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Category: Civilizing Influences

Like this Heart of Mine

Like this Heart of Mine

There was a bird in the downspout—every time we walked onto the porch we’d hear it thrash its wings and its claws would screech against the metal. “Chill out, bird,” I said, before realizing that it wasn’t just defending a nest: it was stuck. During our last heavy rain I’d seen water shooting out of the seams at the top of the drain, spilling over the edge of the gutter where it lined the roof. I’d known it was clogged—but I couldn’t understand how a bird could get itself stuck in there, if that’s what had happened.

The thrashing was loud and unsettling. I thumped against the metal once to see if I could scare the bird into flying out. Silence.


Zettie and I started from the bottom of the drainpipe, pulling out a few handfuls of the pine needles, twigs, and grass that were packed so tight inside its mouth they came out like bricks. Then I disconnected the bottom two elbows of the spout so that I could reach up into the straight pipe that ran down the corner of the porch. Moldering duff was crammed all through it. I was surprised to see so much of it, as no tree hangs over our house—all the debris in the gutter had been carried either by the wind or a bird.

The trapped bird remained silent as I dug up higher and higher. I got kitchen tongs to extend my reach, and kept clearing until the tongs were disappearing up the pipe, then my hand too, and still I was pulling out more debris. “Maybe I can get my small hand up higher in there than you can,” Zettie offered—but then the last clot came out with a thunk and the trapped bird flew out, shrieking, and made straight for the top of a tree about 50 yards off.

What a strange feeling of relief it was, like we’d performed a kind of magic trick: turning a clogged drain into a flying bird.

“It smells,” Zettie said, her nose curled.

“It’s been rotting in there for weeks, I guess,” I said, looking back down at needles and twigs and straw, all cured to black like something dug out from under an old log.

“Oh but look: I think there’s a dead bird,” she said. She pointed to a spot where a yellowish beak made a clear line against the mess of decay. “And another one—there’s two!”


The birds were curled in on themselves, covered in rot. I used the ends of the tongs to brush one free and then turned the bird gently and noticed that it was curled around a second bird, as tightly entwined as if they were twins in utero. The other bird was the same—not one, but a pair of birds pressed together—four corpses in all.

These weren’t babies. They had full wing feathers and long legs, full beaks. What had happened? Had they been born there? Had a nest, built in the top of the spout, slid down as the babies grew and gained weight, until finally it had fallen so low that there was no way for fledglings to get out? Had the parents continued to bring their trapped children food, watched helplessly as they grew so big that they ran out of room even to move and smothered one another? Was the bird we’d freed a parent who’d gone back in for one last feeding only to find it couldn’t get out again?

We dug a hole in the lily garden and buried them together. Zettie made a headstone for them and named them. For birds who’d lived lives of inconceivable indignity, a final insult:

“Here lies Joe, Bob, Steve, and Karen.”

Night Like a Bruise, Day a White-hot Mess of Green

Night Like a Bruise, Day a White-hot Mess of Green

When I was in college in Santa Fe for one odd semester I tried to sell a stereo receiver on consignment at a store called something like West Coast Audio. When I saw the name it was the first time I realized I was in a place oriented in a different direction from where I’d grown up. I’d been thinking of myself as let out on a long lead from the east coast, far from what I knew but still on the line, ready to be reeled in. But maybe I was thinking wrong: maybe I was a west-coaster now. My ocean gathered the sun in at night, my mountains were craggy and unyielding. 

I got to talking to the salesman at that store who had also grown up on the east coast. But he was a committed New Mexican now. He didn’t even like going back east–after spending years in the ochre and sand of the high desert the east seemed strangled with green, so much green, everything everywhere was green and he couldn’t stand it. 

Santa Fe is where I saw my first shooting star, too, and felt a dry heat for the first time, a heat that spirited sweat from your skin before you even noticed you were sweating, a heat that vanished as quickly as you could step into a shadow, a scorching heat with no power to cling or linger. It got cold at night, colder than I’d ever remembered being. One night after I’d had dinner on the roof of a classmate’s adobe apartment–I remember very badly made sourdough and shaggy hand-rolled cigarettes–I was walking uphill toward the school and a star dropped from straight overhead to almost the horizon, a fat bright ember drifting earthward as though there were no atmosphere between us.

