Column: “Death, She Speaks Through the Birds”

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I. The Other

“I don’t practice what I preach because I’m not the kind of person I’m preaching to.”Rev. Ivan Stang

Sitting on my patio, I looked up from the clay in my hands and was suddenly and immediately awestruck by the silence. For a moment, the entire street symphony was quiet: the birds, the cars, the workers on the Broadway Bridge, the pedestrians, it was though the volume had been suddenly turned down for dramatic effect. I looked around and down towards the street, surprised by the silence, and it was at that moment a truck came roaring by out of nowhere, hit the loose pothole right outside my building, and set off the car alarm for the fourth time that day.

I looked down towards the car from my third-floor balcony, enraged. I knew exactly which vehicle it was, license plate number and all, as I had been directing my anger towards that car on a near-daily basis for several months now. It was a beat-up black Honda, one of those late-80s models with the exaggerated black rear window louvers, and its alarm went off nearly every time without fail whenever a truck directly hit the lose pothole.

The view from my balcony. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

The view from my balcony. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie]

The car had been a constant source of my frustration and rage since the first week that I settled into this unit, having moved from a smaller unit upstairs at the beginning of last summer. Other than the constant car alarm, the unit and the streetscape that accompanied it were exactly to my liking, which in retrospect I realize only further aggravated my anger towards the car. It was the only nuisance in an otherwise ideal scenario.

The alarm stopped for a few seconds and then started up again. My mind started to rant, presenting the same line of questions that came forth every time I got aggravated over the alarm. How can the owner not know it’s going off all day? What kind of person acts so inconsiderately towards their neighbors and their neighborhood? I can’t be the only one pissed off about this.

I stood up and looked over the balcony, noticing as I rose that my instinctive reaction had become a ritualized routine at this point: Truck goes by; alarm goes off. I get up as my mind starts to rant. I look down at the car in anger; beam rage down from the balcony; contemplate filing a noise complaint; remember that it won’t have any effect; fantasize about having the car towed; silently curse the owner under my breath; and then get back to whatever I was doing until the next time the alarm goes off.

In consciously realizing the pattern I decided to interrupt it at that moment. Instead of stepping into the cycle that I had just identified, I went inside, closed the door, and turned up the music. My housemate looked at me quizzically.

“Its that Gods-damned car alarm,” I said. “Every time I hear it, all I want to do is throw a brick at that miserable excuse for a car. This has been going on for months! When’s it going to stop?”

He looked out the window towards the street below for a moment and then shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t even notice it,” he said. “I mean now I do, because you pointed it out…”

If only I didn’t notice it, I thought to myself.

I grabbed my jacket and went out for a walk, hoping that by walking it off I could drain the frustration out as well.

As I walked, the rant between my ears carried on. How does the owner not know that their alarm is broken? Can’t they disable the alarm? If it goes off here constantly, it must be going off anywhere they park. How does a person not figure out that it’s their car? I mean, they have to know, right? Which means that they’re just an inconsiderate excuse for a human being, and they don’t care that someone like me has to hear it all day. I hate people. Dammit, I hate people so much…

I allowed the stream of consciousness to fade out as I started to physically tire, and I could feel the anger had mostly drained away. After a few hours I turned back toward my building, making mental notes of the patterns and emotions that I had just experienced in the hopes that I could react more rationally the next time the alarm went off.

I was a half-block from my building, walking directly below my balcony on the sidewalk, when a car pulled into a space a few feet in front of me. I was so deep in my head that I almost walked past it when I noticed the telltale black louvers out of the back of my eye.

My heart and my stomach jumped at the same time, as my anger immediately rushed right back in. This was the car. And the driver is inside.

I froze and stared at the car, realizing that in all the months of anger and frustration and rage that I had never actually conceived of this moment in my mind, never thought that I would actually ever be face-to-face with the person responsible for the constant interruptions that had plagued me since the summer. What do I do? What do I even say?

The door opened, and the driver stepped out. I shifted immediately from anxiety and anger to bewilderment and shock. The driver that just emerged from the car was my former neighbor from across the hall when I lived upstairs – a sweet, elderly, nearly-deaf woman who I befriended and interacted with on a daily basis when I lived in my old unit.

