Last week we discovered a bird, a red-eyed vireo, that had crashed into our window. It was lying on the ground, still alive, panting rapidly. We waited about half an hour for it to recover and fly away. Then Kim put it into a cardboard box to bring it inside, not wanting it to be harassed by other wildlife. We could tell it was seriously injured, possibly a broken wing and foot. Outside again, it tried to fly but immediately crashed into the lake. We pulled it out using a rake, and then Kim held it gently in her hand, stroking its head and talking to it until its labored breathing eased. Kim felt an immediate bond with the bird. We returned it to its box while we ate dinner, and after dinner it was dead. We buried it in the woods.
Alas, mortality. We felt helpless. That’s part of what it means to be human. William Stafford understands this helplessness:
Traveling through the Dark
Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.
The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.
I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.
I have to point out the beautiful and subtle music of this poem, where Stafford uses near-rhymes (e.g., engine/listen, swerving/river) to capture the poignancy of the moment. There was nothing he could do to save the faun. Sometimes there are no perfect solutions, though my students worked hard to come up with one. We are all traveling though the dark, doing the best we can. But we can also pause to bear witness to the moment, as Kim and I did. And we, too, felt “the wilderness listen.”
The death of our bird was rich for another reason, one that Gerard Manley Hopkins understood:
Spring and Fall
to a young child
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
The music here is more explicit, especially with the accents to indicate how the poem
should sound, the music leading perfectly to that conclusive last line. Margaret, watching
the leaves fall, is unknowingly weeping for her own mortality, which she “ghost guessed.” Her
heart senses that mortality “is the blight man was born for.” Stafford’s speaker, more
consciously, paused and “thought hard for us all,” as did Kim and I with our bird. This
appreciation – for that’s what it is – provides a richness to our lives, especially as we grow
But we were not entirely helpless in the face of mortality. Kim held the dying bird, gently
stroked its head, spoke softly to it. One possible response to our helplessness in the face of
mortality is to offer comfort when and where and however we can.