahead of the descending apocalypse

Of ice and snow,

 

The bobolinks—

 

Meadow-winks

As they were known

For their tinkling call on the grasslands

 

                                 When we christened our wild brethren

                                 With all of the affection of kin,

 

When they were our workmates our playmates

 

Our thieves our guardians

 

When their music was the only song on the dial.

 

                                     Blackbird

                                              Of the manically sparkling lyric,

 

Troubadour of the once-unbroken prairies

And their vertiginous horizons—

 

The female in her sparrowy earth-tones, dressed to vanish among the grass stems where she nests and rears her young. And the bedraggled drunk-with-love male, that the Creek Indians named the skunk bird: a besotted butler in a livery buttoned on backwards, with a maid’s saffron shower cap slapped on his head, as he does his best vocal impersonation of R2D2—

 

But it’s time to turn in the tux

Rented for the spring ball

 

Time to foreclose

On their nests in the forbs

 

To leave to Herod’s harvesters

Those unable to journey

 

And converge in solemn flocks

On the marshes of Lake Erie,

 

To secretly molt

And for a final feasting on insects.

 

Bobolinks from many fields, fattened and freshly feathered, males now in female guise, podding the cattails in watchful listening silence

 

As the day dies away and

 

Now—Go!

 

And in flocks of hundreds

They launch by the Moon

 

On an Odyssey

Whose Homer

They memorized in the egg,

 

Over the first great water,

 

The first flight for their lives,

 

Overtaking echelons of Canada geese,

 

Coalescing their aerodynamic flocks

With their flight-call of bink bink

 

And there is no turning back, no spacetime behind them, on this outrageous commute from the Heroic Age—

 

This expansion ad absurdism from the Ice Age’s end, as the retreating glaciers drew migrants ever-further north to their accustomed breeding grounds—

 

Landfall before daybreak,

 

Then instrument flying

A mile over the Alleghenies,

 

The green mountains that autumn ignites in its scorched-earth retreat from winter, so the first descending snows will find nary a spoil to divide—

 

Eastbound for the Atlantic coast

 

Burning away their fat stores

Under the cosmic migrant Cygnus

 

Under Helios

Kind in the morning chill

 

As they merge with flocks from the Northeast, from Quebec and Newfoundland, and sojourn on in a unanimous Babel of many dialects

 

Over the grid of our fanatical partitioning of the Earth—

 

                       The circuit board of the human electron,

 

To funnel
Into the coastal estuaries,

 

The wetlands

Of the Delaware

And Chesapeake Bays,

 

Where they were once the reed bird, the marsh bird, in the Golden Age of the bobolink, arriving a century past in blizzards of a million strong, driving, negative snowstorms of blackbirds, that gun-hunters dropped by the hundred thousands and restaurants served as an autumn staple—

 

But the infinite prairies where they bred are gone—

 

                            Gone are the endless hayfields that fueled our original horsepower,

 

                                  And the flocks are a tenth those numbers now—

 

Feasting

Before more famine

 

On the seeds of tidewater grasses

 

In grainfields by moonlight

 

                                           Where a perfectly silent owl

                                                Snatches away a wingmate—

 

And who was saved?

 

Who was spared?

 

When there is no escape

                                    But in the going on

 

          By night

                                                  By day

                                    By the circumpolar stars

 

      By their magnetized iron wills

 

This way!  Go!

 

Replenished for the sojourning on, south on the Atlantic flyway, a riverbed carved into the coastal skies by the wings of innumerable migrants—

 

Over the glittering

Seaboard metropolises,

 

The maddening constellations

Floating beneath their wings—

 

And they must divert their eyes from the deadly allure of the glowing tower windows, those illusory portals to light and warmth and rest—

 

No!  Don’t look!

You must go on!

 

There is no destination

But the austral spring!

 

But the sirens of the towers beckon, “Come and rest!  Come if only for a moment. World-travelers, where is your home?  Where is your place of rest?  You who only ever arrive to journey again!  Come to the light and rest and be warm!”