Instantly, the entire situation explained itself, and my consistent internal questions were answered. Of course, I said to myself. She can’t hear the alarm from inside the building. She probably doesn’t hear it if she’s more than ten feet away. It then occurred to me that even if she did know that her alarm was broken, fixing it would be a great challenge as she lives on a fixed income and did not seem to have family nearby. As it was, she collected cans in the building to supplement her income.

She saw me, smiled, and waved. I waved back, barely noticing that I was returning the physical gesture as feelings of guilt and nausea swept over me. I immediately thought of how may times I had been tempted to call the police; how many times I had wanted to have the car towed; the amount of anger and hate and frustration that I had exerted towards an unknown entity, the ‘other’, who had turned out to be a friend.

She continued to grin as she walked toward me, and I had to remind myself that she was unaware of my internal transgressions. She had no idea that I had been wildly fantasizing for months about throwing a large object from the balcony onto her car. She nodded hello and I nodded back and, in my awkwardness of the moment, I offered to help her with her bags. She accepted, and we walked in silence up to her apartment.

After I dropped her bags off at her front door, I went back to my place and completely fell apart. It wasn’t just the immediate situation, but a much harsher feeling of hypocrisy and a failure to live up to my own standards. As someone whose work for years has been rooted in demystifying and breaking down ideas and prejudices around the ‘Other,’ I had fallen into the identical trap that I have spent countless hours of my life writing, teaching, arguing, and lecturing on. I had demonized the unknown based on a personal inconvenience, and spent months projecting my anger and rage onto that Other, only to find out that the Other was actually not only a friend, but one of the most vulnerable people I know.

While the car alarm had been a legitimate annoyance, one could argue that the homeless man who plays bucket drums on the downtown was a comparable annoyance – the man who I see being yelled at all day by working folks who scream “get a job”. And I have always stood as the constant defender of him and others like him, always conscious of the fact that the anger projected at him is much greater than the annoyance warrants, always aware that such anger is being displaced onto him because he represents the Other.

I sat with that hypocrisy and with that discomfort for what seemed like endless hours, finally passing out only to enter into a dreamland in which my conscience and hypocrisy were at the forefront.

The next morning when the car alarm went off, I immediately felt a guilty pang upon first hearing it but then found that I could almost immediately tune it out. Later in the day, when it went off again, I was instantly able to tune it out, which was relieving on one level but also made me even more uneasy on another. I thought of my housemate, who is able to tune it out every time, and I realized that my past overreactions and my prior inability to tune it out had everything to do with my displaced rage and little to do with the actual annoyance factor of the sound itself.

Against the other regular sounds that float in off the balcony, the alarm suddenly seemed no louder nor more prominent than anything else in the immediate sonic landscape. I knew deep down that it has everything to do with the fact that I now immediately connect the sound to a vulnerable friend who lives in poverty, as opposed to the unknown, horrible, mythically inconsiderate person that I had built up in my head. I could see clearly what had happened; I could see and understand and explain the trap that I had fallen into. But understanding it did nothing for my conscience and my anxiety.

In hindsight, at that moment I was in the midst of yet another repeat lesson that I hadn’t realized that I needed. For the rational mind can explain and justify and forgive, but it has little effect on the psyche as a whole if the emotional mind throws up enough roadblocks.

*     *     *

A few days later, I met a friend down by the waterfront and spilled the whole tale.

“On a intellectual level, I recognize how powerful social conditioning is, I recognize that no matter how much work we do we can never root out that conditioning completely, and I know that to dehumanize the Other is deeply rooted in that conditioning. And yet despite recognizing that, I’m having a hard time forgiving myself. No matter how strong the conditioning, the fact is that I still caught myself red-handed not practicing what I preach, and when I look at how easily I fell into that trap, I feel like perhaps I haven’t embodied the lessons that I teach as much as I thought I did.”

She thought for a minute, and then spoke.

