Prison cell window view
Six inch surreptitious slice
Constrained vista of the natural world
Intermittently bird populated
Haven of visual escape.
Feathered moments of wonderment
Soften despairing edges of misery;
Flocks colorful reminders of beauty
Enliven monotonous ritual of hours;
Wing droppings of joyful life
Lighten weight of panicked limbo.
Absorbing nuances of style and grace
Studying interactions, behavior patterns,
Birds rejuvenate my wilted soul
Echoing Elton John’s crooning
“Someone saved my life tonight.”
I grew up with a strong connection to nature infused into family life. Almost every family vacation was to some extent grounded in nature, and everyday outings were much more likely to be at a local park than any other type of destination. For my father in particular, birds were a singular focus. We had a birdfeeder at home in the back yard, he would notice birds flying or along the roadside even while driving, and seldom went for a walk without binoculars around his neck.
While lacking his single-minded determination and enthusiasm, I would certainly characterize myself as appreciative of birds, both as a child and into adulthood. I have carried a particular life-long affection for black-capped chickadees, due in part to their diminutive adorableness, though undeniably enhanced by having had the amazing opportunity to have them eat from my hand. The wonder of a living wild creature alighting in my bare hand, picking up a sunflower seed and flitting away to crack it open and eat it is an unforgettable experience. As an adult, I installed my own birdfeeder, and as an amateur photographer, I have captured multiple birds with a camera’s lens. However, I have never seriously engaged in bird watching.
Until, that is, I suddenly became incarcerated. Having now passed nine months in county jail awaiting my fate, bird watching has been a primary source of joy. County jail time is, by all accounts, the “hardest time” one can do. There are a variety of reasons for that dubious claim to fame, though high on my personal list of explanations is the lack of access to nature. The “recreation yard” is a concrete and brick courtyard, with a fence-hatched view only of the sky. The cells do have transparent windows, offering six inch by three foot slices of view, and I am fortunate enough to be in a rural location. Through that narrow slit, birds outside visit and bolster my flagging hope in beauty in the world.
Over the long dismal months, I have been repeatedly drawn to the window, initially in search of sun, or any signs of natural life, or to hide unexpected tears from a stranger sharing my cell. As spring approached, the razor wire fence and surrounding grass began to be populated by birds. Starved for the healing forces of nature, I observed for extended periods of time, and found myself increasingly excited and energized by those sightings. Standing perched on the metal stool to peer through the window slit, I took in details never before noticed. Despite years of seeing robins each spring, I had no awareness that they have yellow beaks, and was befuddled in identifying them accurately due to previously unnoticed markings.
My father assisted in my learning process by sending me a novice bird book. Book in hand and, of course, without binoculars, I passed increasing moments peering out the window, willing birds to come visit me. Rubied House Finches are regular spots of brilliant color in an otherwise grey and gloomy world. Their spirited playfulness has had me imagining their conversations and laughing out loud. Barn Swallows dart past the window flashing their cinnamon bellies while obscuring cobalt backs in their speed. Goldfinches and Red Winged Blackbirds have decorated the razor wire fence with vibrant palates. Kingbirds and mockingbirds required studious observation as they alit, perched, preened and flitted off. House Sparrows and Chipping Sparrows entertain inside the brick courtyard as they capture moths that mistakenly believe they have found a safe haven. Turkey Vultures circle, beautifully hiding their ugliness in swooping flight. An impervious Red Tailed Hawk soars above the fray, glinting sun from its tail, a stunning visual reminder of freedom. Most recently, a Killdeer family joined the tableau. Three fledglings race along the fence edge as their parents watch with gradually diminishing protectiveness as the young mature. I was so delighted with this sight that I shouted for women in neighboring cells to look out their windows, breaking my customary silence.
In an environment that combines sensory deprivation with simultaneous stimulus overload courtesy of raucously noisy inmates, my feathered friends have been the primary source of spontaneous smiles “inside.”
In my moments of greatest despair and pain, I seek the window and reminders that there is indeed life out there. Watching the birds slip unscathed between the razor wire loops that scar my world, tethers me to faith in beauty and joy. Discussing birds has strengthened my bond with my father during this trying time, and provided fodder for positive conversation with my children, rather than discussing the daily miseries of jail life. The birds outside my window have assisted monumentally in my quest to focus on what is life-affirming, in an environment that is primarily soul-killing. When I return to the real world, I fully intend to continue to expand my knowledge and observation of birds.
In the meantime, I am deeply indebted to the birds gracing razor wire, winged emissaries of hope, reminders that nature, unabated, continues and awaits my return. I whisper grateful greetings, “Good morning, feathered friends.”