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



How Can the Murder of Six Innocent People Be Explained?

Jo Ann Beard is the former Managing Editor of a space–physics monthly at the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in literary journals, magazines, and anthologies. Beard has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts and is the author of several books.

Surprisingly, “The Fourth State of Matterwas very controversial in the literary community.  First published in the June 24 & July 1, 1996 Special Fiction issue of The New Yorker, Bill Buford, the fiction editor, classified “The Fourth State of Matter” as personal history[1] and defended his decision on the basis of its artistry. While Gary Kamiya of Salon claimed that making an event like a university shooting part of someone’s personal narrative caused it to be “shrunk down”.[2] Nevertheless, “The Fourth State of Matter won the Whiting Award in 1997 for non-fiction.[3]

Beard wrote “The Fourth State of Matter”, as a witness account of a mass shooting by a disillusioned physics graduate student who killed six professors and administrators, on November 1, 1991.[4]  In this essay, written five years after the shooting, the author memorializes her friends and colleagues, and struggles to comprehend why they were murdered. Beard reveals the personal story of her friends and colleagues, who are forgotten in history and only mentioned in Wikipedia, under University of Iowa Shooting, with a single photo of the murderer, a three-paragraph story of the killings, and one sentence listing the victims’ names.[5]  

Using strands of detailed interwoven stories, Beard expertly weaves in her quirky, emotionally exhausted voice. She describes accounts of her inability to deal with her dying collie by prolonging its inevitable death, and not wanting to make a decision about “the husband” whose possessions are all packed up in the upstairs bedroom, while he insists on still in calling her three or four times a day. Beard is also dealing with family of noisy squirrels that have taken over the upstairs bedroom. She enjoys communicating with her colleagues by drawing on blackboards in their offices and sharing her learned knowledge of stars and planets.  Balanced underneath these detailed strands is the main story of the carefully planned senseless murders. The author gradually prepares us for this emotional trauma by letting the reader into her life. We, too, are left trying to comprehend why these people had to die?

Beard’s essay begins by finding herself awakened at 3:40AM by her dying collie. She takes the dog outside to look up at the planets and stars. Using her knowledge that she “learned at work, from the group of men who surround me there” (Beard). Foreshadowing the main story, Beard adds, “Guys whose own lives are ticking like alarm clocks getting ready to go off, although none of us are aware of it yet.” (Beard) The author knows the victims and was present on November 1, 1991 in the offices of University of Iowa. The author seems to be emotionally and mentally exhausted and is avoiding making any major life decisions regarding her dying dog and her relationship with “the husband.” Both need to end. However, Beard is proactive about the noisy squirrels nesting in her upstairs bedroom.

The author’s job, as an editor, is translating scientific papers into something that a layperson could understand. The essay’s title, “Fourth State of Matter, refers to the dust in the plasma of Saturn’s rings. “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and then your plasma, the fourth state of matter…therefore plasma is blood.”(Beard) The author understands that she needs the affection of her dogs, and knows it is wrong to keep her dying collie alive with “the face of love,”(Beard) even though it cannot stand or urinate on its own. She has yet to finalize or deal with the separation of her husband of 13 years. She does hire someone to remove the family of squirrels, but she misses them once they are gone.

 Beard details Gang Lu’s preparation for the murders of his colleagues by describing his shooting practices and contents of his suicide letter to his sister.  The grim, clear details of the shooting and the results are carefully documented, Beard carefully balances her trauma and immense loss with these subplots. She shifts to a factual and direct reporting tone, unlike the rest of the piece, when she describes one of the murders, “The administrator, Anne Cleary, is summoned from her office by the receptionist. She speaks to him for a few minutes, he produces the gun and shoots her in the face.” (Beard)

Later, after being consoled by many friends and “the husband”, Beard is left alone with her three dogs while she tries to understand what has happened. Looking up at the planets and stars, the author finds some peace. “We’re in the plasmapause, a place of equilibrium, where the forces of the earth meet the forces of the sun. I imagine it as a place of stillness, where the particles of dust stop spinning and hang motionless in deep space.”. (Beard)  

This is writing is at its finest. The more one reads this essay, the deeper the nuances become. The author is very vulnerable and honest with herself, and has a wry, foreshadowing sense of humor. “I’m leaving and I’m never coming back,” (Beard) she tells her dying collie after awaking up every three hours to assist as the dog tries to urinate. This somehow eases to balance the horrors of the massacre. Additionally, she prepares us for the murders when she passes Gang Lu, the killer, in the hallway, noting “the double doors leading to the rest of my life.” (Beard)

Originally, I thought the story of the squirrels was unnecessary. We find that she misses the activity of the busy squirrels, much like her co-workers going in and out of the office. However, dealing with the squirrels is the real start of the author beginning to resolve issues in her life. The only shortcoming, I could find, was not knowing how many times I would have to read this piece to understand all the nuances, meanings, depth, and symbolism.  

Jo Ann Beard personalizes and remembers her friends and co-workers by including their individual photographs in this essay, taking up a half page in The New Yorker. She humanizes them by discussing their relationships; “Bob is his best friend. They spend at least half of each day standing in front of blackboards, writing equations and arguing about outer space.”(Beard); work, “He travels all over the world telling people about the magnetospheres of various planets”(Beard); styles, “He’s hip in a professorial, cardigan/jeans kind of way.”(Beard) and eccentricities; “A stocky, short-tempered man, he’s smoking a horrendously smelly pipe.”(Beard).  Jo Ann Beard tells the story as a survivor, trying to make sense of the mass carnage.  She remembers and loving memorializes her deceased colleagues, who taught her about the planets and stars, and how to listen carefully to the sounds of the universe. The memories of her friends are crystalized in amber and have become jewels in deep space.