 

And birds peel off for that realm of mystic holiness,

 

The weariest elders

 

                         And dreamiest young,

 

                                              But the flock drives on

                                                And only the flock matters

 

On this extreme sport

For the highest stakes—

 

This biannual labor of Hercules

Assigned to a blackbird,

 

Winging on

By September

To the Carolinas

 

Where they were once the ricebird,

The loathed rice bunting

 

Dolichonyx oryzivorus:

“Long-clawed devourer of rice,”

 

When sun-blackening plagues of bobolinks descended on the coastal rice plantations, nightfalls of famished blackbirds settling to plunder the emerald ricefields,

 

And the African slaves who winnowed and milled the crop were driven into the fields, flushing thousands of birds into the sky, as cannons fired hopelessly at the dizzying cyclones—

 

Of bobolinks profiting from human slavery, for the freeing of the slaves bankrupt the estates and the paddies were abandoned

 

And a shadow of those flocks must now journey on without that provender

 

Under fair-weather cumuli

 

                                                Passing a prehistoric convoy

                                                        Of Sandhill cranes

 

Over the scarring pox

Of sprawling development

                              Of which we are the microbe

 

To the southern swamplands

 

Where they bathe

                    And forage feverishly

 

And are joined

By fellow travelers

On shorter commutes—

 

 Warblers, thrushes

And vireos,

 

And in a milky way of migrating songbirds they stream onward, a secret mission slipping past the roofs of sleeping Georgians

 

And in the Morse code of their flight calls

 

There is no Why?

 

No What if

 

There is only the summons

And the martyrdom of going on

 

                                           Without hope

                                              And without despair

 

As brethren ahead in morning fog slam into a cell tower—

 

As a crying sister behind is swept off in the talons of a hawk—

 

It doesn’t matter!  They were not the chosen!

 

Bird thou art—

 

Bird and only bird:

 

You must fly on!

 

Windburnt now,

 

                                 Fighting turbulence,

 

                 Funneling

                                        Into Florida

                                                 By October,

 

Over the settled golden dew of electric light

And the formic processions of glowing cars,

 

 

The magical webs of luminosity

 

Til they wake on their wings

To a dawn of molten blue sky,

 

Then a dreamless sleep in an orange grove

Through the high heat of day.

 

And a cousin will be left behind

In the jaws of a snake

 

And a virus will weaken

The already weakened when

 

Wake up and go!

 

And they swarm into the heavy air—

A barely breathable broth under leaden skies,

 

Steering south

To their counterpoint of bink bink

 

Before landing blind in a cloudburst dowsing the everglades, where they roost in the slash pines until they can forage, and are foraging when a tailwind cries,

 

Go!

 

And they launch

In silent gravity

                             Out over the Florida Straits

 

Leaving below the gull-littered beaches

 

Follow the one ahead!

 

Lead the one behind!

 

No one will catch you

If you fall!

 

Over the white comets of the trawlers

In the blowing blue grassland of the sea

 

With its herds of not cattle but dolphin

 

Until latitude and longitude

Are nowhere and nowhere,

 

Compassing

For stopovers in Cuba

 

And to berry in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica

 

Where they were a delicacy known as the butter bird, and where males in spring were trapped for the pet trade, to sing of their heartbreak in birdcages until they battered themselves to death against the gilded bars

 

Because they heard the cruel summons Go! but were even more cruelly confined—

 

But that exploitation is largely over,

 

And when the wind cries It is time!

The stars point This way!

 

And they set off from the island

 

                         Like a night-mission

                        Of suicide pilots

 

                                                               Emboldening each other

                                                               As they push away the last of the land—

 

                                           Because it is time to drown

                                                                 Or it is time to fly

 

                                    Five-hundred miles

                                    Across the blue desert

                                    Of the Caribbean Sea

 

An aqua incognita

On the map of Mercy

 

And they will burn away their fat stores

                                       And sweat away their blood-warmth

 

Jostling in their flight pattern

For an aerodynamic edge

In this all-or-nothing crossing

 

