We called him Fred. Fred, the Peregrine Falcon. From the front window, across a busy street and into the distance on a barren, gargantuan tree beside a copse of evergreens and silhouetted against a grey, January sky, the bird stood motionless on a branch. As an English teacher, the name seemed to fit into proper rules of alliteration, but upon reflection, it could easily have been a majestic female, a Nefertiti perhaps, or Cleopatra. Why are we so quick to label something so stoic and strong, a male, I wonder now? Furthermore, why are we so prone to anthropomorphizing nature? What if we were to stop imposing our limiting, erroneous judgements on everything? The name still stuck.
The image was lifeless and verdant all at once, and while pictures of trees came to mind, the foreboding trunk of a Bergman scene, or Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot against an empty backdrop of the willow tree, we sat waiting too, my son and I, for some movement, a crane of the neck, a display of wings. Fred’s white breast seemed so pristine, almost too virginal. Is it possible for something so calmly regal atop its brown limbed lair to deliver fatal strikes? There was no movement for a long while. My son, aged 12, gave up waiting. I continued a lot longer, moon-eyed stares, as the morning light cast animal shadows on the walls.
“Good morning, students! Are you there? Can you see my screen? Carl? Joshua?”
“Ms., I cannot hear you? Is your mic working?”
“Your video, Ms., is lagging again.”
“Mohamed, I could not open your assignment. What file did you use, please?”
“Ms., do we really have to present using our video camera? I am too shy. I don’t know anyone here.”
“Ms., you just froze on the screen. Can you repeat what you were saying?”
“Bianca, where did you go? I just asked you a question? Bianca? Bianca are you there?”
“Sorry, Ms., yes, I am here Sorry, my internet just stopped working.”
“Kebron, can you please repeat what you just said? Your voice cut out.”
Omg. No faces again.
“Hello class, is anyone there?”
“Hello? Hello? Hello?”
We have been in lockdown in Ontario, Canada from where I am now writing for 10 months, and during that time, as we have faced different national restrictions and waves of Covid 19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths, uncertainty, fear and prolonged fatigue taken permanent place in rooms of stale, wintry air. During that time, I have also oscillated between teaching remotely last Spring, returning to school masked in the Fall for two Quads of changing timetables and lessened face to face teaching, to now a full virtual class schedule, a pendulum that continues to swing, back and forth, back and forth, without any visible end. “What do we think of the created universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms? Or what do we think of nothingness, those sickening reaches of time in either direction?” Annie Dillard asks in The Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. What do we think of nothingness?
The mind veers inexorably back to a different time, not so far ago actually, but almost surreal with its humanness. A room full of adolescents, some coming in late, others asleep on desks, lessons that worked for brief moments, and some, maybe not at all. All seems so distant and beyond reach, a mirage to a parched traveller. Was there ever a time we despised the noise and chaos of the everyday? Perhaps, we drank the waters we might not have known were that refreshing, revitalizing at its very source. We now all stare at screens and pixelated faces for hours too long, disrupted voices, time seems at once never ending, a road with the same parked cars on the one hand, and a frenzied highway of speeding coloured vehicles, on the other.
Consider this exchange between educators, answers to a query on a Teachers’ Website, of how to receive a guest speaker into an on-line classroom:
“Another teacher at my school actually used a Google Meet and then opened the Zoom from the AGO and shared her screen. You can’t share Zoom in Zoom, but you can share Zoom in a Google Meet.”
“If you make sure to log in with the Zoom App as the host and through your browser for the field trip. And then share your browser screen and then...”
Helpful advice for us all struggling to make it all work, but how much more facile to open the door with a warm greeting? Instead, we have opened the portal and entered some capricious version of Huxley’s brave, new world, chasing the white rabbit with the pocket watch into a world of nonsense logic.
“Ms. what happened? Did your computer crash? Ms.? Ms.? Are you there?”
What do we think of nothingness?