Yoga Pants Are Good for Your Soul!

Dear Dr. Anderson,

Yes, I am finally listening to your advice and taking a yoga class, so I can be less stressed and anxious, and become calmer and more relaxed in this pandemic.

Therefore, I will no longer need your very expensive twice a week therapy sessions. I have a new friend, Adrienne, who has a cute dog, Benji, who is helping me with my new yoga life and I’m very happy and relaxed. So there!!!  


Your former client,

Kathy (and Bob, too)

Is there anything that I can do for my anxiety?

Take a yoga class!

I’m recovering from getting hit by an SUV, what can I do after physical therapy?


 My career in fine arts and special events is vanished due to the Corona virus, what should I do?


 I’m lonely, depressed and unemployed, what should I do?

Breathe and take a yoga class! 

I have no choice. Due to pressure from my therapist, social media, Facebook friends, and my peers; I have learned I must take yoga classes to become a restful peaceful person, especially during this pandemic. Since over 55 million people will be practicing yoga this year in the USA, I must now become one of them. Due to personal budgetary restraints, and the fact that the governor closed down my gym, twice, I decided to follow the popular YouTube channel, Yoga with Adrienne. Adrienne has great body, keen sense of humor, and a cute dog named Benji. She has an online community of over seven million viewers and offers “high quality practices on yoga and mindfulness for FREE to inspire people of all ages, shapes and sizes.” I have now taken her classes for 57 days. I thought I would become a restful, peaceful, in-shape person, while wearing my cool new yoga gear.

OMG! I am so right!

The other day, while channel surfing, I accidently started watching the Kardashians. I discovered that they too, are all obsessed with wearing yoga pants, and are always tweeting and snapchatting selfies while wearing them. Of course, their yoga pants are worn not only to accentuate their curves, but I want to believe, they may also work out in them just like Adrienne. Since they wear yoga pants and look fabulous all the time, I decided I needed to order my own yoga outfits from I don’t have Kardashian money, so I couldn’t order from their expensive website. Today, I own flesh colored, purple, and gray “live in gratitude” tank tops, a pair of sky blue “awakened yoga leggings”, a couple of “spiritual gangster” tie dyed crop tanks, and two pairs of cool Lululemon invigorate high-rise diamond dye yoga pants for $138.00 each. I got all of this for about a total of $899.00 with coordinating face masks and free shipping, not including tax, and put this on my Costco credit card.   

While shopping at Costco, Bashes, Walmart, PetSmart, and Michael’s in my yoga pants, I realized that no matter your size or shape, they will go on easy and wear all day without getting stretched out. Also, everyone seems to assume I’m in better shape because I’m wearing athletic gear. This means I can eat as much as I want and never have to worry about zipping up my jeans. In fact, I found that yoga pants are so popular that they have led to a decrease in the sales of jeans in America. Therefore, I have decided to give up jeans completely and wear my yoga pants while working out, shopping for groceries and pet food, or simply sitting on the couch, while I watch cute kitty videos and play games on my cellphone. Moreover, I can feel good about my decisions because, I found that the athletic apparel brand Lululemon, best known for producing fashionable women’s yoga pants has a net worth as of July 10, 2020 of $40.94 billion dollars[1] and they are committed to Black Lives Matter; providing a portion of their proceeds to support inclusion, diversity, equity and action.  Additionally, the average person practicing yoga in the US spends $62,640 during their lifetime on classes, workshops, and accessories. [2] Now, I can say I am finally part of this cool crowd.

So far, I’ve taken socially distanced “Beer Yoga” at a Fate Brewery (Wow! Heterosexual guys!); “Museum Yoga” at the Heard (and became a museum member!); “Moonlight Yoga“ at Southwest Wildlife (Saw some cute bears and bobcats!); “Desert Yoga” in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve (Lots of rocks and cacti!); and Kitten/Puppy/Goat Yoga classes benefiting animal rescue groups. Yes, the quality of the classes can vary immensely, but I feel really good making the world a better place by supporting a non-profit with other people wearing their yoga pants. Although I must admit some of these classes are a bit too relaxing and am probably not getting a good cardio workout or building muscles. However, if I give in and try a more athletic yoga class that tires my muscles, I might as well go back to running, biking or swimming instead. And what would I do with all my new yoga gear? Running marathons and doing triathlons is really hard work (I’ve done 13 NYC Marathons and 8 triathlons) and I look terrible in photographs when doing these sports. Why would I return to those grueling sports when I can just do yoga?

I love my new yoga pants and my new yoga life. Now, I am one of the many people who are watching on-line yoga on YouTube and Zoom. Sometimes we even participate in the actual class. The results have been astonishing! I have only gained 18 pounds since March! My cat, Bob, has only gained 2 pounds! I have an entirely new tie-dyed lyra yoga wardrobe for under $900.00! Every day I wear one of my four pairs of pastel colored (recycled materials only) flip-flops with small mini Buddhas or flowers printed on them. All-in-all, I have only spent about $500.00 (“paying what feels good”, according to Adrienne[3]) for additional on-line wellness and breathing classes. My social distancing has improved in my yoga pants and my tie-dyed face mask.  Above all, I’m relaxed and comfortable knowing that I’ve contributed to world peace at home on my couch with my cat, eating organic potato chips, watching YouTube with Adrienne with her cute dog, Benji. Together, we all follow along, breathing as she lets “a little love in and a little love out”.