“Southern Women and Their Birds,” Essay by John Nelson

Essay by John Nelson

I came to literature long before I came to birds. I remember cardinals and robins from my childhood in suburban Chicago, and I probably saw kingfishers and herons as a friend and I searched for snakes along the Des Plaines River, but I don’t recall meeting anyone whose imagination had been spurred by birds. For years, I’m embarrassed to admit, I taught John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” with only a vague notion of what a nightingale looked like and no particular desire to actually hear the “full-throated” song of Keats’s ecstatic bird. I knew something about birds as symbols, literary birds, but almost nothing about real birds.

By the time I retired from teaching I’d become a birder. I’ve watched birds around the world—nightingales, easier to hear than see, abounded along one stream in Turkey—and I’m now deep into a retirement plan: to retrace the history of American fiction from a birder’s perspective. This undertaking has tied in nicely with various bird-writing projects, but mostly I’m motivated by curiosity. In my ignorant pre-birder state, what had I missed in reading and teaching American fiction? Which writers really knew their birds? How did they use birds in their stories? Who was as indifferent to birds as I had been? Who would surprise?

My plan is admittedly idiosyncratic, of circumscribed significance. It would be silly to judge writers by their knowledge or use of birds, since birds have quite limited potential as fictional characters. There have been novels about birdwatchers, like Mary McCarthy’s Birds of America and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and novels about characters who want to be birds, like William Wharton’s Birdy. There have been stories, usually comic, about birds given human attributes, like the moody hummingbird in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Hum, the Son of Buzz,” or Bobo, the whispering, Puritan-tormenting bird in Tennessee Williams’s “The Yellow Bird,” or Schwarz, the title character in Bernard Malamud’s “The Jewbird,” begging for herring while on the run from anti-Semitic eagles. But no prominent American writer has been fool enough to tell a story about a deep connection between human and bird or, for that matter, bird and bird. People, real or fictional, may feel something like intimacy with certain birds, especially pets, but if birds have inner lives, they remain inaccessible to us. If birds feel emotions, simple or complex, they might vocalize them or act them out through displays, but they can’t articulate them in human terms. There’s a story that Casanova, seeking revenge on a deceitful mistress, trained his pet parrot to say, “Miss Charpillon is even more of a whore than her mother,” but the parrot didn’t proceed to reveal the details of its own sexual escapades.

On my literary journey I wasn’t surprised to find some major American writers with little interest in birds or the natural world generally. In Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove the idea of Milly Theale as a dove comes not from observation of actual dove behavior but from traditional Christian symbolism—the yearning for “wings like a dove” to “flee away, and be at rest” in Psalm 55, and the metaphor of God as a dove, offering deliverance from the fowler’s snare in Psalm 91. James’s travel book The American Scene describes some lovely landscapes from Maine to Florida but doesn’t mention a single bird. The title of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night is taken from Keats’s ode, but Fitzgerald’s nightingale, like James’s dove, is a purely literary bird, used to associate Nicole Diver with the classical story of Philomela, a woman victimized and transformed into a lamenting songbird. In Gertrude Stein’s works the most memorable bird observations are her famous “pigeons on the grass alas”—a reference to doves seen by St. Agnes in Four Saints in Three Acts—and a line from her “Love Song of Alice B”: “And how often do we need birds. Not often.”

But other writers did surprise me. I’d actually taught William Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”—in a Changing Lives through Literature program in which men on probation analyzed literature on equal classroom footing with a judge and probation officer—but that was before I ever heard a whir-poor-will, before I could appreciate how beautifully Faulkner uses the bird’s “unceasing” solitary song to express the poignancy of a runaway boy alone in the woods on a Southern night. I didn’t find many birds in Richard Wright’s race-focused fiction, but I discovered that, in the last eighteen months of his life, Wright wrote some wonderfully evocative haikus about birds:

A silent spring wood:
A crow opens its sharp beak
And creates a sky.

A darting sparrow
Startles a skinny scarecrow
Back to watchfulness.

