The only ancestral story I know about birds is about 60 years old. My grandfather, a cannery warehouse worker by day, raised squab, also known as pigeons, for food. He kept them in a hutch in his backyard on East San Antonio and 24th Street. More than half a century later, my living relations use a particular set of hand motions to describe how they ended each pigeon. In two upturned palms their adolescent hands steadied the body: literally belly up. Next, their free thumbs closed in on the bird’s pulsing neck and then SNAP. I’ve learned my grandfather’s urban farming days were short-lived. The meat was gamey. He was not cut out for this slaughter.
[ . . . ]
At my apartment complex, a pair of identical two-story buildings face one another, split by a row of large trees. Walking on the landing towards my second-floor unit, a creature with bat-like proportions crosses my vision, flying too close to my face. I clutch at my sports-bra-flattened chest as if grappling for never-there pearls. I gasp as the creature dives through the maples and into the eaves of the mirroring building. So, naturally, I find myself scanning those eaves for a miniature body.
What’s that you’re doing, the building manager asks me, exiting her unit, head cocked.
Owing to a series of crimes in our complex, she has mounted several security cameras. I imagine her watching my pixelated figure on a computer monitor as I slink past the red-doored units like a ghost burglar. My explanation leaves her incredulous. A bat? She asks me. Do you mean like a crow?
And then I spot it, a plump little bird atop a light fixture, the size of a toddler’s clenched fist.
I take blurry photographs and send them to my loved one, October. Do you see a bird there? I ask, having gaslighted myself into believing it’s a figment. It’s hard to tell because of the zoom, they respond, but there seems like there is something on the light.
And then I exhale.
When I walk through my door the next morning, the small bird is swooping to greet me. I take note of its markings: long tail, pointy head, soot-colored with a white underbelly. A black phoebe.
The sexes are identical, I read in an article, and I feel akin to the bird in its genderqueerness.
We perform a kind of dance, the black phoebe and I, following each other around the complex for a spell. I am afraid that, with all my nervous fluttering, I might look to my neighbors like a manic pixie dream person. I extract a massa sovada loaf from my tote bag and tear off a miniature chunk. I crumble it as an offering and leave it atop the red ledge of the fence, all of this captured for posterity on the manager’s home security cameras. The offering I’ve chosen is ineffectual; it only affirms my disconnection from the bird’s way of being. I have not yet learned that the black phoebe’s diet consists mainly of a wide variety of insects, the indigestible parts of which they cough up as pellets.
[ . . . ]
And yet, to click with the black phoebe feels magical. It takes imagination, says radical herbalist and witch Dori Midnight in an episode of the Healing Justice Podcast, but it’s actually in some ways easier to connect with the more than human world, because there’s not all of those interpersonal dynamics going on.
Dear Black Phoebe, How does it feel to swoop past the doors of the apartments, movements traced by house cat eyes? The beasts cannot pursue you from behind picture windows. You startle when doors slam or humans near. There are 44 units in this complex, and perhaps three-times as many humans. Surely there is a quieter perch? Perhaps you enjoy the unrestfulness.
For the rest of winter, the Black Phoebe makes its home atop the lights in my complex. I scan for it nightly, and feel gratitude whenever I spot its body’s fist-size proportions. Spring brings with it more phoebes, who often nest near water, including backyard swimming pools.
[ . . . ]
In an essay called The Case for Nothing, the Cupertino-raised writer Jenny Odell describes how her “bird-noticing” practice changed the granularity of her perception. She says, at first I just noticed birdsong more. Of course it had been there all along, but now that I was paying attention to it, I realized that it was almost everywhere, all day, all the time. And then, one by one, I started learning each song and associating it with a bird, so that now when I walk into the Rose Garden, I inadvertently acknowledge them in my head as though they were people. “Hi raven, robin, song sparrow, chickadee, goldfinch, to-whee, hawk, nuthatch”…and so on. The sounds have become so familiar to me that I no longer strain to identify them; they register instead like a speech.
For me it is not so much bird-noticing that happens, but black-phoebe-noticing. I find they are everywhere: swooping between bushes in the garden beside the Mission de Santa Clara Assis, perched on a TV antenna on a roof in the South San Jose suburbs, bouncing on a cattail over East Side San Jose’s Penitencia Creek.
