The human capacity to imagine perfection sets you up for a losing battle. Sarah Gorham’s “Study in Perfect” offers a creative and emotionally poignant glimpse into the illusive promise of perfection, and the humanizing (and more likely) results of imperfection.
The chapter “Be There No Human Here” looks through a lens of birds—people with pet parakeets, dreams of flight, well-meaning birdwatchers, the cultural meanings of “blackbird”—to delve into the subjectivity of perfection.
Perfection is not always what it seems. Study in Perfect (University of Georgia Press, 2014) was written by Sarah Gorham, winner of the AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction for her writings that probe the human capacity to imagine perfection and to cope with imperfection. Drawing from the realms of science, philosophy, linguistics, social history and personal reminiscence, Study in Perfect delves into the perfections, and often imperfections, that mold a human existence. The following excerpt is “Be There No Human Here” from Study in Perfect.
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Anthropomorphism is a way to comprehend the stars, seasons, weather, animals, any kind of nonhuman behavior. It’s an ancient storytelling tool that makes life more familiar, its many dangers and losses orderly, simplified. The stars, for example—explosions of hydrogen and helium. Observing them, we have nailed down eighty-eight constellations with names like Cancer (the crab) or Orion (the hunter). Once upon a time, thunder had a human face (Jove), as did spring (Persephone). Gods on Mount Olympus were mired in human rage, jealousy, and greed. As long as we have been thinking creatures, stumbling across the earth on two legs, we’ve assumed human qualities could be attached to anything.
Up in the sky a pair of hawks brush the high point of my vision, imperceptibly lifting the hairs from my scalp. I lean, and lean my head back. A certain privacy surrounds them: two black accents in a field of blue, two eye motes. They follow not road signs and easements but invisible pipes, cones, funnels of wind.
To see as they see—pasture cut by road, beeches sorted from the river, weeds twitching, and then, a camouflaged mole in hyperdetail, as if under a magnifying glass. The rest of the landscape is suddenly blurred, irrelevant. To aim with just one thing in mind, even if it is, comparatively, a small mind.
And yet, how I love the gray-and-blue-tinged basin of air between us. It is like standing at the edge of a continent, a kind of reprimand: You can’t have everything. The world will always be greater than your desires.
. . .
Birds have hollow bones adapted for flight, and mammals have solid ones. I use my teeth to grind up carrots and nine-grain crackers; the chicken has a gizzard that macerates its feed. My neck seizes after ten sit-ups, and birds have extremely long and flexible cervical spines, with eleven to twenty-five cervical vertebrae instead of the average seven in mammals. See how they turn their heads and preen almost any part of their body. I tried sleeping on a train, my head leaning on the chilled, quivering window. With each gentle sway, I drifted; with each jolt, I woke. Birds have a locking mechanism that allows them to sleep with their feet perched and stable. In winter, everyone notices how pale I am, febrile, weeping from my eyes, mouth, nose, ears. A bird disguises illness as long as possible in order to avoid attack by predators. This is called “prey species defense status.” For us, it could be fatal, this insistence on the appearance of health when we are failing.
Humans are the only species that can imagine a hawk’s point of view, the only animals aware of our mortality. We watch a mole scamper across the field, or a grackle born with one wing, or a mallard coated with oil, and know they too are doomed. Our language is complex and varied; we invent phrases: “A byrde yn honde ys better than three yn the wode” (circa 1530) and “When you have shot one bird flying you have shot all birds flying” (Ernest Hemingway). We study, sort, place a bird in context: Kingdom: Animalia; Phylum: Chordata; Class: Aves; Order: Falconiformes; Family: Accipitridae; Genus: Buteo; Species: Buteo jamaicensis. A higher degree of intelligence also allows us to build fires, cook food, clothe ourselves, as well as exchange ideas, appreciate beauty, music, art, and literature. We dream up causes for bird behavior, which doesn’t mean we get it right. Pliny the Elder, for example, thought the cuckoo was just another form of the hawk, “which at a certain season of the year changes its shape; it being the fact that during this period no other hawks are to be seen, except, perhaps, for a few days only” (Natural History).
