In Hovering Flight

By Joyce Hinnefled
Unbridled Books. 288 pp. $24.95
Oct. 19, 2008


Chapter One

According to John James Audubon, there was once a species of bird in southeastern Pennsylvania, the Cuvier's kinglet, Regulus cuvieri, or, as Audubon liked to call it, Cuvier's wren. And according to Addie and Tom Kavanagh, the mysterious bird may have magically appeared again nearly two hundred years later on a ridge near their home, seventy-five miles north of Audubon's original sighting.

Audubon claimed that he had discovered this "pretty and rare species" on his father-in-law's plantation, Fatland Ford, northwest of Philadelphia, in June of 1812. As was his custom, he shot it in order to draw it, thinking at first it was the more common ruby-crowned kinglet. "I have not seen another since, nor have I been able to learn that this species has been observed by any other individual," he wrote in his famous Birds of America.

But Audubon wasn't known for his honesty. He claimed to be the son of a French admiral and a beautiful Spanish Creole woman from the islands, but his father was actually a French merchant, slave dealer, and naval lieutenant, his mother an illiterate French chambermaid. And surely it was a practical move, this naming of a bird (real or not) for Baron Georges Cuvier, the famed French naturalist and one of Audubon's earliest patrons.

Consider, also, the "joke" Audubon played on a naturalist named Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, when Audubon and his wife, Lucy, hosted Rafinesque at their Kentucky home in the summer of 1818. For his guest Audubon described-and drew-ten species of imaginary fish that he claimed were native to the Ohio River. Rafinesque included accounts of these fish (including something called the "devil-jack diamond fish," described as between four and ten feet long, weighing up to four hundred pounds, and covered with bulletproof scales) in several articles and eventually a book.

There has been no single sighting of a Cuvier's kinglet in the two hundred years since Audubon claimed to have shot one. Unless, that is, one believes the Kavanaghs, the bird-artist-and-ornithologist team who published the environmentalist and antiwar classic A Prosody of Birds-an odd blend of delicate artist's plates and dense poetic scansions of birdsongs-in 1969. Actually, only Addle claimed to have spotted the Cuvier's kinglet, one morning at dawn. It was an overcast morning in May 2001, and she was on a routine excursion into the field, on the ridge above her home along the Nisky Creek, near Burnham, Pennsylvania. Though he wasn't present at the time, Tom has never disputed his wife's claim. But, strange as it may seem to question the veracity of a serious scientist and teacher like Tom Kavanagh, there are reasons to doubt both him and Addle.

If what Addie saw that morning was not a Cuvier's kinglet but a ruby-crowned kinglet-a mistake neither Addie nor Tom would be likely to make-then she had her reasons for such a mysterious lapse. Addie always had her reasons for every outlandish choice she made. And Tom loved her deeply through all of them.

Tom and Addie's daughter, Scarlet, has always loved birds too, though not with the nearly fanatical passion of her parents. She has loved them enough to write about them, off and on, since she was a child. But now she is less concerned about whether or not the Cuvier's kinglet suddenly, magically, reappeared in southeastern Pennsylvania than about the instructions her mother presented to her and Tom two weeks ago-for what she wished them to do with her body: clear orders for a brazenly illegal burial. There is no easy way to handle such a request, as far as Scarlet can see. And it's hard to say what Tom is thinking.

Now it is early May 2002, the beginning of the spring migration through the northeastern United States. Scarlet and Tom are in Cider Cove, a sleepy, off-season town on the New Jersey shore, in the rambling old house, now a bed-and-breakfast, of Addie's dear friend Cora. Scarlet would have expected her mother to choose to die in her own ramshackle cottage in Burnham, windows open to each morning's raucous dawn chorus. But the Burnham cottage is a place filled with much history, and in the last ten years or so, even birdsong seemed, at times, to make Addie angry, or sad, or both.

Last night Scarlet left Addle, who was clearly drawing her last breaths, alone with Tom. She couldn't bear to be there for the actual moment when her mother died. She curled up on a wicker divan on Cora's screened porch, watching the stars, listening to the wind and the pounding of the waves at the end of the long slope down from Cora's house. When Tom roused her a couple hours later, a filmy light was slipping through the purple clouds, and the hospice worker was packing her bag.

"Addie's gone, Scarlet," Tom said. "I'd like you to help me move her body down the street." And so Scarlet followed him into Cora's studio, fitted for several weeks now with Addie's hospital bed. Cora had been there through the last days too, along with Lou, Addie's other good friend. Now both of them were crying silently, busying themselves with straightening the bedclothes, tidying vases of flowers; they seemed desperate to find something useful to do. Tom tucked a blanket around Addie's body, as if to keep her warm. Every move, every gesture like this one seemed to Scarlet both funny and heartbreaking. She watched as he lifted her mother's tiny, weightless body in his arms.

