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Us Animals

25 April 2018

From The Millions:

There are so many ways for a nest to fail. So many ways for a sentence to fail. In my years as a field biologist I watched how the natural world dealt with the inevitability of failure—in life, mating, reproduction, predation. Unaware, I began to translate what I observed directly into my writing style.

One day on the Gila River I saw a bright green-blue snake slide through a willow with a flycatcher egg in its mouth. Endorphins flooding my body, I wrote about it right away, taking a seat on the sandy shore and jotting down a few winding versions of the event in my notebook. But nothing that I wrote rang quite right. I was too close to it, too amped up. It would only be later in the calm of my tent that I could process what I’d seen, reflect on it, and write. A little distance goes a long way.

The monsoons came fairly early that year I worked surveying breeding willow flycatchers via kayak on the Gila River in southeastern Arizona. After a particularly strong downpour I found three nestlings drowned in their own nest. When I tried to write about it, I found my syntax to be choppy and blunt. I wrote in the margins of my notebook, simply, they are gone. All dead. Again, I needed time to process what I’d seen.

The survival rate for songbird offspring is only about 30 percent, with large ranges within that statistic, of course. While doing nest monitoring on the Gila River, our crew monitored some 50-plus Southwestern willow flycatcher nests. At the time, this was a stronghold population for an ever-dwindling, federally endangered subspecies. Over and over in the course of just one field season we watched this struggling population build, lose offspring, rebuild, and try all over again. I wasn’t fully conscious of it at the time, but this kind of constant reminder of life’s fragility crept its way into my perspective and prose.

. . . .

When a nest fails, birds waste no time. They pick the pieces up and move on. A nest is repaired, a new clutch is laid, and they are on to the next plot point of their narrative. It is in this way that I began to write stories about loss—and then survival—with the particular lens of a biologist. The people in my novel began to share traits with some of the animals I observed. My characters knew how to pick up the pieces and march on into the future. They didn’t make a big deal of it when their whole life fell apart, but moved on because they had to. These people in my writing, you might say they were channeling their inner animal. And then all of a sudden I was one of them.

Link to the rest at The Millions

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