Out of range, a white-tailed kite swoops low over a pasture. At first we don’t recognize it. How long does the bird remain an enigma? How long is our sight confused, our mind flummoxed before the imagination, and how long before a willful desire to name rushes in?
An otherwise clever man once explained to me how hummingbirds migrate to Central America: They ride the backs of geese, he said. Diminutive, fragile, light enough to be knocked out of the sky by a snowflake. Their ultrahigh metabolism requires them to eat constantly. How else would they fly such extraordinary distances? This I believed, until I couldn’t. A hummingbird would freeze if it had to wait around for geese to begin their migration, right? Also, geese winter in the southern United States, so the hummers would have to dismount and transfer to another species for the rest of the journey. No one has ever observed geese whip their heads around like dogs scratching for fleas, for wouldn’t they sense the hummingbirds on their backs? Finally, could a goose locate a rest stop with nutrition for both species? These are the facts as we now know them: Hummingbirds migrate long distances. Selasphorus rufus breeds as far north as Alaska and winters in Central America, a distance of 2,700 miles. Studies have found that a male ruby-throated hummingbird, weighing about 4.5 g, of which 2g was fat, could fly nonstop for 26 hours, consuming the fat at the rate of 0.69 calories per hour (R. C. Lasiewski, 1962).
Hummingbirds are efficient creatures; they avoid flocks, fly alone. But piggyback migration is a cozy tale and we love unlikely partnerships—think Laurel and Hardy. Thus the story persists, generation to generation.
Indeed, anthropomorphism begins in very early infancy: babies stare longer at objects that move purposefully. Later, the little tykes name their pets Sam or Molly. In school, their primary readers brim with talking cheetahs, pigs, and wolves. Not long before we see our faces on everything—a car with eyebrows, a tree with arms extending, a talking, walking robot.
Next comes the desire to control, to hold, to possess. A baby starling falls from the nest, and though it is not necessarily advisable (as it is well known, there are too many starlings—the result of one man’s sentimental desire to return to England), we place “Betsy” in a towel-lined shoebox. The bird’s beak is lined with yellow (like a shiny raincoat, we think). An eyedropper filled with cow’s milk barely fits inside its mouth. Within hours, Betsy loses interest and dies. A bird angel arrives to take her to heaven.
We toss our very human experience over the landscape like a soggy net.
. . .
There is no caress like a parakeet’s, flicking its little blue tongue over a cheek. I’ve learned the noises she loves: A shushing like the fall of aerated water from a faucet. Or a sustained squeaky kiss, as if I’d just eaten a sour blueberry. Most birds ignore the standard human whistle, though it’s the first thing we do when we see a bird—let out a wolf whistle or a deconstructed “Happy Birthday to You.” But the register is too low, too human.
I open the cage door, and after a few days of sheer terror—slamming into chandeliers, panting on the floor—the bird adjusts to my home, landing deftly on three or four strategic stations.
Soon, I coax her onto my shoulder and she rides with me teetering through the house, perches on the edge of my cereal bowl, where she pecks at bananas. At my cheek, the bird is looking for salt. Between my teeth, little scraps of parsley, but I see it as affection. And what is the crime in believing my love will be returned? She sits on my shoulder and suddenly regurgitates a lump of partially digested seed. Perhaps this is her truest expression of love. She wants to feed me. If I am close to an animal, if I love my parakeet, I will try to dissolve the differences between us. This response is sometimes called “identification,” or “self-extension,” and makes me prone to anthropomorphic explanations. I will imagine her continual head bobbing as pleasure at the sight of me—yes, yes, yes. I will name her June for the month she was born.
Here is an extended example of how we’ve captured another particular species for our cultural shorthand:
I’ve got to go, can you manage by yourself? Yes, I have my blackbird right here in my pocket. A blackbird is a nickname for a small black handgun.
Or, a blackbird is a girl who puts on a happy face, but collapses in private: Have you seen her room? Ever since her sister died, Sarah’s been hiding out there; she’s a total blackbird.
FBI, ATF, CIA, or DEA agents are called blackbirds. They’ll tap your phone. This is known as “blackbird on the wire.” Is this a good time to talk? Wait, no, I think I hear something . . .
