15 March 2011

Memento mori

I took a picture of a dead bird yesterday, and I’m trying to figure out why.

I was late, rushing to the subway to go meet a friend for a drink before heading home. I saw the bird out of the corner of my eye.

Step.

That bird was there on Friday.

Step, step.

It’s Monday. How is it still there?

Step.

I’m late.

Step, step.

If I don’t go back and take its picture, I’ll regret it.

Step.

And then I turned around, and walked back the 15 feet to where the bird was, and I squatted down and took its picture on the sidewalk in front of the church, where it had been lying since I’d seen it on Friday afternoon.

It was a little grey bird, body about the size of my thumb. Three days on the sidewalk had left it somewhat the worse for wear. Its belly had been neatly opened, exposing its guts. Lungs? Liver? And its gaudy orange legs – had they been so vibrant on Friday? I can’t remember. And why is there a band on its leg? I hadn't seen that until I pulled the photo off of my phone.

I took a picture of a dead bird last summer. It was on the beach, a big gull, equal parts dried, decayed and eaten, yet it maintained a majesty. Head tilted just so, wings arrayed as in a zoological museum display.

But yesterday’s dead bird? I’m trying to understand why.

I was late because we’d been clustered around someone’s computer in the office, watching sobering, heartbreaking videos of the Japanese tsunami – boats splintering like balsa wood toys, buildings floating away, cars tossed around as though Styrofoam.

Somehow, in an instant, that little bird crystallized for me the horror of the triple punch that Japan just received. I can’t do much for Japan beyond a donation to the Japan Society, but I can think on natural and manmade disasters, and remember that we all must die – a bird flying into a window, an elderly Japanese man in the path of a tsunami, my mother felled by lung cancer.

I took a picture of a dead bird yesterday, and I hugged my girlie hard when I got home.

18 comments:

leanne said...

I found out last week that a high school classmate lost her son to leukemia. He was only three years old. So I've been hugging my kids harder lately, too.

Anjali said...

Sometimes it's the smaller losses that make the larger, more insurmountable losses more real.

The photo is lovely, actually.

Bon said...

we so seldom look on death, really, in our culture. the little birds, the occasional kitten...it is all we get to personalize the onslaught of the media, to tie one (this small body) to the other (so much death & destruction) in an equation that allows us to grasp and empathize and...count each little sparrow in the number.

Julia said...

I'm there with you.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

It's a beautiful photo. It reminds me of Renaissance still lifes. I think it can be hard to get your head around the enormous horrors like the death of a parent or post-tsunami Japan. Sometimes it's easier to process it through something small and specific and tangible like a small dead bird you can capture on film.

De said...

It's amazing, your picture - the colors. I hope someone knows why it has the banded leg because I'm curious. A pet finch that escaped?

There are certain times that roadkill really gets to me. Scenes of mass devastation are like that times a million - there is nothing neat and orderly about loss when nature is in charge.

Yesterday I saw a dead cat wrapped in a flannel shirt on the side of the road very near where I hit and killed a dog a year ago this coming Thursday. I wondered if the owner would be at all comforted by the attempt to humanize and dignify the cat's death. Because do any such attempts really ease the grief?

Slow Panic said...

i love that you did this -- went back to take the picture. remembered that you had seen the bird on friday.

CarolSteel said...

This is a beautiful blog. Death is part of life. We all live, we all die, no one escapes. It helps that you wrote this and pulled the horror and senselessness of the disasters in Japan together with the mystery of this little bird.

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

"During peacetime, when we need metaphors, we raid the language of war. But the idiom of wartime is food: cannon fodder, carnage, slaughterhouse. Buildings and people are pancaked, sandwiched, sardined. Perhaps it is because the destruction reminds us of the knowledge we spend our lives avoiding — that we are all meat in the end."

Annia Ciezadlo, "Day of Honey", reviewed in the NYT: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/07/books/07book.html?_r=1&ref=bookreviews

This book is on my wishlist for that sentence alone!

(Lovely post, by the way, Maggie.)

Rima said...

I don't know what to say without sounding cliche or trite, but I want to acknowledge your sentiments, so I'll just say that I agree.

liz said...

I agree too; thank you for writing this and for the photo; I too always look at dead animals and ponder upon them. Worrying about my dear friend Fumi's family in Japan.

Stimey said...

Sometimes things hit us in unexpected ways.

flutter said...

this just made me cry

Janet said...

poor little bird...

Janet said...

also, see this: http://www.yakimaaudubon.org/birdbanding.htm

Bibliomama said...

I agree. I was reading newspaper coverage about Japan and then the city section had a story about a little girl who fell in the river and drowned. We all die one at a time -- the scale doesn't make any difference to the person, or their family. We get mortality one death at a time.

Janet said...

I was walking through a small old cemetery today and saw the words Memento Mori on it headstone...it was kind of an amazing stone, dedicated to a pastor, so I took a shot of it. I'll post it tomorrow.

mayberry said...

I agree--it's a actually a lovely photo, in its way, and so is the post.