As the Moon blind from having seen everything

                                               Rises in its fullness to watch


And two miles above a blinking jetliner overtakes them: a soaring metallic pod on the divine side of the clouds—but never further from heaven—crammed with wingless travesties of the gods, the morbidly obese and incurably bored and obscenely ungrateful, in the nowhere between two airport terminals, eyeing idiocy on video screens and stuffing their gullets with slaughterhouse offal, in an inconceivable consummation of the miracle of human flight—

 

While the bobolinks are below

Invisibly peppering the infinite dark

 

Star-compassing for the smell of landfall

In the briny darkness

 

                                 Nothing now

                                                            But the thrusts of their wings

 

When suddenly they are braving headwinds, and the stars go out, and a thundersquall rolls in, and its fury is plunging hundreds into the combers—

 

They are plummeting into the mountainous waves

Like so many expendable avatars on the screen of a gamer!

 

Ride the winds!

Keep your bearings!

 

Who are you to give up?

 

Who are you

To vanish into the sea!

 

You must stay aloft!

You must keep going!

 

And the rest fight on

 

                            These wandering minstrels

                                                                  Pitching in the slaughterous winds

 

Sounding the starless blackness

                            With their cries

 

                               Heeding the cries

                                                              Of those ahead

And those behind,

 

Until the sea gusts weaken

                                         And stars reappear—

 

                                                      The voyeuristic stars

                                                       Counting the survivors

 

  As Mars

               Crimson in the east

                                Honors them

                   For their battle for their lives,

 

Though they regain their bearings

With no fuel at all—

 

Famished and thirsting, without even a memory of rest, and maybe life or death doesn’t matter anymore, so that the cessation of breathing is every bit as natural as breathing itself, and only their collective inertia propels them forward

 

As day breaks

And they steer by the sun

                                      Over a tranquil blue oblivion

 

Oh to sleep in the blue furrows harrowed in the sea!—

 

How narcotic is the thought of a watery demise below, and here and there relations tumble from the sky in fatal exhaustion—

 

Even as seabirds are banking the winds, and a salt breeze awards them the bouquet of landfall—

 

And the endurance flight is over

 

And below are gulls bobbing in the waves—

 

Waves breaking on the South American coast

 

The Gulf of Venezuela

 

Where the incurably weary, like selfless escorts, too exhausted even to feed, will be left on the shores in the clutches of crabs

 

                               Will be tossed from the poor fishermen's nets

                               Sieving the shoals

 

While the rest graze in a silent delirium

Before the impossible boon of sleep

Under a shower of green comets.

 

                                   But the Earth is too frugal

                                            For bobolinks to stay in one place for long

 

And they will follow

The rice and sorghum fields

 

Two thousand miles

Into the heart of the continent

 

Where in Spanish they are the Soldadito Arrocero, the rice soldier, and in Portuguese the Triste-pia, the singer of sorrows—

 

Vagabonds leaving behind

Their fellow travelers—

 

The orioles peeling off to the fruit orchards, the tanagers to the rarified air of the Andes—

 

Flocking by invisible milestones

Though the Brazilian Amazon—

 

Past the surreal oil fields, the devouring logging camps, through the smoke of the slash-and-burn subsistence farmers—

 

An agricultural pest

Thieving from both rich and very poor

 

For which they are netted,

Poisoned and blasted out of the air,

 

As they compass for Bolivia

 

Reaching the Pantanals by January

 

Where they will thrive again as a marsh bird

 

Snatching wetland insects

And drinking from the edges

Of piranha-infested waters.

 

You have arrived.

 

You have completed your assignment.

 

But you have no more a home in space

Than in time.

 

Your journey is your destination

 

And your destination the journey—

 

You are a migrant

Flung in  flung out

Of an endless migration.

 

And March will summon them north once again, and the males will don their formal attire, and along the way rehearse for their recitals in the boreal grasslands

 

So the enduring

Beget the enduring

 

And every egg explodes

With a voyager

 

Homesick

For the journey

 

Chasing spring’s providence

With reckless faithfulness

 

Across a sea and two continents.

 

Bird of two worlds.

 

Bird of half the world.

 

Small world, isn’t it?

 

Brave bobolink.

 

 

 

.