Photo credit: Laura Zimmerman
A trail meanders alongside the Sammamish River in Bothell, Washington. I walked this trail every morning with my small bearded dog, Ewok, as his voluminous Gandalf beard collected crispy leaves and brushed the body of moss and other bryophytes. Ewok is a Brussels Griffon, a funny breed known from the Jack Nicholson movie As Good As It Gets
and for greatly resembling the Lorax. If I’d had my way, we would have power walked or at least Prancercized along the gurgling river, but Ewok set our pace (glacial) and we’d tootle along at the speed of a stoned sloth. The walking helped me escape my own mind, a frenzied hive of doubts and dejection. Frankly, I felt broken. I’d failed at an acting career in LA, and now having rediscovered my love of writing, I was facing more rejection. I had known these walks were about the restorative meditation of following a path. I had not known they would literally inspire me along the path to publishing my debut novel from the perspective of a crow with a severe to moderate junk food addiction.
My husband and I had moved to Seattle because we had fallen in love with the trees here, and now each morning I was lucky enough to walk among them. Poplar, Douglas fir, spruce, and cedar — stands of gentle, shaggy-haired giants. All of me felt small among them, which included my problems. I walked the same stretch of the trail every day and yet, as the sun spun its splintery gold through the leaves or, as is often the case in Seattle, didn’t, every day was different. As insect-eyed cyclists shot past me wearing more spandex than most superheroes, bellowing “ON YOUR LEFT!,” I shuffled along, entranced by the wild woodland drama.
One morning, I discovered an otter frolicking in the river, his dips and dives intensifying as he noticed me watching. Once, I inspected a crime scene in a spray of feathers and abstract expressionist rendering in blood, mentally replaying the silent ambush, the cruel curve of an owl’s talons. The demolition of beavers became an endless amusement as I saw what havoc they could inflict on a trunk, and then the mounds of sawdust where the saintly Department of Fish and Wildlife employees did their best to keep up and cut down the unstable structure so a spandex-clad cyclist didn’t get flattened by a falling tree. Once, a sapsucker with a plump breast and a red bandanna landed on a signpost just a few feet from me. He drilled deafeningly into the aluminum sign whilst staring at me.
“What, dude? I’m kind of busy here,” I think he said.
What would happen if we lifted our heads and turned our brilliant minds to the trees and the species that need our help?
Hummingbirds sang their scratchy songs and darted past my head, their metallic magenta gorgets like sequined scarves. The song birds — wren, chickadee, junco — thrilled me with their intricate arias. Songs they practice. Finally, on a morning when the mist hovered over the Sammamish River like a congregation of gray ghosts, I saw a beaver. I was mesmerized by this aquatic engineer with teddy bear hair and funny fingers. I loved his determined swim, how he made a rudder of his flattened waffle of a tail. I spun around, excitement bubbling like the river after rain, and then I saw a man on the trail and I couldn’t stop myself.
“Look!” I told him, barely containing my crazy-face, “It’s a beaver
“Uh… yeah. They live here.”
The man disappeared back into his phone and his mind. I stayed to enjoy the beaver’s creamy cruise underneath the bridge. Two ducks laughed from the bank.
These river walks kept me from drowning. I felt a part of something, something timeless and ethereal, something greater than my bruised heart and my species. I became a witness to the cormorants with their delicious dives and serpentine necks, and the squirrels who tried to secretly stash nuts whilst simultaneously unable to stop showing them off. My favorite birds — crows, the wise guys of the avian world — made me laugh as they stole from geese and haughtily strutted among the ducks. I watched a great blue heron hunting like a chopstick-legged dinosaur. She froze, stone still. Then she struck, spear-like, beak-snatching a fish and smashing it on a large rock.
The Sammamish River is home to several runs of salmon and I’d watch the dying bodies of pink-fleshed fish after their spawn, a fish that supports 137 species with its heroic pilgrimage. I admired the dogs on the trail — Vislas and poodles, goldens and doodles — most of whom were experiencing this world as Ewok was — through 300 million olfactory cells to our measly five million. Invariably, their owners were dragging these dogs on short leashes and full schedules, absorbed by their cellphones. I realized that my little bearded Lorax had shown me how important the trees are, to notice a disturbance in the grass and the petrichor of a recent rain. Imagine what an epic page-turner this green paradise must be to a canine!
The being I looked forward to seeing the most each day was a bald eagle. I first caught a glimpse of her as she swooped across the river with charcoal wings and a head as white as clean cotton. My heart clutched. The bald eagle — a creature we nearly lost to extinction — is a breathtaking sight. I saw her every day. I came to think of her as female because of her size — females are a third of the size larger than males. I knew she was older than five because at five years of age they develop their winter white head and tail feathers. I called her Rogaine because she’s a bald eagle and I’m an idiot. In the winter, she sat in the naked limbs of an evergreen, stooped, not unlike my own posture as I tapped out my novel on an iPad. She let me stand right beneath her to admire the detail of her feathers and that iconic scowl in daffodil yellow. When no one was around, I’d talk to her. Sometimes I’d hear her before I saw her, a light shower of falsetto notes. When summer swelled, she’d wheel a cerulean sky in loose loops, riding the thermals with the warmth on her wings. What did that feel like? Below, my little Lorax set the pace and I, smiling up at an eagle, let go of all the pain of rejection. I belonged to something now.
One summer day, I started heading back up the trail, heart throbbing and recharged. An older gentleman was walking my way in a sap-slow shuffle, surely, I thought, aligned with the rhapsodical rhythms of the natural world.
“Excuse me, sir,” I said to him, because it felt selfish to keep her all to myself, because I would have wanted someone to tell me. “There is a bald eagle just up ahead. She’s riding the thermals and it’s quite something.”
He looked at me like I’d just regurgitated a fish.
“I’ve been coming here for 30 years and I’ve never seen an eagle,” he said in a rusty rumble. His eyes lowered to his feet and he continued his determined hobble along the trail. I watched him shut himself off from the most beautiful world I’ve ever seen.
This interaction not only stuck with me, it slipped under my skin, a sharp puncture, an inoculation against disengagement. I vowed then and there not to miss 30 years of eagles. I didn’t want to miss a single day of any of it — not what the owl did or what the beavers demolished or whose leg had been left on the log. I would accept the invitation outside my door, I’d touch moss and mushroom and bark’s Braille. I’d read the stories. I’d listen to the song.
I picked myself up and I wrote a novel called Hollow Kingdom
. It combined my great but disparate passions in life — nature, humor, conservation. It’s narrated by an American crow (my crowtagonist) who loves humans and tries to save us from extinction. It’s a funny dystopian novel, but I know that a major impetus in writing this novel is my fear that we’ve forgotten that we are a part of nature. We’ve forgotten the magic of maple and that the otter likes an audience. We are too busy in our minds, reliving rejections and old recordings of conversations that have already happened or may never happen. We are texting and talking and typing, but nature is staging a symphony, a living, breathing show that’s never the same one day to the next and you can binge watch it all you like.
I saw Rogaine every day for as long as I lived in Bothell. I saw her flying with her partner and fishing and chasing pigeons. We are the species that nearly eradicated hers. And we’re the species that saved her. What would happen if we lifted our heads and turned our attention — our brilliant minds — to the trees and the species that need our help? To the species that could help us.
Just imagine it.
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Kira Jane Buxton
’s writing has appeared in The New York Times
, NewYorker.com, McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, Huffington Post, and more. She calls the tropical utopia of Seattle, Washington, home and spends her time with three cats, a dog, two crows, a charm of hummingbirds, and a husband.