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Bearing Witness

I’ve always admired people who spend time in nature and develop not only a knowledge and understanding of it, but also form a relationship with the plants and the animals inhabiting the land. While my father was stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War, my mother taught my siblings and I how to rescue baby birds, Robins, I think, that had fallen from their nests at Edwards Air Force Base in California. We learned to feed them soft bread and keep them warm by placing them in a shoebox next to a warm lightbulb.  She showed us how to identify various birds from colorfully illustrated books, and continued teaching us as we moved from base to base around the world. We learned about the mynah birds, rock doves, and sandpipers of Hawaii; the common loons, blue jays,  and chickadees living on Big Floyd Lake in Northern Minnesota: red winged black birds, the blue herons and orioles of Mississippi; and the roadrunners, mourning doves, quails, Anna’s humming birds,(surely named after my mother, I thought), of  the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Each we moved, I found comfort and solace in my natural surroundings.

Later, I settled on the East Coast where I lived for 34 years. I was still interested in using my birding knowledge in Central Park, but life became too busy to continue my childhood pursuits. When I was hired as the new Director of Steward Operations at the McDowell Sonoran Conservancy, which was responsible for caring for the largest public land preserve in the United States, it brought me a relocation to Scottsdale, Arizona. I had the opportunity to work with our Citizen Science Program with some of the best ornithologists in Arizona including Walter Thurber, Tara Deck, Rick Pierce, Kathy Anderson, and Lisa Miller, who taught bird identification workshops. Because of my extensive working hours, I could only attend the nighttime bird counts which were the Christmas Bird and the evening of Global Big Day.

For over 120 years, an annual census of birds in the Western hemisphere and the world have been conducted by volunteer bird watchers and administered by the National Audubon Society. These studies are used to identify declining bird populations and threats of extinction from climate change, habitat loss and other causes. The Preserve closed in the evening to allow the wildlife to come out, so participating in these after-hours counts required a permit from the City of Scottsdale, a trained professional bird watcher, and headlamps. Hiking in the lush Sonoran Desert in the dark listening intensely to the sounds of nature while sharing observations and knowledge with several patient, quiet, kind and very knowledgeable people deeply appealed deeply to me. The sound of the cactus wren like a car that can’t quite start, the deep hoots of the Western screech owl, and the loud raspy calls of the Gila Woodpecker filled the peaceful setting as the sun was setting. It was magical.

About two months ago when my work hours became flexible, I was invited to go on private morning Conservancy bird count in the Preserve. I was told to bring water, snacks, suitable natural colored clothing, and binoculars. Getting my gear together was simple, but locating binoculars took some time. I’d inherited a set from my family and rarely used them since my move to the desert. After some searching, I finally found them in an old cardboard box with my winter New York City Marathon gear. I had to re-learn how to use them.  

I observed the state bird, the cactus wren; the small round ground dwelling Gamble’s quails; Gila woodpeckers, phainopeplas, known as the black cardinal with red eye; black-throated sparrows hidden in turpentine plants; the beautiful American kestrel, the smallest falcon in North America; and a flock of ravens. A tiny Abert’s towhee floated against the backdrop of a clear blue sky and took my breath away. For some reason, although I knew several of the birds’ calls, I did not identify them to my colleagues.  I realized that I had been a silent observer on every bird hike I attended. My colleagues had invited me to listen to the sounds of birds and nature, and I while was very grateful, I’d hardly participated.

One bird count ended on a clear crisp Tuesday morning. I thanked the group of informed volunteer bird watchers, walked to my car, and took off my binoculars. Suddenly long a forgotten memory flooded back; I’d used the same binoculars watching birds once in New York City.

On a similarly clear, crisp Tuesday morning in September of 2001, I was enjoying a day off.   As I drank my coffee and watched the local news. A airliner crashed into Tower One of the World Trade Center and then a second plane crashed into Tower Two. I lived on 52nd Street which was less than three miles away. I grabbed my binoculars and cell phone and took the elevator to the rooftop on the 13th floor. I saw that Tower One was down and Tower Two was beginning to crumble. I pulled my binoculars to my eyes and focused in on the smoke around the area. I noticed several strange flying birds surrounding the remaining tower. I tightened my focus to try and identify the species. I could not remember what type of bird would dive into white clouds of dust, perhaps they were some species of large ravens or raptors, drilling down and disappearing into the billowing grey clouds on the ground.

I knew raptors were rare in New York City, and there were a few red-tailed hawks which soared in high wide circles, using wind currents in Central Park. But these birds were mysteriously flying vertically, not horizontally. I watched as the second tower crumpled, and more birds appeared. I suddenly realized there was much to do before the building’s power would be turned off. I ran back to the elevator and went out to gather food and supplies. I needed to inform my colleagues at the America Museum of Natural History, where I was in charge of the “Information Desk” volunteers, about these crashes. I left my apartment keys with the bartender at the All State Bar so people needing shelter could stay at my apartment. The details of those moments return in a horrific rush. There was so much to do and no time to spare.

Sitting in my car outside the McDowell Sonoran Preserve almost twenty years later, a clear moment of understanding arrives. I couldn’t identify those birds on 9/11, because I wasn’t watching birds. I was watching human beings making the devastating, significant, and courageous decision to end their lives by jumping off the Towers to their death. My subconscious made sure I avoided the reality of what I’d witnessed for almost two decades. That was why I could only listen to birds at night and not watch them fly during the day counts. According to Native American oral history, birds can symbolize change. They are carriers of prayer and are messengers to the Great Spirit.

I want to believe that those people took on the spirit of flying birds in their final of moments of grace. Perhaps they were delivering prayers to the Great Spirit. I pray that their souls are at peace. I continue to seek my own healing in the simple art of quietly observing the natural inhabitants of the Sonoran Desert. Here, I can listen intently, breathe deeply, and shift my gaze upward as I take in the wild beauty of the vast, open blue sky.

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