“Well, we’ve just enjoyed having you here so much, we can’t wait to see you next year,’’ the elderly lady said as I pumped the gas into her car from a tank beside her barn. Just beyond, out in her pasture, our birds were roosting in their pen for the ninth night. The evening wind blew cold and harsh but they were safe… just as I had been, with my camper tucked in her the barn, the one she and her late husband had built so long ago, and plugged into her electricity on the farm she and her son kept alive despite the economic realities and uncertainties all farmers face. “Have to go to the bank today,” her son told me the day before, wearing a brave but resigned smile. “Crop yields were good this year but those prices were just too low.”
And that’s when I heard myself reply, “There’s not going to be a next year, ma’am. This is it. They gave us the word this morning.” There. I said it. And saying it somehow made it true. We had known for months now it was coming and the cloud of its reality had hung heavily over us the entire migration. But denial is a wonderful friend. Karl Marx said religion is the opiate of the people. He was wrong. It is denial, which has been described as hope spelled backwards. Whatever, the words had a surprisingly bitter taste. “Well, I’m sorry to hear that,” the lady replied, ”but I just know you’ve had such wonderful experiences and they’ll be more waiting for you down the road. That’s the way life is.”
The war may be over, but there are still battles we must fight as the next morning we readied our ultralights for the next leg of migration. Richard and I dressed against the low temperatures. It would be Richard’s first flight of the migration because of his sculpture commission in Canada delay and after almost thirty years of working on these bird projects, this would likely be his last. Joe would sit this one out, riding instead, in the tracking van with Jeff. The past week had been especially brutal for Joe.
A small crowd of supporters began to form in the Georgia predawn as the two big crop dusting airplanes seemed to look on in silence at the edge of the airfield.
Two documentary film makers, heavy cameras at the ready, arrived to capture the effort. They had just finished a fantastic documentary on the tall pine forests of the southeast U.S. and the critical part this played in the country becoming what it is today. Their plan was to film our project for an entire year and we recognized them right away as two people who really cared.
Our trikes were safely housed in the hanger of a local crop duster who, in the last 10 days of our stay here, had become our friend. Crop dusting is the most difficult and demanding flying there is. Yanking and banking a heavily loaded airplane a few feet off the ground in the hot Georgia sun from sun up to sun down, day after day is nothing short of Herculian. Few of us ponder the thought, in our day-to-day lives, that without them and the farmers whose fields they toil above, we wouldn’t eat. Yet our societies heroes are sports figures messing about with balls of various geometries and Wall Street Wonders who grow rich producing absolutely nothing. Go figure!
Soon Richard and I are in the air, which greets us with lumpity bumpy, lift and drop suggestions of a difficult flight ahead. Still, we feel the pressure to go and it overcomes our foreboding. Colleen and Heather swing open the pen gates and the birds burst skyward for the first time in ten days. “Let the Rodeo begin!” the fates announced, and it did. One step foreward and two back… the dance of our seemingly obligatory rodeo… as the birds got dutifully on the wing only to break off and head back toward the pen as the sweat began to soak through my layers of “Skywear”. They didn’t seem to appreciate the choppy air or my encouraging words, “Hey girls… rough air is better than no air at all!”
To further enhance the adventure, these birds just don’t like to climb. Like every person and every snowflake, every bird is different, each with its own form and personality. But every year’s class of birds is also different. Some refuse to fly over major highways. Some stick to the trike like Velcro and climb like scalded dogs. And some, like these little guys, just don’t like to climb. So climbing out of the trashy lower altitudes and over obstructions is a challenge. Then when you get them just high enough to escape the threats, they drop back down and down you have to go to begin the fight all over again. Of course, sometimes you can’t really blame them. I mean, following an ultralight in a trashy sky is like following a drunk, drugged, coffeed out, texting driver down the highway. And for the pilot, all you can hear are the words of the old pilot’s adage ,”It is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air than in the air wishing you were on the ground.” And, of course, the hands of the clock always seem to barely move at such times. Then there is that new hurdle. Somewhere way back in the recesses of your mind, you now know the war is already over, which adds to the challenge.
Like a frustrated school teacher who must teach to the slowest student, we must fly to the slowest bird… in this case, #11-15. But his sometime lack of energy is understandable since because it’s not easy being the only male surrounded by 5 females. I asked him one time how things were going and he replied, “Does the name Custer mean anything to you?” Most of us guys, if we’re lucky and attached, wake up in the morning to only one “Honey Do List”. He wakes up to five. It’s a wonder the poor little fellow has the energy to walk let alone fly! During the flight, he continues to drop and I drop everyone down to pick him up until it becomes clear that once again I must let him go and be picked up by the chase pilot… in this case Richard. Soon, Richard has skillfully picked him up from just off the deck and led him to a safe recovery point; in this case a landing strip where he is quicly boxed up by Joe and Jeff and loaded into the van for the trip to the pen. Meanwhile, we press on the last 7 miles to the destination.
“Can you fly the birds over my mother-in-law’s house?” the kind and generous farmer who worked so hard to level and groom a landing strip for us between his pecan trees asked the week before. “She’s 92 years old and it would mean a lot to her to see the birds.” “I’ll sure try.” I replied. And so we did, and landed more happily than usual at the strip he had so kindly prepared. The pen awaited, already set up the week before.
Any relief or fatigued satisfaction I might have felt was displaced with the magical sight of the birds standing so close to the trike they were actually rubbing against it, looking at me with an intensity I had never seen before. Their collective gaze was so direct and connecting that I thought at first my helmet might have fallen off and they could finally see… after all these flights, after all these years, who I really was. I just sat in the magic of the moment, trying to savor it, to understand it, to cherish it. It would likely be my last lead. And though there were two more flights to go, I recognized that this was the end of a very long chapter in my life. I couldn’t help but get the feeling that somehow the birds knew it too. Then, the spell was broken by the words of the Robert Frost poem. “We have promises to keep. And miles to go before we sleep.”
But, as in Robert Frost’s poem, “We had promises to keep. And many miles to go before we sleep.” Soon, the birds followed me into the pen, the hot wire was run around it and Joe and Jeff arrived with the two boxed birds, #11-15 and #2-15 who was boxed prior to takeoff because of her propensity to lead the others back to the pen after takeoff. The two reunited with their friends as Joe and Jeff got back on the road and I got back into the air for the short hop over to a nearby landing strip.
There are milestones in every life when one can easily become lost in an overwhelming tsunami of reflection. Reflections are therefore best consumed over time in small bites if there is to be any hope of achieving true clarity and meaning. What is clear is that the birds possess the incredible power to connect and those connections form the foundation of all that we have experienced and achieved. Perhaps it all boils down to the words of the poet Robert Browning when he wrote:
“Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp… or what’s a heaven for.”
Time will tell.