I lost my head in Santa Fe. Humidity is a stifling but familiar breath, a way of letting you know you are here. Green can choke you but it holds you in place. 

Night and Day

Thoughts on Killing

Thoughts on Killing

I watched a documentary about meat last night at the Food Film Festival in New York. The film is full of interesting stories and raises many interesting questions, but far and away the most gripping scene shows a pig being slaughtered. In a cool upstate rain, surrounded by eager helpers, a tall German butcher wearing a long apron and an overcoat tests a rifle by shooting it into the ground. Then he steps into the back of a trailer and fires one shot into the head of a beautiful brown and black pig. A team of butchers instantly wraps a chain around the pig’s ankle and drags it from the trailer onto the wet ground. The pig is dunked in a vat of scalding water, shaved, hung from a tree, flayed, cleaned, and butchered.

Once the hair had been removed it was easy to see the animal as meat—the transition from pig to pork, as the Applestones put it, was complete right there. But when it was dropping heavily from the edge of the trailer to the ground, its body still so warm and soft you could almost feel it in the theater; when thick bright blood wreathed its head, when its body shuddered and its feet were trembling and curling up under it—then, I admit, it was hard to watch. I couldn’t help thinking of my dog.

But I also thought of all the animals I killed as a kid. They were fish, mostly, because I spent my summers on a beach trying to catch pigfish and croakers and as soon as I was old enough to swim I was killing and gutting them on my grandmother’s dock. That’s where I learned to knock a big fish hard on the head to kill it, or how to hold a fish still while you cut it up the belly to clean it. It’s where I learned that animals keep moving after their throats have been slit, and I was taught by Focus Fishing that those movements are “just nerves.”

It’s also where I learned how to be cruel—to take revenge on the hideous toadfish who’d swallow my hook, for instance. A fish like that could ruin your day. It was impossible to get a hook out of them cleanly, and they seemed to leer up at me, taunting me with this ethical dilemma. There was no point in keeping them—you couldn’t eat them—but there was no way of putting them back in the water without mauling them, yanking their guts out to extricate the hook, or cutting the line and pushing them back into the water with the hook set in their stomachs, where it was sure to kill them.

The impossibility of it made me angry, and their gaping grins made me all the angrier, so I’d just let them sit on the dock in the sun, gulping in the dry air, cursing them with a 10-year-old’s battery of insults, until I’d mustered the anger to hold them in place with my foot while I yanked on the line until my hook was free and the fish was dead, or close to it. I’d push their bodies back into the water and watch the blood trail away in the current, wishing indignities on their corpses—that they’d be swarmed by minnows, dissolved in the tentacles of jellyfish.

These different experiences of killing—killing cleanly versus killing in anger, with sadistic relish—left me with different feelings and taught me another lesson. Death isn’t just the dropping of a curtain but an experience with a thousand moral shades and wrinkles. I didn’t like the way I felt after I’d made a fish’s life end badly—I won’t pretend that it kept me up at night, but I knew when I’d gone too far, when I’d tried on a version of myself that didn’t fit right, and it made me less likely to go that far again.

Watching the pig get killed in the movie last night I wondered how it looked to people who hadn’t grown up with that experience of killing, who’d never seen the eerie way that animals twitch and shudder after they’ve been killed, who’ve never wrestled with that moment when you pull a trigger or flash a knife blade and take a life. It was hard for me to watch, but I’d seen a version of it before. I wonder how I’d have seen it if I’d grown up in the city, like my daughters will, or if I hadn’t had parents who thought it was a useful moral exercise for me to shoot an injured possum in our yard “to put it out of its misery” or to visit a slaughterhouse to pick up a side of beef for our freezer. I wonder how I’d see that beautiful pig then.

Me with a fish