I begin to feel almost hemmed in by their inescapable prevalence, and yet, I still yearn to spy them. I trail one around the Santa Clara University campus for part of an afternoon, until I realize that my presence is distressing to the creature. I don’t intend to be a hunter, and so I scale my vibes back down to just noticing them.
[ . . . ]
When I consider how to be in right relationship with the birds of my neighborhood, I think of the poet and essayist Adrienne Rich. A former San Jose State lecturer, she writes of a heron she encounters in her Santa Cruz backyard’s habitat. When she speaks to the bird, she acknowledges, to it, I brought the kind of thing my creature does. That a black phoebe would have any use for a bit of my breakfast is human-centric at best. What’s more, I must resist any urge to assign a false or appropriated symbolism to the bird’s sudden appearance. Rich goes on to say, I am suspicious—first of all in myself—of adopted mysticisms, of glib spirituality, above all of white people’s tendency to sniff and taste, uninvited, and in most cases to vampirize [other cultures’] ways of understanding. I make no claim upon the heron as my personal instructor.
[ . . . ]
On 23 July 2019, I attend a talk by Valentin Lopez, the chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. He is speaking to raise awareness of the Sargent Quarry proposal that threatens 6,400 acres of ancestral lands (including four sacred mountains) near Gilroy. The vast majority of our sacred ceremonial sites have been lost to development, says Chairman Lopez in a quote printed on the event’s flier. Our Amah Mutsun tribe maintains that once destroyed by mining, there will be no way to rehabilitate the cultural and spiritual aspects of the landscape.
He explains how Mutsun ancestors stewarded the land, plants, animals, and waterways for 15,000 years. What’s more: Mutsun ancestors had a particular bond with birds. He shares that the tribe has partnered with archaeologists to try and recover lost information about their ancestors’ relationship to land in nearby San Mateo County. (To be clear: these details are not just lost. Spanish, Mexican, and American colonizers have been set on erasing these histories over centuries of genocide.) One finding from this research was that their fire pits from over a thousand years ago contained fewer bird bones. As such, tribal elders believe that their ancestors may have been part of a Bird Clan.
[ . . . ]
One summer day, I step out onto my apartment’s landing and am startled to see a large hawk perched on the railing. It flies across the small courtyard and onto the adjoining building’s roof, the one overlooking the swimming pool. I am in awe while the bird remains stony. Before alighting, it stares me square and emits three calls. Over days, I find myself developing a kinship with the neighborhood Cooper’s Hawks. When I hear the fledglings squeal, I step out onto Park Avenue and scan the high boughs for feathers. When I read in a field guide that hawks are fierce hunters of small birds, I feel traitorous towards the beloved black phoebes.
In an uncharacteristic turn, I post the hawk’s image on Nextdoor, the popular neighborhood snitch app. Two neighbors remark that a mated pair has been nesting near the Quaker meeting house for a few years. I use a mapping app to see that the meeting house, hitherto unbeknownst to me as a neighborhood feature, is three-tenths of a mile from my unit on foot. This was their neighborhood before it was mine and I’m happy to see them, writes one neighbor. It is as much their home as it is mine, writes the other. I am tempted to search the snitch app for these neighbors’ other posts, to see if they extend as much care to their fellow humans as they do to the fledglings. And then I realize I am being human-centric again.
Soon, I cease to see any black phoebes. The fledgling squeals replace their computer-sound calls.
Cuthrell, R. (n.d.). Quiroste Valley and the value of collaborative archaeological research about native history. [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://amahmutsun.org/land-trust/land-trust-newsevents/1764-2
Odell, J. (2019). How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Brooklyn, New York: Melville House Publishing.
Rich, A. (1993). What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Werning, K. (Director). (2018, May 26). People’s Medicine & Queer Magic — Dori Midnight. [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from https://radiopublic.com/healing-justice-podcast-WznLEJ/ep/s1!e1f43
Li Patron lives and writes in her hometown of San Jose, CA. Find more of her writing at www.romancingthevoid.com.