Notes on Birds, Sunflowers, and Belonging

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Moving to Utah broke my heart.

I did not make it to Syracuse in one piece. The woman I was last year - my wild, creative, brave self I most love and value - stayed in Arizona. I could not pull her away from Saguaro. She fought tooth and nail to stay.

I had to make the move without her. My husband needed his wife and my kids needed their mom. For over a year, she and I have lived apart. Doing so opened old wounds and hiding places of anger, which I see now is good and necessary. But in the process, it felt very much like a small series of deaths.

Despite my judgement and fear, Utah has worked its subtle magic on me. The credit goes to the birds. For a year I have watched them from my kitchen window. I've identified over 10 species of bird that visit my backyard at any given time of the year. The family of sparrows that helps me pass the winter. The robin I really, truly, cross-my-fingers-poke-my-eye saw pulling up an early morning worm in April. The magpies that incessantly harass the sparrows in late winter. A hawk that took cover from an especially harsh winter storm in the vine on my fence. An American Goldfinch that enchanted everyone at a small family bonfire with its bright yellow tail. The springtime starlings that eat the seed from the feeder before anyone else can get to it. Crows that come for a feast of walnuts in the fall, their murders everywhere. The single bluebird that visited once in summer and never again.

And the seagulls. What more can be said for this seemingly obnoxious bird except that once, in early June, I heard the strangest sound. Why I remember it so clearly, I'm not sure. I was standing on my sister-in-law's front driveway. I placed my hand on the door handle of my mini van, the gold paint glimmering in the fading summer sun. Just as I was about to pull the door open, screeching music fell from the sky. It was unmistakably seagull, but instead of the usual "cah - - - cah - - - cah - - -" and momentary silence between calls, it was "ca-ca-ca, ca-ca-ca". So strange and unfamiliar was a hurried and desperate call from this bird, one that would soon as snatch a fry from your plate on the tables of the many Bear Lake "Best Raspberry Shake" shacks, that I looked up in wonder. The call came from a young gull. His wings were still shaky. He swayed back and forth in the wind like an unoccupied swing in a dust devil. He was terribly alone up there too - I could not see another gull in the sky for miles. The lake wasn't too far off, and I imagined his flock wouldn't be either. It was getting dark and I was a bit worried for his safety. "Go home!" I whispered to him. The answer came strong.

"I'm looking," he said.
"I am new here, too" I said.
He and I both
lost and in a hurry
to get back to something better.

Soon after that day in the driveway, I went to a work party hosted at my husband's boss's home. I watched my kids jump on a trampoline in the backyard. The fence was just high enough that I couldn't see the street. The tall trees lining the yard (and all the neighbor's yards too) gave the impression of a seclusion. The sun was just starting to dip below the horizon and the sky turned all my favorite sunset colors - it looked like the orange Creamsicles I used to eat drip-drip-dripped onto the pink sidewalk chalk I drew hopscotch squares with as a child. It was a surreal experience being briefly suspended in time. What a slippery, Jello-sweet moment to feel like I was seeing a classic Arizona sunset, and then to hear unfamiliar laughter behind me. Later, my husband's boss asked me how the move had been for me. I was honest.

"It's been hard," I said. "I miss Arizona so much."
"What do you miss about it?" he asked. "I'm not trying to be rude or pry, I just really want to know."
I took a deep breath and a quick inventory of my feelings, trying to decide if I should share all the details with a man who had no idea what I left behind.

"Well, my best friend Elise still lives there. It was hard to leave and have to navigate the changes that brought to our friendship." I said, almost stopping there. But no one had asked me about Arizona for six months.

"I miss Bell Road, where all my favorite stores were five miles away. I wonder if they ever finished that Costa Vida right before 83rd Ave, where the Carl's Jr. used to be? I don't know, and it bothers me still. I miss Pita Jungle. What I would do for some garlic potato dip, some jalepeno cilantro hummus, and two puffy greek pitas. I miss the Glendale library. And I miss the Skunk Creek trail I spent hours walking, documenting in my notebook the difference between the eucalyptus tree's thorny black trunk and the Palo Alto trees that blossom in March. I miss the perfect teal-to-purple ombre of opuntia macrocentra and I miss the Saguaro. I had to give all my cactus plants away before I moved. They would not survive Utah. It is simply not the same here."

By this time my breathing became rushed and hurried like the young gull's call. My eyes filled with tears. I immediately felt immense shame about being so candid, worried my grief sounded bitter full of blame.

He looked at me and gently said,
"It sounds like it's been really hard for you.
You're right. Utah doesn't have any of those things,
but we really are so grateful you are here."

His words, brief but genuine, opened up a space inside me that was just large enough to hold a small piece of Arizona me. It might be safe here after all, I thought.

In May, I headed to the foothills in Bountiful to take a field class on edible and medicinal herbs and plants of the Wasatch front. Most of the plants we learned about were not native to the area. At first I was confused - this was a class about plants of the western Wasatch front, right? Why waste my time on a class learning about plants that could be found in most of the contiguous US? But during the four hour class taught in rain and near-freezing temps I also learned that these non-native plants had, for the most part, settled beautifully and respectfully into the local ecosystem. Maybe I could learn something from the wild, healing balsamorhiza sagittata.