“Or maybe the fact that you can never embody it fully, that no matter what you do you will always be somewhat susceptible to that conditioning, maybe that’s the lesson you needed to learn instead.”

 II. The Self

I remember when I first encountered anthropocentrism. I was in primary school and, in preparation for our confirmation, the class was learning about the afterlife.John Burnside

It was one of the most powerful learning experiences of my life, powerful enough that it reverberates just as deeply over fifteen years later as it did the time the lesson first sank in.

“Go out for a walk in the park, make it a long one,” he instructed me. “And while you are out, concentrate fully on everything occurring around you, and assume that every single thing that you notice, that occurs in your presence, that falls across your path, is a message from the Gods. Absorb as much as you can, and come back to me when you can’t hold onto any more of it.”

And so I went out on a beautiful spring day into Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and spent the next several hours divining my environment according to instruction, taking in everything I saw as a significant symbol or trail of meaning. As I made my way through the park, reading the swaying of the trees and the patterns of the birds, I hit a moment of what felt like enlightenment, a spiritual breakthrough, a place of true power.

The Nethermead at Prospect Park. Photo by Garry R. Osgood

The Nethermead at Prospect Park. [Photo Credit: Garry R. Osgood]

The entire park is speaking to me, I though to myself. I am in communication with the universe as a whole. We are one, we are connected, we can read each other’s thoughts. All the archetypal notions of woman as witch, woman as connected to nature, the universality of the divine – at that moment all were at the forefront.

I headed back to my teacher, intoxicatingly high on what I had perceived as the ultimate taste of power and divinity, floating on air and my own ego as I approached his house. He opened the door as I walked up the porch stairs, took one look at me, and his face immediately fell.

“Dammit,” he said, shaking his head while also trying to stifle a smile. “I should have known. This is just like when I gave my son the whiskey.”

“Wait, what? Whiskey? What are you…”

My voice drifted off as I stood there, my face reflecting my complete and utter confusion, a confusion that brought me down from my metaphysical high almost instantly.

He laughed. “When I was young, maybe ten or eleven, I was walking with my mother one day and we saw some of the older kids in my neighborhood drinking in a nearby alleyway. There was something about it that intrigued me as we walked past, I started asking my mother about alcohol and drinking and all of that business. So when we get home, she asks me if I want to try some alcohol. I was stunned… and confused, of course… why was she offering me something that was forbidden?

“So of course I say yes. She hands me a bottle and I take a foolishly big gulp, and it was the most horrifying taste and sensation I had ever experienced in my entire life. I immediately vomited and started to cry, and I didn’t dare try alcohol again until I was well in my college years. Meanwhile, those kids who drank in the alley all the time, they never made it to college. And of course as I got older I recognized why she did what she did, as unorthodox as it was, and I recognized how effective it was on me as a kid. It made me a believer in preventative measures.

“So when my son first showed curiosity around alcohol, I repeated the lesson. I handed him a bottle of cheap, cheap whiskey, the kind that tortures your insides no matter your disposition, and he took the same big swig that I did as kid. But unlike me, his eyes immediately lit up as it went down. He loved it, I remember him licking it off his lips. I remember standing there in horror – what had I done?”

He paused for a moment and then smiled. “My son, though, I raised him right, and he understood that his reaction was the exception to the rule, and that my intent was to keep him on the right path, and he internalized what I had intended in the lesson despite that lesson backfiring in reality. He stayed away from the troublemakers in the neighborhood and went on to finish college like I did.”

“But what does this have to do with me?” I asked.

He smiled again and paused to collect his thoughts. “Well, I basically sent you out there hoping it would have the same effect as a bitter gulp of whiskey, so to speak. But you reacted just like my son. I can tell that you loved it.”

I thought back to the intoxicating high I felt during my journey in the park. “I did love it. That was amazing. But I still don’t quite understand what you’re getting at.”

He waved me inside and we sat down at the table, the tea already set out for two in anticipation of my return. I took a few sips and he started to speak again.