Grabbing the binoculars crushed under all types of detritus in a bedside cabinet, I peer more closely at Fred. Still the same branch. Relief gushes through me, so unexpectedly, I feel silly, like some child in a pet store peering at a cute puppy that cannot be brought home: “He is still here!” I cry out. Through a magnified lens, the thin, tapered wings speckled with brown lines, can be more clearly seen. A hobbie, perhaps, or maybe a kestrel? Perhaps an osprey? As a city born, urban dweller, knowledge here is so pedestrian, shameful really. If not by accident of birthplace, I too might know more of the natural world, I try to reassure, but with no real conviction. A cursory look at a Wikipedia page seems to validate this initial view : Falco Peregrinus, Distribution: Cosmopolitan. In profile, his beak is turned downwards, or more scientifically described on the page, “notched, near the tip, an adaptation which enables falcons to kill prey by severing the spinal column at the neck.” Long, slender wings. A formidable Indigenous Chief with stunning facial markings. From the bookshelf, I pull out Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Second Edition, National Geographic Society, but feel intimidated by its scientific weight and completely untrained for its use: “Immature Peregrine,” it states, “is dark brownish above; underparts heavily streaked. Immature tundrius has an extensively pale forehead and thinner dark bar on sides of face. In flight, absence of contrasting axillaries and wing coverts distinguishes all Peregrines from Prairie Falcons.” I am not sure what any of this means. But arriving on this particular bankrupt morning to me as coup de foudre, a downy tuft apparition come to explore the wreck; he is a messenger, my black webbed Hermes, a fallen angel with wings, all darkness and light, and I am more and more convinced, with his copper lined underparts, that his very being is an omen and a lesson in a world turned so upside down that we humans are trapped inside, encaged in our prisons, as we stare out at the magnificent freedom of the animals.
How bizarre it has all become. In our lockdown, we awake more and more to felicitous bridsong, An die Freude choir by Black Capped Chickadees, House Sparrows and Mourning Doves, a bellow of Bullfinches and murmurations of Starlings; Facebook, Instagram and Twitter Feeds are filled with images and warnings of red foxes roaming city streets, some with jaws clamped down on a bedraggled, helpless cat; deer saunter through the town’s port on the Mediterranean island of Lemnos, Greece, while wild Kashmiri mountain goats have run rampant through Llandudno, Wales, and in pictures that go viral, are seen standing beside parked cars, in front of stores. We delight in these images, however carnal. And we would be excused to think this the natural order of things, to root for them in our captivity. Wisps of dreams: This is your world, not ours. Reclaim what is rightfully yours. Make it better. Make it right. Rebuild heaven all over again.
Because the man made world feels like the aftermath of a Hieronymous Bosch painting, of what has happened after human excess, greed and avarice, every one of the seven sins, has fallen into prolonged somnolence. A post-Epicurean nightmare. Of course, the Corona virus has only done what viruses do as tiny, microscopic particles that cling to hosts, whether bacteria, plant or animal, to live and possibly mutate into more deadly, virulent forms, moving from person to person, at different rates in different places. But we would be remiss to retreat from a world on pause without deep reflections, without seeing how we as humans, infect and destroy; how we too have fallen prey to our own hubris and inimical lives, to our most basest, murderous impulses. We need not look too far and wide to hear and feel some form of social, economic, political and financial collapse: A highly contentious and controversial American election spurring acts that would not seem out in place in a Theatre of the Absurd, racial protests on streets, individual and national economic hardships, schools and business shuttered, we on the brink of the sixth great extinction, the glaring lights and commotion from outside of ambulance services and many police officers attending to a neighbour’s unexpectedly sudden and tragic end. Stupefying, endless lists. The venomous corruption of our mercurial world.
On this one particular morning, the computer had in fact, crashed. I imagined a more propitious restart, that I had crossed a field to the other side, energized again by functioning systems of gigabytes, CPUs, power voltages. Maybe this is just a temporary glitch, a mere hindrance to the path leading to the online classroom? Perhaps soon, by dint of hard work, prayer or magical thinking, I would get where I needed to be. Or this may too be just another layer of self-delusion.
There are these millipedes native to Japan, Parafontario laminata armigera, which, for over a century, have swarmed train tracks in mountainous regions. They are called “train millipedes” because they obstruct a train’s passage, but recently scientists have discovered that they have an 8 year life cycle, during which time they all move simultaneously, carpeting the ground and creating an impasse for train operators. There is nothing sinister here. They have no inclination or particular desire for the tracks. Rather, the tracks are for them too, an obstacle, which they must cross to reach the feeding grounds on the other side. Cyanide is released when they are attacked.
With the internet down and just before 3 hours of online teaching, on yet another day of dashed expectations, whatever dam was keeping the waters contained burst into torrential downpour, icy splinters of anger and rage flying like fissive missiles, poisoning the air: “This is my job, my livelihood. Does no one care? My students will wonder what happened. Has anyone called the internet provider? What announcement should I post? How do I tell the principal? What if they fall behind? What if I fall behind? What if it all falls apart? WHAT SHOULD I DO?” The only obvious answer, of course, was nothing. So I returned to Fred.
