I spent my childhood exploring on the Rock River outside of Moline, Illinois. There were live clams in the shallows, and beautiful clam shells to be found where the muskrats had been feasting. There was a venerable old bullfrog who could sometimes be found on his favorite rock if I crept up quietly, and who bulged his throat to an impressive size. There were crawdads who dug little mud holes along the bank, and turtles who slipped off their log perches and disappeared the moment I got close. I seined for minnows with an old milk jug and then let them go. I learned to catch leopard frogs by anticipating the direction of their leaps, and let them go also.
Curiously, water birds were scarce. Each summer we waited and watched to see if a single pair of mallard ducks would return to our shore. All these animals became my playmates, and I was happy to be alone with them outside until dusk.
I no longer live on my river, but in a city with sidewalks and streetlamps. In my life I have seen the Rock River swamplands burned out and filled in to build shopping malls and parking lots. I have seen our old house deteriorate after years of floods, termites, and deferred maintenance. The turtles no longer sit on logs in the crick along the road, and frogs are rarely seen. I have seen so many acres of forests and marshes disappear in my lifetime that it is easy to imagine humanity’s destructive effects on our entire earth, tempting to despair of our planet’s future. I wonder how global warming and toxic pollution will change the world my children live in. But the birds give me hope.
I live near enough to the Mississippi that the bald eagles soar over our house in the winter. They fly so close we see their talons. We see the amazing pelicans circling twice a year in their random formations, like a ball of yarn unraveling in the sky. My kids and I have often seen great blue herons along Duck Creek, improbably flying with their ridiculously long legs trailing behind. Canada geese are so numerous, they almost become a nuisance, but I forgive them for the friendly sound of their honking as they fly over in a determined V formation. We no longer have to wait all summer for a pair of mallards, but they are numerous year-round. Birds that were never or seldom seen in my childhood are thriving now. This gives me hope. Maybe people will be able to free themselves from the dirt and take the long view of life from the sky, like the birds. Maybe we can learn to travel light, and let our thoughts soar unfettered and free like these birds, and find a better way to live. I believe in looking up.