Tom tucked Addie in carefully once again when he lowered her onto the cot in the walk-in cooler of a restaurant several doors down from Cora's house. This was Cider Cove's only seafood restaurant, owned by a trusted and discreet friend of Cora's and open, in the off-season, only on weekends. Tom had told Cora that they might need a few days to work out "the arrangements," and within fifteen minutes she'd arranged this access to the restaurant cooler with her friend.

Neither of them wanted to leave her. But, Tom said, it was surely better to have her body there, not worrying them all back at Cora's while they tried to figure out what to do next. Scarlet was quiet and compliant as they moved and arranged Addie's body; she felt like a child again, relying on her father to handle everything, particularly everything involving her puzzle of a mother.

Addie looked like a child herself. Scarlet held her mother's hand for a while, but eventually that felt forced to her, as though she were trying to play the role of the grieving daughter instead of actually being one. She had already had her moments, her real moments, with Addie: first, two nights before, when Addie had seemed suddenly present and clear, herself again, when Scarlet had spoken with her alone. And then just moments ago, following her father down the street, below the familiar Cider Cove streetlights, watching how tenderly he cradled Addie's body, his face buried in her neck, breathing her in one last time.

They locked Addie into the cooler at last and walked back to Cora's in silence as dawn broke around them. Tom went inside to gather his binoculars and scope and headed out in search of birds. Scarlet got her notebook and returned to the porch. Cora and Lou were nowhere in sight.

And so Scarlet started writing. Some years ago she'd had a moment of success as a poet, success that was complicated by its connection with her mother. Two of the better-known poems in her one published book were, indirectly but clearly, about Addie. They were also, in some ways, about birds. That book had won a small literary prize in 1995, at the peak of Addie's fame-or notoriety, depending on one's outlook. This was a year after Addie had run afoul of some people in Washington over an installation involving, among other things, two crucified gulls.

For years Alex, Scarlet's editor, has been pushing her to write a memoir. "It's a logical step for you, with all this awareness of your mother, her presence in your poems, all the connections," he has told her repeatedly. "And frankly," he seems always to add, "it's the only way you're going to make any money as a writer."

But, as she has told Alex many times, Scarlet has no idea how one goes about writing a memoir. Sometimes she has tried to imagine telling the story of their lives as a play. Now, as she sits on Cora's sunporch in the pink-gray light of dawn, she thinks about beginning with the cast of characters assembled nearby:

The husband, Tom, barely visible at the far southern end of the beach, his scope trained on a plover's nest a hundred yards away.

The two friends from Addie's college days, Cora and Lou, offstage doing who-knows-what. Probably Cora is baking something. Maybe Lou is shopping.

And then there is Dustin, the young man at work outside Cora's studio window, sawing, planing, hammering old pieces of barn siding, shaping these into some semblance of a coffin. A more logical addition might surely be Addie's brother, John. But he is in Scranton, probably at work. Scarlet wonders whether Tom will even call him. She hasn't seen her uncle since her college graduation. Instead of a brother and an uncle, she thinks, her family has Dustin the coffin-maker.

Finally there is Scarlet herself: a sometime poet, wrapped in a sleeping bag on the chilly porch where she spent the night because her room upstairs holds too many memories. Scarlet, fighting the urge to seize one of the cigarettes Lou has left behind, not even drinking coffee, scribbling madly in a notebook, leading the others to imagine that she is penning eloquent, mournful poems.

When in fact she is trying to envision a memoir. Which, unlike the poems she wishes she was writing, feels to Scarlet like a kind of betrayal-of Addie, of Tom, of them all. How could she possibly pull together the scattered threads of all these lives?

So far she has managed only a list of possible titles. One is Zugunruhe-the term in German for the migratory restlessness of birds, and Tom's affectionate name for the last twelve years of Scarlet's life, spent making her way down the eastern seaboard, finally landing in New York. A migration punctuated with brief stays on the coast of New Jersey-a place that suddenly, once again, has begun to feel like home.

But that is Scarlet's life, not Addie's, and it's Addie's life that Alex, and others, are really interested in. The years of Scarlet's migration, through the decade of the 1990s up to this cool and puzzling spring of 2002, were relatively quiet ones for Addie. Had her mother somehow been holding her breath, reining herself in, waiting to see how far south, and now how near to this overdeveloped coastline, Scarlet would fly? Had she been watching for those final fledgling years to pass before her next-and last-great scheme?

One thing Addie was doing in those years was handling her first bout with cancer in the most conventional of ways: two rounds of chemotherapy, a bit of radiation. Not many people know this. Far more people have heard about the second, far more invasive cancer, the one she chose not to fight.

There is another possible title for a story about Addie Kavanagh: Field Notebooks.