He had switched locations, and moved to another branch, one with a closer view of the grassy patches in the neighbourhood Civic Centre. Steadying myself against the window pane, temples
buzzing with anger and disappointment, eyes pink and lachrymose, the falcon was too calm, I feared he had died. Is that even possible, perched on this tree? In the well known D.H. Lawrence, nature knows nothing of contrition, of frivolous human pride:
I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small
bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever
having felt sorry for itself.
We are the train drivers, at the mercy of forces we cannot control. For the many hours devoted to lesson planning, attaching videos and preparing small group breakout rooms, interesting and stimulating topics for discussion, the battery will die, ISP signals will drop, routers will crash, and everything will disappear into a swirling vortex of loss. We may have consumed its hagiography, but the machine will fail us.
Narratives abound. Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Feeling of Power,” published in 1958 foretells a time in the distant future when computers are so prevalent that citizens have forgotten the simple basics of mathematics, including the ability to count. The main character, Aub, discovers how to reverse pencil and paper arithmetic, and while there is initial excitement at the possibility of freeing people from dependence on the computer, his discovery is appropriated by the military, where missiles can now be manned by men, replacing expensive computers with expendable human beings. Dismayed by what he has done, Aub kills himself, but there is little effect or concern, and these military plans continue, unabated. In the world of the “Zarg Tyranny” by Valerie Thame, citizens believe Zarg is the government, its purpose to control, manipulate and punish acts of disobedience, but in a twist ending, eerily relatable today, the people discover Zarg to be a vast computer network, a section of its inhabitants literally shut down, their human lives eviscerated through a simple, chilling software command. And of course, many of us will hauntingly recall this from our high school lessons, Winston Smith doing his morning stretches, only to be rebuked by the ever constant vigilance of Big Brother: “The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall.” The ubiquitous presence of telescreens in Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, operating as microphones, television, and security cameras all at once.
I think of these stories in the basement, near a closet piled high with old computers, broken cell phones, a graveyard of machines, obsolete each so very quickly. I think of how our world has moved so fast forward and out of control and look back out through the window. A monastic dressed in its plumed sanghati, Fred remains still, hours later.
I do a quick search: The name Fred is of German and English Origin. The meaning of Fred is “Peaceful Ruler.” Fred: Nickname of the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, widely used by USAF aircrews.
“Let’s go for a walk,” I implore my son. I shove the binoculars in my pocket. ‘I really want to find that tree.
“I want to see Fred up close.”
Down a main and then a side street, we make our way, frequently looking upwards, but finding a specific object from the ground feels so different, disorienting almost. As though we are stuck in some labyrinthine nightmare, going around in circles indefinitely on some crazed quixotic quest, each tree seems the same. We meet the Company’s technician working on the wires: “There may not be service for 24 hours, at least,” he informs us. But we have already moved on.
“Maybe this one?” I ask. “Is it this tree?” Feeling like Lily Tomlin in the film The Incredible Shrinking Woman, or maybe Gulliver in the land of Brobdingnag, I feel suddenly miniature in size, each tree huge and out of reach. We returned home; crestfallen.
It is just a bird. Nothing but a bird. Get over it.
But then, there are flutterings of rebirth. “There he is!!!” Through the window, I notice Fred on the same tree’s branch. We had miscalculated; gone too far left, and missed him. I continue to watch from afar, bewitched by the bird’s strange, quiet beauty.
Suddenly, however, there is movement so quick, if I had looked away, it might have been lost. Swoosh. Zoom. A volary apogee. Taking an abrupt flight with an impressive wingspan larger with each second, the bird soars through the air in one rapid, precise motion, a kamikaze soldier aiming for a target, perhaps a rat or mouse spied in the green patch of land near the Civic Centre. I imagine the crushing of bone, claws tearing through flesh, as this murderous bird of prey claims his day’s meal. I long for it all: The bird’s freedom and animal cognizance, his senses so sharply acute, the raw survival on a bleak winter day, this fast and vibrant creature whose very being seems to mock lagging machines, failed signals and downed power supplies; to be mocking this month’s Hadean landscape, mocking it all. “Remember this,” I whisper.
Remember this. Bare witness and don’t forget. In this world filled with wonder and ethereal joy. In this world without end, an encomium to you my beautiful, feathered friend.