Most unexpected was Theodore Dreiser, sometimes labeled a literary naturalist but never mistaken for a nature writer. In An American Tragedy, a strange, screaming “wier-wier” bird on Big Bittern Lake figures prominently throughout the climactic scene when Clyde Griffiths plots the murder of his nagging, pregnant girlfriend, Roberta; loses his courage; fails to rescue Roberta as she accidentally drowns; and then, guilt-ridden, escapes from the lake as the bird repeats its “harsh, nerve-shaking cry.” To Clyde, this “unearthly” bird seems to come from some dark, unregenerate region within his own nature; it may be driving him to kill, or it may be warning him, condemning his “diabolic wish.” But the identity of the bird remains mysterious. Baffled, I posted all the relevant details from the novel on a birding listserv and asked other birders to speculate. Respondents suggested, among others, a bittern, loon, Great Blue Heron, and Green Heron, none of which exactly matches the combination of physical description, sound, and habitat for the bird in the book. The majority opinion was that Dreiser had imagined the bird.

I did find one group of writers who really knew their birds and often used them with artistry in their fiction: women, especially in the first half of the 20th century, who wrote about life in rural America. Some, like Sarah Orne Jewett and Willa Cather, set their stories in the North or West, but most were Southerners, including Ellen Glasgow, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Eudora Welty. Glasgow and Roberts aren’t read much anymore, though Glasgow’s Barren Ground remains a powerful story of rejected love and a woman’s enduring sympathy with the land, the strongest feeling in her heart. Not coincidentally, all these women were sometimes labeled, and diminished, as “regional” writers, as if we need a special category for writers whose work is rooted in the cultural and natural history of one particular region of the world. By that standard, Faulkner, Thomas Hardy, and Nadine Gordimer would be merely regional writers.

These women varied considerably in their interests and approaches to fiction; we need not replace the “regional” label with an even less suitable category of “bird-loving women.” What they shared was knowledge of their local birds, a feeling that birds are part of what bonds us to a place, and a use of metaphors that flow from familiarity and observation of birds, not from literary tradition. In The Great Meadow Roberts uses three now extinct birds—the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet, and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker—to conjure the bounty of the Kentucky wilderness in the first years of European settlement, while Rawlings, in The Yearling, describes the ancient “cotillion dance” of a now endangered species, the Whooping Crane, to show young Jody Baxter’s love for a wondrous natural habitat still remote from modern urban living. In her autobiographical Cross-Creek, Rawlings realizes that the true owners of her land in rural Florida are not the “transitory” human property-holders but the red-birds and blue-jays that will carry on the pulse and growth of life. Characters in these writers’ books know bird calls—the Barred Owl’s “who cooks for you” call is replicated in both The Yearling and Welty’s Losing Battles—and they’re attuned to birds as measures of passing time and the changing of the seasons. Jody’s father in The Yearling and a young boy in Roberts’s The Time of Man both pass on the knowledge that the whip-poor-will’s first song signals the time for planting.

Birds also express or correspond with strong emotions in these authors’ protagonists. In The Time of Man, Ellen Chesser hears a catbird singing its phrases “decisive and final,” and knows at that instant she will marry the man who’s proposed to her. For Dorinda Oakley in Barren Ground, a woman who gives the impression of “arrested flight,” birds wild and caged embody both her capacity for joy—the swallow-like “flying rapture” of love—and her fear of being trapped by circumstance.

In Eudora Welty’s wide-ranging fiction, we’re often reminded that our human dramas play out within, and are reflected by, a natural world where birds go about their everyday business. In several stories, a character’s sudden awareness of birds shifts the perspective. In “A Worn Path” Phoenix Jackson, a heroic old black woman, casually picks up and pockets the nickel a white man has dropped, but she feels exposed when a bird passes by, for she realizes God must be watching her. For Clement Musgrove in The Robber Bridegroom—a German fairy tale adapted to 18th century Mississippi—the sight of the “perpetual wheel of buzzards” in the sky comes with thoughts of life’s transience, death’s quickness, and his isolation in a wilderness. One pleasure in reading Welty is her creative descriptions of the birds themselves. In The Robber Bridegroom a quail with her young walks “fat as the queen across the tangled path,” and a cardinal flock flies up “like a fan opening out from the holly bush.” In Delta Wedding a “lady cardinal” in a rosebush sings so hard that “she throbbed between her shoulder blades.” In Losing Battles, chimney swifts circle over the heads of human characters “as if a crooking finger below held them on tight strings,” while a hummingbird flits down a wall of montbretia flowers “as though it were writing on it in words.”