Scarlet has access to all of her father's and nearly all of her mother's notebooks from the field, all neatly penned in black ink on 15.2-by-24.1-centimeter loose-leaf paper, one side only, red margins penciled in an inch and a half from the left, bound in three-ring binders (20.3 by 25.4 cm). All of Addie's coded to correspond with carefully compiled portfolios of her drawings and studies for paintings. All-except for their content-in accordance with the conventions established by Professor Joseph Grinnell at Berkeley in the early decades of the twentieth century. "No notebook this day, no sleep this night!" were Grinnell's famous words; he also urged his students to view their notebooks as public documents, records designed to educate their readers, to add to the store of knowledge of all who might one day encounter them. Tom Kavanagh presented Grinnell's field notebook conventions, in painstaking detail, to Addie and the other students in his May-term Biology of the Birds class at Burnham College in the spring of 1965-that notorious 1965 class, the one that might have gotten him fired. The class that prompted a year's leave, which led to his only book and to Addie's first rough but moving paintings of birds-and, ultimately, to Scarlet.

Scarlet has all of Addie's notebooks save one, her first, the one from that five-week course in May, spanning the spring migration through the woods and rivers of eastern Pennsylvania. The notebook with which she seduced Tom. It will be Scarlet's, he has told her, when he dies-leaving her to imagine, for now, what Addle might have written there.

There are times, despite her mother's long and maddening silences, when Scarlet feels certain that she can.

Journal-Field Entry

6 May 1965

Thursday

Sunday Woods, Burnham, Bucks Co., PA (1-2 mi. from Burnham College campus, via Ridge Path behind the Hall of Science)

Time: 05:20-06:30-Plum Pond; 06:40-07:30-Large meadow SE of Plum Pond

Observers: Burnham College Biology of the Birds class (20 students + Prof. Kavanagh)

Habitat: Tall grasses at the muddy edge of Plum Pond, a small freshwater pond in a natural basin at the center of pine and scrub woods; meadow 1/2 mi. SE of pond-a former home site (foundation visible; 18th century?); vegetation includes yellow wood sorrel, fiddlehead ferns, and rue anemones (or windflowers, as Cora Davis says her mother calls them)

Weather: Temp. 58 degrees F; Dry, with variable winds

Sun, with drifting clouds-30% cloud cover, according to Professor Kavanagh (I am not sure how this is determined)

Remarks: Several of the girls were ridiculously underdressed, one in sandals; half the group seemed to be sleepwalking, others more alert.

SPECIES LIST

Canada Goose, Branta canadensis 25 Mallard, Anas platyhyncho 8 Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodius 1 Downy Woodpecker, Picoides pubescens 1 Tree Swallow, Tachscineta bicolor 20+ Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis 2 (M & F) Black-Capped Chickadee, Poecile atricapilla 1 Scarlet Tanager, Piranga olivacea 1 Purple Grackle, Quiscalus quiscula 4 Tufted Titmouse, Parus bicolor 1 Red-Eyed Vireo, Vireo olivaceus 1 Gray Catbird, Dumetella carolinensis 4 Mourning Dove, Zenaida macroura 7

Number of Species: 13; Number of Individuals: 76; Time: 2 hrs., 10 mins.

Comments: Two students, Karl being one of them, are enviably skilled in recognizing birdsongs; now I at least begin to understand Cora's attraction to him! None, however, can approach Prof. Kavanagh's skill.

6 May-Where do I begin? Do you wonder why students take this class? Perhaps you're aware of your reputation? "He recites poetry while you're climbing the path up from Sunday Woods." "If you make it past the second week, some days he'll take you out in the woods and play his fiddle and lead a sing-along instead of lecturing!" "He's also gorgeous!" (I imagine you're aware that the girls speak this way about you, and of the reputation your class has among some jealous college boys.)

But much as I do look forward to poetry and Irish folk tunes, my reasons for being here are different.

I am in love with birds, and I don't quite know what to do about it.

I'm afraid I've come to this love too late. According to all the stories you've been telling us, all the great lovers of birds-John James Audubon, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, Roger Tory Peterson, and you-discovered their passion at an early age. Some important person handed them a pair of field glasses or a field guide or a stuffed dead bird and that was it; they were hooked.

But I'm twenty-one years old.

And do I need to mention that they were also always boys?

None of their experience applies to me. It feels sometimes like I never even saw a bird until last fall, when I went to England to study. What was I doing before that? I don't know, reading poetry, going out, listening to music, staying up late talking to my roommates. Then one dreary day in early October, when I was to read a paper on Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale" in my tutorial, my tutor, Miss Smallwood, brought in her personal collection of three Audubon plates, including one of a nightingale-not the English one, of course, but the American hermit thrush.

"Let's talk about these today instead," she said. "Aren't they marvelous?"

And they were. They were maybe the most beautiful things I'd ever seen.

(Continues...)


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