A blackbird is a sleek, black, highly advanced U.S. spy plane that currently holds the record for the highest ceiling and fastest plane ever to fly. You won’t see it from your porch, or even in the middle of a field. Ever.
Where’s Steph? I saw her a minute ago. She must have blackbirded out of here. To blackbird is to leave a party surreptitiously without saying good-bye. Something to think about when you’re tired, when you’ve had enough of the chatter.
We’re a long way from Agelaius phoeniceus, the raucous species common to farm and field, predisposed to hassling hawks. We spot a red-winged blackbird swaying on a telephone wire and drag it down, fold it into our slang, our secret codes. The blackbird becomes a versatile tool, employed by criminals, aviators, teenagers, and cops.
. . .
Maybe there’s more to our urge to humanize feathered creatures— anthropomorphism likely a subconscious reflection of what we share with them, a primitive kinship. Birds can be traced back to a series of reptilian groups called the Synapsida, which evolved over an approximately 100 million year period from the Pennsylvanian to the end of the Triassic, when true mammals appeared. The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) has shown that chickens and humans have in common more than half of their genes, some two thousand genes involved in the cell’s basic structure and function. The avian skeleton too resembles in some ways the human skeleton: humerus + radius + ulna. Femur + tibia + fibula. Cranium + maxilla + mandible. Tailbone. The majority of bones are the same; others are fused or shaped differently.
Birdsong has its parallel in humans. Genes tell both species to learn the language of their own kind, and no other. And neither bird nor baby immediately master communication: fledgling white-crowned sparrows and humans listen before they begin to speak. The sparrow will first sing a short subsong derived from a tutor’s full song. The young bird keeps practicing this little bit of nonsense just as infants practice their words. When my daughter Bonnie was little, she fixed on the sound of cheese and repeated other words in the same sound family: please, these, keys, peas, leaves. Later—full song, full sentences. “Cheese please! Throw your keys in the leaves!”
Raised in Kentucky, she acquired a slight drawl. Bye becomes “Ba.” Hair becomes “hay-er.” Sparrows too have a dialect, depending on where they live. Don Kroodsma, reigning authority on the biology of bird vocal behavior, tours the country by bicycle, listening to Steller’s jays in California, house wrens in Tennessee, warblers in Georgia, towhees in New England.
He recorded and analyzed hundreds of songs and concluded that where a bird learned a song is just as important as a bird’s genealogy. Later, he recorded human accents as well and is confident we can tell a lot about where either species was born by its burr, twang, brogue, or nasality.
. . .
At his large kitchen window, a retired man settles down in a cloud of morning lint and rumpled skin. He gathers a legal pad, his five-hundred-dollar Montblanc fountain pen, a stained cup of Postum. He combs the backyard for a way into his masterpiece, the poem that finally will make Yankee Magazine, maybe even the New Yorker. Outside, a line of suet feeders hang from a porch beam, rocked by the larger birds, pecked and beloved by all species. He begins, “The titmouse, all nerves and ambition. . . .”
Birds strike the window at least once a week, falling to the deck in limp feather-clusters. He always checks: dazed or dead, one or the other. To ease his conscience he wraps the dead ones in plastic sandwich bags, stores them in the freezer, and later drops them off at the university’s biology department. Unwittingly, he has created the perfect conditions for mold and accelerated rot. He cannot know that an expert folds the head under a wing and inserts the bird into a nylon stocking, which makes a firm but airy case for freezing. He doesn’t know his specimens go directly in the trash.
A panel of sunshine breaks into the garden and for the first time he notices the buff patch under the titmouse’s wing “like blush on a woman’s cheek.” His wife again. Every morning he searches his cabinet for shaving cream and there’s her makeup in a heap. But wait, this sounds new: “its crest moves like a retractable surgical knife.” No, “its crest retracts like a miniature box cutter.”
He cannot imagine the flock of birdfeeder poems that alight every day on magazine editors’ desks.
. . .
Is it possible to watch a red-breasted merganser jut its head back and forth without thinking of Daffy Duck?
