Birding Brought Them Together
A son and his difficult mother found common ground outdoors.
The mourning dove was in my sights, exposed by a gust of autumn that had taken away all its cover. My mother loved mourning doves. She was the one who had told me that the dove was in fact "mourning"--not a denizen of the "morning"--the naming inspired by the sadness of the bird's plaintive five-note call. And now, at the problematic age of 14, after a childhood spent birding with my mother, I was taking aim with a pellet gun at one of her favorite birds, considering whether to shoot it dead.
It was the beginning of the 1980s, a time when America was becoming a much harsher place than the eco-friendly '70s of my early childhood. It was also the dawn of my own harsher adolescent self. What was I doing? I didn't want to shoot this bird. I loved birds, just as I loved my mother. But I was a teenager, and I had come to feel that everything about my mother and our little rental cottage in the backwoods of uptight Greenwich, Connecticut, was somehow disappointing. IfIhadtoshootmywayoutofthe disappointment, so be it. As much as I cared about my mother and the birds that were her passion, I wanted to end up with a different life than the one she had lived so far.
My mother, Ruth Greenberg, nee Goodman, who died 14 years ago this June, ended up the way she did in large part because of birds and the rebellion they stoked in her. She was born the daughter of a nature-averse New York Philharmonic timpanist and a Swiss-German concert cellist, and raised during the war years in the rapidly urbanizing New York enclave of Yonkers. But in 1952 she had fled her staid East Coast suburban life for the pastorals of the University of Wisconsin.
There she enrolled in a new proto-ecology department called "integrated studies," where she did anything but integrate. In fact, from the start she began a slow process of flunking out. "She didn't pass any of their courses," my aunt, her twin, told me recently. "She used to go on their field trips instead." And as was her nature, during those field trips my mother found a shortcut around the boring workaday stuff and headed straight for the heart. The heart in this case was a young ornithologist named Helmut Mueller, a tall, graceful man, fond of America's threatened wild places and vanishing birds of prey.
They dated on and off throughout her abbreviated time in Wisconsin, banding peregrines and other raptors even as those species were disappearing at the hands of the invisible bird killer DDT. She even, in an effort to bring the two sides of her life together, suggested Mueller incorporate a cello string into the machinery of a falcon trap.
Though she found birds of prey and her young love so attractive, her equilibrium fell apart. Perhaps it was because it was such a conflicted time in America--a time when both Rachel Carson and the Red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy were ascendant. She had a hard time reconciling it all. She was also an emotionally unsteady person, an explorer prone to wandering gyres followed by terrified dashes home. Eventually she failed out of Wisconsin and limped back to Yonkers.
But she clearly longed for her times with the raptors. My aunt tells of one occasion when my mother persuaded my grandmother to go birding in Yonkers. They were nearly arrested when a paranoid neighbor threatened to call the police. "Never mind," the neighbor said when he realized the pair of binocular-toting women below were not Soviet agents. "It's just a coupla broads lookin' at birds." All the while and on into the future, her times in Wisconsin stayed with her--the ghost of a lost wildness. "She always said," my dad recounts, "the most glorious experiences of her life were being close to nature, climbing or whatever, with Helmut."
That natural glory of her youth passed on into the artificial compromise of early middle age. After another passionate but ultimately doomed affair with a socialist strike leader, she married my father, a psychiatrist, who was even more nature-averse than her father had been. When that relationship also failed and they divorced in the early '70s, she took me to the woodsy cottage in Greenwich, where she set about rebuilding her relationship with birds. And in this endeavor, I was her companion.
Our birding began locally at first. We discovered that we were neighbors of the Greenwich Audubon Center, a comely little cluster of buildings on a vast ignored stretch of land that today would go for a sum in the low eight figures. Before the hedge funders took over Greenwich, there was a lot of land like that, land for long walks rich with birds. Our induction was the center's "bird and breakfast" get-togethers, where my mother would don a short-cut fake-fur jacket and other Bohemian outdoor wear. And then on we went, expanding our birding repertoire into nighttime "owl prowls," where a frustrated opera singer-turned-bird guide would hold forth and flirt, bursting out with bits of Verdi between his superb hoot-hoot-hoo-hoooo imitations of barred owls.
And further we wandered. I remember a bald eagle watch in the Hudson Valley when the great birds first started to make their post-DDT comeback. That trip found me staring through a long telescope at a perched eagle, my mother's hand resting lightly on my back, and then feeling a thrill as our national bird, formerly just a vague, absent symbol, racked into focus and turned its head to form its classic profile. We devotedly chased down the annual fall migrations, watching the swirling kettles of broad-winged hawks form above nearby Pound Ridge Reservation. And while I continued to enjoy our birding dates into my middle school years, as I grew older the atten- tions that men paid my mother during her birding adventures grew nettlesome. On one occasion we booked a weekend in the headlands of Gloucester, Massachusetts, to watch shorebirds skim along the whitecaps. Wet and chilled from rain, we came back to the lodge and sat in the common room while a creepy man with a ponytail started discussing falcons with her. "I just love falcons," he said with a sly '70s come-on. "Have you ever held one?" "Yes," my mother said, no doubt thinking of her times banding birds in Wisconsin. "I just think they're so warm and sexy," the ponytailed man said. With that my mother took my hand and we exited to our room for the night.
The clashes in my mother's life would get more intense, especially as she tapped her radical past and became a vocal protester to the moneyed onslaught on the undeveloped Greenwich commons. Joining the board of Greenwich Audubon, she pushed for the acquisition of new land and engaged her particular brand of rage. All of it came to a peak when nearby Westchester County threatened to expand its airport, something that she feared would impinge upon migratory routes. As she grew more vocal about the airport, she came to seem more dangerous and more desperate. And this, in turn, made our lives seem more precarious. Some afternoons the phone would ring and ring, my mother failing to answer it. When I would finally pick up the receiver I'd hear a long string of expletives from an anonymous caller, a construction worker, perhaps, or a commuter, furious about her public statements on the airport's expansion. After the caller would sign off with an angry click, I'd place the phone back in its cradle and turn beet-red thinking about all the fury and confusion my mother always seemed to leave in her wake.
Which was why, I suppose, one morning I found myself with a pellet gun propped on my knees, taking aim at a dove. I could feel it as a transgression against everything my mother and I had formed together during that time in life when little boys and their mothers are closest. That we had built our bond over birds made it all the more egregious. And when I finally pulled the trigger I immediately wished I could race out in front of the pellet and put it back in its chamber. Too late. For a moment the dove sat on its perch as before. But then I saw its neck droop and watched as it plummeted to earth.
Retrieving the bird, I brought it in to my mother.
"What do you plan to do with that?" she asked, her eyebrows arched high. I blushed hard. "I don't know. I thought I could cook it and then eat it." "Go ahead then," she'd said. Feather by feather I began plucking the bird, and as I did so I felt that its body was quite warm. But far from sexy. Stopping now, I could see that my mother was fighting back tears.
She went into the next room and brought out a shoebox. Without a word I placed the half-plucked dove inside. And then we went outside, dug a shallow grave, and buried the bird with full rites.
I have never held a gun since.
This story originally ran in the May-June 2014 issue as "Bound by Birds."