“The reason its like the whiskey is because I intentionally gave you an exercise that in a sense was supposed to make you sick. Not vomiting sick, but anyone else I’ve ever sent into that park has come back here either physically exhausted, angrily frustrated, or teetering on the edge of madness. But you, you’re happy and glowing like you just came back from a successful first date.”

He continued. “When one works with place, with the land, with the land spirits, its very easy to fall into the trappings of anthropocentrism. The connections forged in an ongoing relationship with the land, the ongoing process of learning to read signs and symbols, it can open up a dangerous space where we as the spirit worker become convinced that the universe and the gods and the spirits are speaking to us at every moment of every day.

“The universe is always speaking, yes. Absolutely. It is relaying messages at every moment of every day in every corner of existence. But neither you as an individual nor us humans as a whole are necessarily the intended target or recipient of those messages. And yet, many fall into that trap where they are convinced that every leaf, ever feather that falls in front of them carries a crucial meaning, and it is those unfortunate souls that tend to descend into either narcissism or madness.”

I nodded. I thought back once more to that feeling that carried me through the park, but this time I immediately recognized its potential danger.

“So yes,” he continued. “Again, the universe is always speaking, but the point is that its not always speaking to you, and the intended lesson was that opening oneself to the idea that they are the center of the universe does not end well. Sometimes the Gods are trying to get your attention, and sometimes the squirrels are just chasing a leaf and it has nothing to do with you whatsoever.

“And yet I feel that we both learned unintended but powerful lessons today. You are smart, as smart as my son if not more. And I have no doubt that you understand the lesson in its intent just as my son did. You’re just going to learn it a little differently in its application. Like my son, you will need to keep in mind how much you liked that forbidden taste, which may make resisting it a bit more challenging.”

You’re just going to learn it a little differently, I repeated to myself.

“Wait, going to learn it?” I asked. “I thought I just learned it. “

He laughed. “You have. But you’ll learn it again and again before you’re done, my dear. Lessons like these don’t begin and end, they hover constantly and tap you on the shoulder when you need another reminder.”

*     *     *

I was walking home from downtown last month when I decided to take a detour, making my way down to the riverfront so that I could walk through Waterfront Park towards the Steel Bridge.

Waterfront Park in downtown Portland. Photo by Alley Valkyrie.

Waterfront Park in downtown Portland. [Photo Credit: A. Valkyrie.]

It had been one of those days where the planet seemed off and the land felt shifty somehow, as though the place itself was tense in expectation. I couldn’t help but internalize that feeling as I did my errands that day, feeling myself slip into moments of uncertainty and paranoia, and everything that fell before my path seemed to confirm or further validate what I was feeling.

I was nervous, started to quicken my pace towards home, when I suddenly heard a racket out of nowhere coming from the seagulls above my head. I looked up for a split second and quickly did a double-take.

The air was full of seagulls, but they were flying haphazardly through the air, swooping unnecessarily and chaotically as they circled the immediate area. They reminded me at once of stunt pilots, swooping through the air to dazzle and amaze the crowd. But these were birds, not airplanes, and in all my years of concentrating on the flights of birds, I had never seen birds act like this before. I thought back to the uneasy feeling I had been noticing all afternoon, and as I continued to watch the birds I slowly and surely became absolutely terrified.

I watched as two gulls nearly crashed into each other, and the one that was nearly hit responded by darting up and then nose-diving straight into the river.

My mind started to race. Are we about to have an earthquake? Is a meteor about to hit? A hurricane? I looked around to see if there were any other animals acting oddly in the vicinity. A couple was walking their dogs down the riverfront path, oblivious to what I was witnessing. Their dogs were also oblivious, ambling along and sniffing the path without a care in the world.

I looked up again. The seagulls were still flying around everywhere, swirling around without end, with some yelling while others bounced from tree to tree in bursts and fits. Did something horrible just happen? Was there a terrorist attack? I pulled out my phone and quickly pulled up the news headlines as my eyes kept focus on the gulls. I then glanced back down for a moment and scanned the page. Nothing unusual, just a few sports games and some kind of international conference.

