A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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The peregrine falcon was brought back from the brink of extinction by a ban on DDT, but also by a peregrine-falcon mating hat invented by an ornithologist at Cornell University. If you can’t buy this, Google it. Female falcons had grown dangerously scarce. A few wistful males nevertheless maintained a sort of sexual loitering ground. The hat was imagined, constructed, then forthrightly worn by the ornithologist as he patrolled this loitering ground, singing, Chee-up! Chee-up! and bowing like an overpolite Japanese Buddhist trying to tell somebody goodbye. For reasons neither scientists nor fashion designers entirely understand, this inspired the occasional male falcon to dive onto the ornithologist’s head, fuck the hat, and fire endangered sperm into the hat’s hidden rubber receptacle. The last few females were then artificially inseminated so that their chicks could be raised in DDT-free captivity. The young produced in this way saved the peregrine from extinction — a success story from the annals of human meddling, one as rare as debacles like DDT are common.
The same year that I was researching a novel about birds entering extinction while my first marriage was doing the same, I wrote a long, intimate letter to the Cornell ornithologist. That he was a stranger perhaps explains the intimacy, strangers being preferable to friends when things as personal as marriages are falling to ruin. That he’d managed to save a species explains my blind trust. It’s been decades since I wrote the letter, and I didn’t keep a copy. Memory fixates on times of intense passage, but also mythologizes them. Allowing for this paradox, here is everything I remember about my letter to the ornithologist:
I got right to it, asking if he would be so kind as to use the enclosed self-addressed, stamped envelope to send me a diagram of his unimaginable hat or, better, a photo of said hat with his head in it, enduring furious, wing-beating coitus. I explained that I was a novelist and bird lover, promised that my interest was sincere, and said that no detail of his work could be too inconsequential for my purposes. I asked, for instance, whether, in addition to the Buddhistic bowing, he had to walk in a suggestive manner to lure down the hat’s, so to speak, opposite sex. And if so, I added, could he describe this walk to me so that, should occasion arise, I could reproduce it in the vicinity of a wife who’d grown dangerously scarce.
Though this kind of praise may at first seem a stretch, I confessed to the ornithologist, I want you to know that I admire you not only because you’ve helped save a magnificent species but because I, far more than most, know what it is to have a wild bird achieve orgasm on my head. Listen, my letter and I whispered: A few evenings ago I was sitting on a lonely, moss-covered veranda I’d once considered a sort of sexual loitering ground, hurting, but praying, but hurting, but praying (perhaps you know the drill), when a lust-crazed male red-shafted flicker chased a female under an eave not four feet over my head, mounted her, and pierced her so profoundly that her wings went limp and hung down toward me like two exquisite garments she was compelled by passion to remove. She went so limp she couldn’t fly. Do you see the beauty in this? She relinquished her defining power. She hung, beak open, eyes open, cheeks crimson, passion-shattered, till I was reminded of the too-great-for-Catholics saint Meister Eckhart. The greater the nudity, the greater the union, he preached to Christ-impassioned Rhine Valley women by the thousand, scaring Rome’s crimson-beanied finest so christless they waited till the meister had died, then invaded the Rhine, clubbed and dissected his still-living sermons, silenced or burned Christ’s profoundly pierced lovers, and excommunicated the nudity and wings.
Those two flickers so smote me that, late the same night, while my wife was out dancing, two dream flickers flew into my room and fused like a feathered halo o’er my head, and though not a wing or talon touched me, their passion poured in and in and in till it summoned, from some lost chasm of bliss miles inside me, the most ecstatic nocturnal emission of my life. I awoke, I told the ornithologist, passion-shattered in blackness, sensing wings. And suddenly knew: I am never alone. Knew, to be as scientific as I can about this, that I am loved. With no one and nothing there to show it. This invisible, ecstasy-producing, neither-avian-nor-human love then gave me the strength, right there in the blackness, to relinquish the defining power of marriage and accept my wife’s wish to leave me.
So I can’t help but wonder, I wrote the ornithologist: Have you felt it? This unspeakable, more-than-human love? Transfixing you via a magnificent male falcon during a nighttime visitation perhaps? Or out in the field, singing and bowing in your preternaturally receptive hat?
In Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, I told the ornithologist, Father Zossima tells Alyosha, “All is an Ocean. All flows and connects so powerfully that if, in this life, you manage to become more gracious by even a drop, it is better for every bird, child, and animal your life touches than you will ever know. Start praying to birds in an ecstasy! Cherish this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to people!” So I do. In a desolate, even life-threatening time, a pair of love-inflamed flickers transpierced and remade me as surely as your chee-ups! and Buddhist bowing and hat have remade the peregrine. I’ll thank wild birds, and you too, forever for that. I trust that you now see why a small photo of the hat, in this time of personal passage and great gratitude, would serve as a kind of holy icon for me.
The Cornell ornithologist never answered my letter. And he was wise, it turned out, not to do so: for into the vacuum created by his lack of an answer wild birds flew, and have never stopped answering. Like the forty-three Vaux’s swifts that dropped like dead leaves from an autumn dusk into my cold black chimney, grew still, but then thrummed in their sleep, close by the astonished ear I kept putting to the stove vent, as only eighty-six swift-wings can thrum, nonstop through the night. Or like the small black hole in the ice of a desolate, frozen river at which I happened to be gazing when out popped a lone water ouzel who, after a single deep knee-bend, burst into ecstatic, desolation-defying song.
Or like the still-smaller black hole in a leafless, frost-blasted cottonwood against which a heartbroken friend, Max, happened to lean on a Montana winter’s walk, and out of which burst, like bees from a June hive, more than a hundred pygmy nuthatches, bequeathing Max, just that fast, an acceptance of heartbreak from which grace, like honey, began to flow. Or like the fourteen Hungarian partridges my rancher friend Tom flushed from buckbrush after a blizzard in twenty-below, who half circled a gulch so frigid Tom feared they’d freeze in midair, only to slam headfirst, wings tight to their bodies, thirty miles an hour, into a fresh snowdrift a hundred yards above him, ffufuf!fuff!fuff!uf!fuf!uff!, to spend the night tucked in twenty-above powder, bequeathing Tom, like a love poem the next day, fourteen tiny snow caves, the insides of which shone with the cold’s own luminous blue.
Or like the lone female loon who mistook a wet, moonlit interstate for water and crash-landed on the truck-grooved pavement of the fast lane; loon to whom I sprinted, as a convoy of eighteen-wheelers roared toward her, throwing my coat over her head so she wouldn’t stab me, pulling her to my chest as I leapt from the concrete; loon who, when she felt this blind liftoff, let out a full, far-northern tremolo that pierced, without stabbing, my coat, ribs, heart, day, life. All is an Ocean, she and Father Zossima and the avian choir keep singing as into black holes in trees, truck routes, river ice, frigid hearts,
ecstatic birds keep dropping. Till even alone and
in darkness, with no special hat, clothes, or
wings to help me fly up and feel it,
I find myself caught
in the endless act
© T. Paige Dalporto
David James Duncan
A friend gave me three years’ worth of his Suns as a Christmas present this winter. I had never read your magazine before, and I was stunned by what I found. The writing, the sheer placement and use of words, is so fine that at times I would hardly care about the sense of them.
Today I have just read the veritable prose poem “Cherish This Ecstasy,” by David James Duncan [July 2008], which pierced me as deeply as those wild birds pierced him. Thank you for the richness you have brought into my life.
Kudos to David James Duncan for his moving essay “Cherish This Ecstasy” [July 2008]. If only we could all learn to appreciate the divinity of nature as he does, then we might have a chance of saving ourselves and what’s left of this precious planet.