Twice this summer I found myself at Bear Lake. When I was a child, I used to play in the shallow beaches at Lake Powell and Lake Mead.  One of my favorite things to do was to shell search, and because an invasive mussel species was thriving in those waters, there was never a shortage of shells. Thanks to the Utah Division of Fish and Wildlife has been so vigilant about keeping Bear Lake clean, there were no shells. I really am truly grateful for that, but it was a surprise to me to visit a lake and find limitless large, smooth stones, but not much else. On the trip when it was warm enough to play at the lake, I laid on the beach for some time. With my feet in the water and my stomach on the sand, I watched the waves roll in and out, in and over, in and under my body. Only, it wasn't just sand. With every wave, rocks the size of a lavender seed along with thousands of pieces of broken shells rolled in and out, in and over, in and under my body. Every once in a while I would find a full, intact shell.

What a strange lake
to not even have
shells the size of a box elder bug!

What a strange place
with shacks on all four corners of Main Street
each selling the World's Best Raspberry Shake
made from "real Bear Lake raspberries"
on Raspberry Days
when raspberries haven't grown wild here in thirty years!

When I got home from the lake, I hopped in the shower and stripped my swim suit off. As I did, small rocks and shell bits fell from the folds of my suit and onto the porcelain floor of the bathtub, making small clink-clink-clink sounds reminiscent of crystal glasses and real silver flatware you'd more likely hear in an upscale restaurant instead of a private bathroom.

As a young teenager, my Aunt Di introduced me to one of my favorite traditions. She'd pour sparkling apple cider into real crystal champagne glasses and give one to every person in our group. We'd each take a turn celebrating the things we loved most in life, and after each annunciation we would all shout "Cheers!" and clink our glasses together, making sure to hit every one. "To Reese's Pieces on top of yogurt!" she once said, remembering the time I came to visit her house at 12 years old and introduced her to the delicacy. She didn't like it much, but always kept it in stock when I came to visit. "Cheers!" we'd all say, laughing. I felt so seen and loved in that moment. "To fireworks! To scrapbooks! To trying on pants three sizes too small!" Eventually "Cheers!" ended with the circle falling apart into a chaos of giggles.

an invitation.

"To belonging


"To coming home
to yourself

"Cheers!" I said softly,
brushing the last bits of
shell and sand
from underneath my left breast.

Is it possible
for a place to lodge itself in the crevices of the
heart and body?

I spent the summer gardening. It seems like a far-away dream now, another life entirely, to remember the zuchinni plants waist-high and bearing fruit faster than my entire neighborhood could eat it. Pumpkins sprawled over and out of the small corner of the yard I had given them, in return giving me over 15 large gourds and countless small ones. Sharing them with the children in my neighborhood was honestly the highlight of autumn for me. And the sunflowers - oh! How grand and regal they stood, some twelve feet or more tall! I loved hearing the kids walk by on their way to or from the park and school, saying "Look at those sunflowers! They are huge! I want to take one home!" And occasionally, when an offshoot branch had a particularly beautiful bloom, I would cut it off right then and there and hand it to the passerby. "I have flowers enough for everyone," I said, making a mental note to dedicate more garden space next year for cut flowers. The children's smiles were always thanks enough for me, whether flower or pumpkin. Gardens really do bring people together.

In September, I went with my twin wife (my sister in law, we are married to twins) on a fall leaf hike. The mountain trees always start and finish their autumn celebrations earlier than the valley. By the time we arrived with cameras in hand, the branches were already bare. Disappointed yet undeterred, we went on the hike anyway. About a quarter of the way into the hike, a small, shallow creek ran its way through the trail path. It was wide enough that we couldn't clear it with a leap over. We'd have to walk. I was wearing waterproof boots - crossing the river was not a challenge for me. But Kyla had worn tennis shoes, and had she tried to cross like I did, she'd have wet feet and be miserable for the rest of the hike. As Kyla carefully chose dry stones scattered along the river path, I stood in the water and held her hand as she stepped from stone to stone, making sure she kept her balance.

Why me? I am a stranger to this land, and though I've been begging for the better part of the year for this desert rose to open her secrets to me, I have had no response. I have no business guiding people across rivers they already know. And yet, as the clear, cold water ran over my boots, I felt like the land spoke back to me.

You came here ready 
to fall in love
to be taught
to find a place.

Not many people arrive here
calling to know the land.

We had to be sure you were willing. 
What have you learned?

As I held Kyla's hand
my heart answered,

Sparrow says there is joy in community.
Crow gives permission to go about my purpose unfettered.
Aspen shows me that every place is the perfect place.
Vine teaches me persistence.
Snake is gentle and embodies respect and reciprocity.
Sunflower shows me fame is short but seeds last forever.
Honeysuckle teaches evergreen sweetness.
Apricot tree is generous.

"I have not left my back yard," I said, feeling ashamed.

You don't need to. 

Welcome home.

Kyla crossed the river successfully with dry shoes, not knowing the woman beside her had transformed completely from one bank to the next.

Over the next few months, Wild Channing said a slow goodbye to Arizona. I think she flew home to me on the same November flight as Elise, knowing she'd need a companion for the trip. Elise eased and completed my transition with her signature love, adventure, and compassion. Our weekend together - which mostly comprised of sitting in front of various paintings, eating delicious food, and talking til our mouths were dry - taught me that love will follow me wherever I go. When Elise boarded her return flight to Arizona, I no longer felt the stinging loneliness that had been my companion for over a year.

Welcome home Channing

the land spoke to me again.

"Cheers!" I said, this time with my whole heart.

© Channing B. Parker. Design by FCD.