I looked back up at the sky, my fear growing as I started to think back on all the signs, all the synchronicities, all the feelings that had drifted through and past and before me over the course of the afternoon. I watched as two seagulls landed in front of me, stared blankly at each other while yelling, and then quickly took off and started circling around the nearest tree.

Minutes went past, and I continued to stare at the sky in terror, having no idea how to proceed. I wanted nothing more than to walk away, than to pretend that I never witnessed this and/or that it was simply a random and easily explainable occurrence that held no significant meaning. But my fear would not allow for such a decision. What in the world is going on here? What does it mean? What are they trying to say?

A group of seagulls then landed in front of me, and as I looked down at them I also once again glanced around the immediate vicinity, hoping that someone else was at least witnessing what was occurring in the sky. As I turned and looked behind me, I noticed a group of street kids about twenty feet away, watching me as they were stifling their laughter.

I shot them an angry look. “What are you laughing at?” I pointed at the gulls, who had once again taken to circling around like stunt pilots. “This is not funny. There’s something seriously wrong here. Birds aren’t supposed to do this. I pay attention to the gulls every day and I’ve never in my life seen them do this.”

The street kids started to crack up uncontrollably. “They’re fine, I promise you,” one of them said through his laughter.

“No, they’re really not, they’re not fine at all,” I countered.

“Well, they may not be fine right now, but they’re acting as expected,” he replied

He looked back at his friends for a moment and raised his eyebrows at the group; a few responded with a nod and a shrug. He turned back to face me again.

“Seriously, they’re fine. We just gave them some acid, that’s all.”

I stared at him, shifting from disbelief to anger to relief back to disbelief. I looked up at the birds and then back again at him, and I knew immediately that he was telling the truth.

Suddenly, my fear melted away and an overwhelming wave of relief came over me, a wave of relief so powerful that the part of me that was horrified and disgusted that someone would give psychedelic drugs to seagulls was immediately drowned out and overcome by a feeling of safety. This has nothing to do with me. Not only am I not the intended recipient, this isn’t a message for anyone. This is not an omen, the world is not ending, the universe is not trying to communicate through the seagulls. They’re birds on drugs, that’s all.

I wanted to give the kid a verbal thrashing, but I found myself speechless as the sense of relief started to shift to a feeling of utter foolishness. I can’t believe I fell into that trap, I said to myself as I stood there in front of him. I looked up once again. Oh, gods, I thought. Those poor birds.

He walked back to the group, which was still trying to collectively contain their laughter. And as I walked away towards home, I thought back to the original lesson in the park all those years ago. I continued to hear laughter around me long past the point where the street kids were out of earshot. It was laughter that I admittedly deserved. I could almost hear my teacher’s voice in my head, his commentary slightly altered for the occasion:

Sometimes the Gods are trying desperately to get your attention. But sometimes, the seagulls are just on acid.

III. The Fabric

“All human knowledge takes the form of interpretation.” Walter Benjamin

My morning routine takes me up eighty-one steps to the top of the Broadway Bridge, then down the ramp past the rear of the Post Office Facility toward Lovejoy Street, my eventual destination being a coffee shop a few blocks further down the road. It is a half-mile stretch that I have walked near-daily for over a year now, and there is not an inch of the terrain that I haven’t either studied or committed to memory at this point.

It is that deep familiarity and intimacy with the terrain and its expressions within that half-mile stretch that allow me to quickly lose myself and tune in completely to my surroundings while maintaining enough of an awareness to engage in the varied rituals that have revealed themselves as necessary over the course of many months. Every block and turn in the journey has aspects and signifiers that demand specified attention and, while I go out of my way not to invest too much meaning into any given signifier, I cant help but to ‘read’ my daily walk the way some read the tea leaves at the bottom of their cup each morning.

A week or so after the Paris bombings, I was on the return leg of my daily outing, walking up the ramp that connects Lovejoy Street to the Broadway Bridge, when I looked up at an instinctive spot and noticed an inconsistency in the landscape.