Can we observe a foraging pileated without the Woody Woodpecker “car-tune” idling somewhere deep in our brain?
. . .
A table is covered with oilcloth, long benches on either side. In neat piles: scalpels, looped flesher tools, curved hemostats, acid brushes, borax/sawdust mixture, needles, thread, cotton balls, and tubs of pink formaldehyde paste. Six students are wearing aprons and sterile gloves, and each prepares herself with a precise mental distance: a hospital curtain in one mind, an imaginary suit of mail in another. One boy summons the nonchalance of nitrous from a dentist’s chair, where he managed to be both alert and relaxed.
As if they sat in a street-side café, their leader offers a tray with an array of species to choose from, all of them common: purple grackle, three house sparrows, blue jay, cowbird, titmouse, and starling. No one chooses the starling, with its stunted tail and apocalyptic foreboding.
The bird is positioned belly up, and each student blows with little puffs till feathers part and the breastbone is revealed. Along this, the first incision—from tail to beak—feather membrane separated from the body sack and scraped clean till the bird is turned inside-out. It’s slow work, careful, as the membrane is easily torn and no one wants to cover a sloppy job with a pile of stitches. Excavating the skull comes next and here the students heap on the sawdust; the smell is something else and plucking brain tissue with a hemostat or tweezers requires a little more than an imaginary curtain. Two girls have successfully swallowed their disgust but now have a desperate need to go to the bathroom.
It’s a good point for a break anyway—sip Cokes in silence— then back to the table. Turn the bird on its stomach and continue gently pulling, scraping tendons, legs, wings, the skin spread out, and finally, painted pink. The rest is home economics. Balls of cotton are stretched and molded around a stick to fill the cavity. Two tiny knots for the eyes. Overhand stitches with heavy black thread, repairs to any torn membrane. One girl, shaping the belly, thinks of the Little Prince’s drawing of a snake after it swallowed an animal whole. Bird and snake resemble a kind of rounded desert plateau, or one of those American Indian burial mounds. Still, she is a long, long way from Glow Worm and Ollie the elephant, beloved stuffed animals of her youth.
. . .
Kingdom: Animalia; Phylum: Chordata; Subphylum: Vertebrata; Class: Mammalia; Order: Primates; Family: Hominidae; Genus: Homo; Species: Homo sapiens. Latin homo, meaning “man”; or hem—“the earthly one” (as in humus). Latin sapiens, meaning “wise” or “knowing.”
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists Homo sapiens as a species of least concern for extinction. Lake Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina: A group of amateur birdwatchers arrive from Washington, D.C.—chubby, middle-aged, suburbanite men and women who don’t mind getting up at the crack of dawn. Necks hung with binoculars, eyes and faces lifted to the sky, they are escorted around the lake every day for a week. Their guide is an awkward, chapped-lipped young man who does this only because it earns a living and allows him to be outdoors with the birds. Obviously, he keeps a life list, glued to the back cover of his Peterson’s. He passes it around, evidence of his obsession, a collection, he explains, that doesn’t require ownership. It’s migration season and he encourages the group to expand their own lists with open ears and acute attention to the smallest quiver under a leaf. The warblers alone, in alphabetical order: American redstart, black-and-white warbler, blackpoll warbler, black-throated green warbler, Canada warbler, common yellowthroat, hooded warbler, Nashville warbler, northern parula, northern waterthrush, orange crowned warbler, ovenbird, palm warbler, pine warbler, prairie warbler, prothonotary warbler, yellow-breasted chat, yellow-rumped warbler, yellowthroated warbler. This kind of diversity can’t be found everywhere. Still, about half of the group sees this tour around the lake as a social occasion, lagging back, chattering.
Was he irritated when a cough startled a black-throated blue lighting briefly on its way down the Atlantic Flyway to South America? When a twig snapped under a dull boot? When one of the women tossed her string-cheese wrapper into the grass? Humans are heavy, loud, dense, and preoccupied. Their bodies obvious, oblivious, obstructing. He loves the mystery of a 55,000-acre swamp next to the sea that reveals only a little of itself at a time. He prefers solitude, the dank canvas of a bird blind muting his own rude shape, its gross movements and sounds. He tries to breathe noiselessly.