Welty also uses characteristic Southern birds to give us impressions of her characters. In “Moon Lake,” orphans at a girls’ summer camp strip to their “underbodies” like “a whole flock of ferocious little birds with pale topknots building themselves a nest.” One girl’s words fall in threes “like a mourning dove’s call in the woods.” Two nasty stepmothers, Salome in The Robber Bridegroom and Fay in The Optimist’s Daughter, laugh derisively like blue jays. Salome, like some mythological hybrid creature, also has an eagle claw and eagle eyes, but when she dances to drumming around a campfire, she hops and bobs “like a hen that flies before the hawk.”

In her last novel, the finely textured The Optimist’s Daughter, Welty goes beyond description to use birds as subtle metaphors for the struggle within the protagonist, Laurel Hand. The central event in the story is the death of Laurel’s father, Judge McKelva. The main conflict appears to be the rivalry between Laurel, a loving, devoted daughter, and her father’s young, callous, and outrageously self-centered second wife, Fay. But we gradually realize that the deeper struggle is within Laurel. She’s caught by her love for the dead: her father, her mother, and her husband, Philip Hand, a Navy officer who was killed years earlier on a mine sweeper in the Pacific. How can she hold on to that love—the sweetness of memories, the yearning, the guilt of outliving loved ones—without getting trapped in the past?

At the cemetery, as the mourners approach her father’s burial plot, “black wings thudded in sudden unison,” and a flock of starlings “flew up as they might from a ploughed field, still shaped like it, like an old map that still served new territory, and wrinkled away in the air.” This accurate description of starling behavior is not directly associated with Laurel, but it hints that as she moves into new territory—life with husband and both parents gone—she’s still shaped emotionally by an old map of memory. After the funeral, and again without any obvious connection to Laurel, Welty uses a bird image that also appears in Delta Wedding: cardinals (called “little mischiefs” by one character) obsessively attack their own “tantalizing reflections” in some polished discs intended to frighten off birds. Ornithologists call this behavior “image-fighting”: what the bird perceives as an external enemy is actually its own reflected self, a rival impossible to frighten off. Laurel, we shall see, is anguished by her own image-fighting.

Late in the novel, Laurel goes through her mother’s possessions and finds a letter from her grandmother to her mother, with a reference to the pigeons Laurel fed on childhood visits to West Virginia. The memory unleashes a flood of grief over all the loved ones she’s lost: “The deepest spring in her heart had uncovered itself, and it began to flow again.” Tormented, Laurel sees her husband’s eyes “wild with craving for his unlived life.” She sleeps and dreams of the train ride they took from Chicago to get married in Mississippi. In a beautiful vision, their mutual faith and love are likened to a confluence of great rivers, the Ohio and Mississippi. Conjoined, they will follow the same course south as the geese above them, a long “pencil-faint line of birds within the crystal of the zenith, flying in a V of their own.”

This exultant image of a boundless future, with wild geese flying, contrasts sharply with Laurel’s immediate situation. A chimney swift, blown in by a storm, has become trapped in the house, and Laurel, trying to chase the bird outdoors, has trapped herself, literally and figuratively, in her parents’ room, now Fay’s room. “What am I in danger of here?” Laurel asks herself, “her heart pounding.” She connects the dilemma of the “blundering, frantic bird” to her own emotional struggle. She’s stuck in time, trapped by her outrage over Fay’s emotional abuse of her father—and her own failure to protest the abuse—and she can find release only by unburdening herself of her anger. With help from Missouri, the maid, Laurel tries again to free the swift, but it hides pathetically under a telephone table: “It looked small and unbearably flat to the ground, like a child’s shoe without a foot in it.” Finally, despite the bird’s “blind struggle against rescue,” she captures it with two wastebaskets, runs out of the house, releases the swift into the light of day, and watches as it flies off until it is “nothing but a pair of wings” in the air and then “just a tilting crescent being drawn into the sky.” In the novel’s last scene, she confronts Fay over Fay’s hurtful treatment of her father, and they fight over possession of her mother’s breadboard, which carries Laurel’s tender love for both her mother and her dead husband. But Laurel decides to yield the breadboard to Fay. She will not yield her painful memories of lost loved ones—she will give grief its loving due—but she realizes that “memory lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.” She leaves the house, carrying nothing, striding into the light, releasing herself from the past as she has freed a trapped, desperate bird.