Pigeons on the light-post. Photo by Alley Valkyrie

Pigeons on the light-post. [Photo Credit: Alley Valkyrie]

The light-post at the top of the ramp is home to a pigeon’s nest, and there is rarely a time that at least a dozen pigeons are not perched on the top of it. Passers-by often notice the pigeons the hard way as they are hit by poo as they walk underneath. After observing this a few times, I started making eye-contact with the pigeons as part of my daily routine, announcing my presence each time I walked under and asking them to grant me a poo-free passage.

On that day, however, when I looked up at the light pole from the bottom of the hill, I noticed that instead of pigeons, there were crows atop the pole, and they were all staring down at something below. There was not a pigeon in sight. I greeted the crows from a distance as I walked towards the pole, reaching into my pocket for some peanuts while looking around to see where the pigeons had gone.

A few steps closer, I was able to see onto the rooftop below the bridge where the crows’ gazes had been fixed for at least a minute now, and from a distance it looked like two pigeons were mating. I laughed at the idea of the crows as voyeurs, assuming that the other pigeons had the decency to grant the pair some privacy, but my amusement quickly turned to shock as the roof came into focus and I once again looked down.

Staring directly at me, less than twenty feet away, was a hawk with a pigeon in its talons, jumping up and down to smother the bird and smash it against the concrete surface while simultaneously squeezing the life out of it. I looked away in horror as I heard the crows editorializing above. I looked up briefly and observed them leering over, and I followed their eyes down as they watched the brutal display on the roof with a rapt fascination.

The hawk and I again locked eyes, and continued to stare for several seconds. The hawk maintained eye contact while continuing to squeeze the life out of the pigeon. I thought back to the seagulls in the park a few weeks prior, and then shifted to the brief and hopeful notion that this was a random occurrence devoid of any significant meaning. And yet I could not unlock my eyes, and the hawk seemingly read my mind and both his gaze and the motions of its talons intensified. At that exact moment, I heard the hawk in the back of my head.

Make no mistake. This one is for you.

I started to shake as once again terror came over me. I felt paralyzed, held there by fear and the realization that I was meant to bear witness, trapped in the gaze of the hawk as the pigeon screamed for its life. I averted my gaze for a split second and looked down at my hand, realizing that I was clenching the peanuts that I had taken out for the crows. I then turned back at the hawk, who was staring bullets through me, its head nodding in a taunting manner as the pigeon continued to struggle between the grip of the hawk’s talons.

At that moment the pigeon let out a horrible, desperate wail, and before I realized what I was doing I flung the peanuts in my hand onto the roof a few feet to the right of the hawk. As the peanuts landed on the roof, the hawk tightened its talons once more, snuffing the rest of the life out of the pigeon, and then took off with the bird in its claws while continuing to stare me down until he flew past.

The crows and the gulls on the light-pole immediately took after the hawk, and out of nowhere came a flock of pigeons, literally screaming for justice as they followed in pursuit behind the crows and the gulls, who chased the hawk under the Broadway Bridge and across the Willamette River.

I stood there, shaking, once again stunned at what I had just witnessed. I glanced around, hoping someone else had seen what I had, but this time there was nobody in sight. Looking down toward the roof, the only evidence of what had just occurred was a scattering of feathers in the exact place where the violent act had unfolded. I then scanned my eyes over toward the river in the direction of the birds, drawing immediate meaning from both the randomness and the significance of the incident as the birds disappeared out of sight.

I walked to the top of the ramp and crossed over toward the bridge and the staircase, briefly stopping to glance back at the path I had just walked. Unlike the other repeated lessons of late, this one needed no explanation, no reference, no external validity. I was all too familiar with what it meant to have a hole torn through the fabric of one’s routine, through one’s illusion of safety, and once again I recognized the value of an old lesson reinforced. I thought of the Paris attacks again and shuddered.

Heading down the stairs, a wild-eyed man was walking up toward me, and I could hear him muttering to himself as we neared each other. “Death, She speaks through the birds,” I heard him say as he brushed past me on the way up.

“Yes, yes, I know,” I muttered back.

*     *     *

Note: Columnist Alley Valkyrie, who has been with The Wild Hunt since 2013, has started her own Patreon account to help enable her to become a full-time writer and artist. 

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This column was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.