. . .
Be there no human here
be there here the flat marsh
before man, be there here
those bony wings.
(“Window Views,” Laura Jensen)
. . .
Every night I dream of flying. My arms pump laboriously; I rise six or seven feet above the pursuant tiger, bear, serpent. Something is always chasing me. There’s no safe place on the compound, though I lurch from barn to garage to precarious rooster-cupola. Sometimes I make it as far as the upper canopy of sycamores, catching my breath till the predator appears, thumping on the ground below. The sky is an unreal indigo. My clothes weigh me down, as if I were swimming through Karo syrup. Of the many styles of dream flying, I always revert to the breaststroke, using my hands for guidance at the beginning of each backward pull. Fatigue is a serious limitation.
Oh, to be like my husband, waking each morning dazzled, his dream flight a green-glass liberation. He describes a pin, or Superman-style: horizontal, arms straight before him, hips tilting slightly to steer. The worst he can remember is flying too high, beyond the sound of human voice, siren, even explosion. Ice crystals formed on his fingertips and eyelashes. His lips cracked and burned. Finally, he executed a midair reverse flip, which got him going in the right direction.
Flying dreams are related to the vestibular system, which regulates body equilibrium. I read this somewhere. Also, that sleep clinics have actually induced these dreams by manipulating the sleeper’s sense of balance: applying a blood-pressure cuff, rocking in a hammock, raising and lowering the bed.
But why is it so hard to get off the ground? Maybe I’m just exhausted, still processing some unsettling news from my sister. Or perhaps my marrow-stuffed bones are just too heavy, even in my imagination. Real bird bones are filled with air. Birds have no teeth, another adaptation that makes them lighter.
I often dream my own teeth are crumbling and falling to my hands. But it doesn’t make flying any easier for me.
. . .
A mist net is black, made of nylon, and resembles an extremely fine volleyball net. Ornithologists stretch them across thickets, deep in forests, and along shorelines in darkness or nearly moonless nights to capture birds in flight. They are almost invisible. Hitting a mist net, most birds tumble into a pocket of mesh, which quickly folds around them. They will suffer from wind, rain, and possibly predation if left for long periods of time, so it’s vital that nets are checked often. Each bird tangled in mesh presents a unique challenge in extraction. We run the risk of strangling them—though there is no soft spot in the bird’s trachea that can collapse (as in mammals), overconstriction of the entire body during restraint can cause oxygen deprivation. If we are worried the bird will escape, or frustrated at the snarl of fine threads around a wing, we might apply unnecessary force. If the bird struggles too much, the tangles inevitably worsen. Practice, extra care, patience, and common sense are needed to free a bird. In worst-case scenarios, we can always grab a pocketknife or pair of scissors.
Avoiding the risks of mist nets altogether, pull traps, drop traps, and walk-in traps are also available to capture groundfeeding species.
Now a mourning dove waddles into a walk-in, lured by a heap of sunflower seeds and millet, and catches the wire mechanism. The trap snaps shut, and I approach cautiously so as not to further fluster the bird. It will hurl itself against the wire mesh relentlessly in the effort to escape, tearing tissue, feathers. I slide up the door, spread the left hand over the opening, then reach into the cage to embrace the dove with the right, grasping the body without squeezing, careful to envelop each wing, its head nestled gently between index and middle fingers. I pass the dove through the rubber flaps of a keeping cage and carry the cage inside, where an assistant removes and holds the bird firmly. I gently extend the leg, press a number-stamped metal ring around with a tool that prevents overlap; record in a looseleaf binder that number, date, species, gender, any unusual features; walk the bird outside myself, open my hand and . . .
To our surprise, the dove doesn’t take flight immediately. It pauses, as though unbelieving. Shock at the sudden breeze when, before, death had a scent, sensation—salty, warm, and unyielding. Seconds pass.
No, I take back the “unbelieving,” “shock at the sudden breeze,” the impression that “death had a scent, sensation.” I think instead: All the lives I could live, all the species I will never know, never will become—they are everywhere. That is what the world is.
The bird flies, with an audible whistling sound.