Like Thoreau in Concord a century earlier, Welty was well aware that she lived in a land where nature had been diminished. The Robber Bridegroom recalls the days, before the “time of cunning” and commerce, when pioneers like Clement Musgrove felt driven to venture into a still unspoiled Mississippi. In one scene his daughter Rosamond, walking through the wild, bird-rich woods, notices a woodpecker “pecking with its ivory bill”—the now extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker. In Some Notes on River Country, Welty reflects on this woodpecker, a bird studied by John James Audubon in Natchez country, “where it lived in the deepest mossy swamps along the windings of the river.” The disappearance of these swamps meant the end of a creature Audubon thought the finest woodpecker in the world. “The advance of agriculture rather than slaughter,” Welty says, “has really driven it to death, for it will not live except in a wild country.” The bird has become the emblem of a lost wild world: “All vanished now from the earth—the piteous cry and all.”

Audubon, trying to transcribe the woodpecker’s cry, also appears as a fictionalized character in Welty’s “A Still Moment,” the most intriguing bird story in all of American literature. Set in the Old Natchez Trace, the story brings together an unlikely trio of men—Audubon; a murderer, James Murrell; and an itinerant preacher, Lorenzo Dow—to contemplate a bird, the mystery of creation, and death. In the still moment when a “solitary snowy heron” flies over their heads, all three are transfixed: “All eyes seemed infused with a sort of wildness.” The bird means something radically different to each man. For the preacher, it’s a sign that God’s love has “come visible.” Murrell, beyond sympathy for any fellow creature, sees “only whiteness ensconced by darkness.” Audubon, wonder-struck, sees a mystery to be solved, a lost knowledge he wants to regain: “What structure of life bridged the reptile’s scale and the heron’s feather?” Yet the three men are strangely united by the extremity of their visions: “What each of them wanted was simply all. To save all souls, to destroy all men, to see and record all life that filled this world—all, all—but now a single frail yearning seemed to go out of the three of them for a moment and to stretch toward this one snowy, shy bird in the marshes.” Audubon believes that he alone can fully appreciate the heron, but it is he, not the murderer, who shoots and kills it. He can’t paint the bird from memory alone; he needs a specimen. Lorenzo is horrified by the shooting, questioning God for letting the “whole world come to grief in a scattering moment.” And Audubon knows that, strive as he might, he’ll never capture the heron’s essence: the moment he saw it most purely was the moment of its death. The seeker, the scientific artist—all artists if the story is read as a parable—has reached the limits of his “endless examination” of creation. There’s a “secret life” that will never be fully disclosed.

These days, no one would be surprised to read a novel empty of birds. Nature has grown tangential. Few writers or readers are truly rural. We’re warned that each new generation of Americans, urbanized, computerized, nature-deficited, is likely to become even further removed from the birds and other wild things around us. And the world of fiction is boundless. We have more pressing human concerns; a story doesn’t need a bird, or any other wild creature, or even a recognizable landscape, to enthrall, touch, or teach. Our stories can reflect our intimacy with nature or our obliviousness to it. But as we read of Welty’s heron and the other birds that fascinated these Southern women, we’re reminded that, however preoccupied we may be, the natural world, however distant or reduced, is still there—to delight us, move us, console us, make us ponder, and lift our imaginations. I learned the lesson late, but not too late. If we don’t pay attention, it’s our loss.



  1. Fahy Bygate says:

    Strange that To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t mentioned.

  2. The red-headed woodpecker in Cather’s _Lost Lady_ has got to be one of the most powerful images in American prose.

  3. What a fine essay! I especially enjoyed the reference to Ellen Glasgow. “Barren Ground” is still one of my favorite novels. It was the right book at the right time in my life, so I’ll never forget its impact on me.

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