That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic

At his home on the doorstep of Colorado National Monument, Charlie Quimby watches a nest-builder at work as he contemplates his quiet quarantine with his spouse—writing, cooking, walking, waiting. Wildlife is always nearby in his beautiful corner of the West, but the finch and her mate are close. So very close.

The Finch in the Cholla

by Charlie Quimby

In the weeks before the stay-at-home order comes down in Colorado, a finch starts building her nest in the cholla nearest our east-facing window. The prickly crook she has chosen, four feet off the ground, seems ill-advised until we consider. Juniper are scarce here. The greasewood is too dense, and the giant cottonwoods along the wash have died and toppled since we built this place.


With avian conviction, she strings grasses and yellowed stems of weeds. I worry for her.


A red-chested male stands sentinel atop a metal sculpture. Two years ago a down-canyon microburst sailed our neighbor’s hot tub cover a hundred yards to knock over the sculpture, bang against our house ten feet from the cactus, and send half the cover into the brush a quarter mile away. The same wind dislodged a forty-pound sandstone cap from a wall to shatter in the driveway.


This property disclosure was not offered to the finches before they moved in.


At the cactus base, I leave an offering of dryer lint and strands of green garden twine. Immediately, the birds swoop in, even though the nest at this stage is barely framed.


From then on, I leave them to build as they see fit.


***

Shut-ins, Susan and I walk the dog on nearby trails. We cook real food and savor the leftovers. We have more rice and beans in the pantry than we need. We exercise together with our Pandora stations shuffled across Aimee Mann and Herbie Mann, Ralph Stanley and Mark Knopfler, Crowded House and Patti Smith. The harmonies of The Civil Wars and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings find their way into every session.


Susan refills the bird feeder, makes syrup for the hummingbirds and scatters high-priced scratch for the quail who peck through the gravel. We take up books and set them down, same with beers and cocktails.


Except for my having to unvolunteer at a local day center for people without shelter, our new normal isn’t too different from the old one.


We do tune in to new streaming shows written by playwrights who moved away from the stage to make a living, even before this plague closed all the theaters. Art plus confinement gives us a reason, finally, to watch television.


The world has my number, and it doses me hourly with stale Lucky Charms.

But we also consume “news,” much of it speculation, analysis, rehashes of stories we’ve already read online and friends’ social media posts agonizing over same. My inbox is packed with politics, surveys and petitions, phishing emails, deals on shirts, shoes, and masks. I suppose this is the reward for my profligate browsing habits. The world has my number, and it doses me hourly with stale Lucky Charms.


This virtual diet makes us jittery, and we can’t stop ourselves from telling each other things we already know. In these moments, our comfortable retirement nest resembles a handbasket to hell.


I try to write. Isn’t that the job of a writer? The only work I manage to complete comes with deadlines. It’s creative but instrumental: luring classmates to a 2021 college reunion; making a case for funding basic needs in the community; crafting limericks for friends who face mortal challenges. All worthy, but not world-shaking.


Most of us write in order to change something. An opinion. A heart. A mistaken view of the world. We hope, big time.


But it occurs to me that the novel coronavirus—that featherless thing that looks like a dog’s chew toy—has put me in the thoughts-and-prayers business. Writing a novel-novel is a long, slow roll toward a slim possibility, and right now, any big story I might craft feels like a denial of what is needed in this moment. I don’t know how the future world might receive something that takes this old white man three years to complete. I do know I can deliver a box of bananas, rice and beans, canned tomatoes, and loaves of bread where it will all move off the shelf faster than any book.


It’s hard to see the forest for the fire.


The good news of this plague so far is that the little bird still sings.

But when art stops being necessary, we are in big, canary-in-the-coal-mine trouble. The good news of this plague so far is that the little bird still sings.


***


The nest is finished, cozy as a child’s mitten. We wait for eggs to appear. First a pair, then four blue beauties altogether. The mother sits faithfully, warming them through the night and into the chill mornings. By midday, she pants in the sun that radiates from the dry-stacked sandstone at her back. The male brings her seed from the feeder on the north side of the house and feeds her beak-to-beak, just as she will soon nourish the hatchlings.


We both feel kinship with the birds.


When her partner spells her for an afternoon break, we rejoice at the free arc of her flight.


I write: When her partner spells her for an afternoon break, we rejoice at the free arc of her flight. Susan clarifies. The male doesn’t take over. And the female doesn’t leave her station until a cooling shadow creeps across the nest. Okay, now I see myself in how I see the couple.


Somehow, without instructions, these finches know their jobs. Meanwhile, I lose track of mine, spending too much time with that little blue Twitter bird. I think maybe I can forage something useful from what I’ve already written.


In my novel Monument Road there’s a scene where a teenage girl visits a new church in search of theatrical inspiration. Instead, she encounters a preacher who serves up a lesson about hope and prayer in response to misfortune.


“What do most people—even many Christians—do in a situation like this?” Pastor Zeb spread his arms and looked heavenward. “They get mad and they cry, why me? Why me, Lord? Then, they calm down. They get a little perspective. Maybe they’re even a little bit ashamed, because they know the Lord occasionally tosses tribulations toward believers. So they accept it as a test of faith. But then what happens?” 

He waited again, but it was a dramatic pause, not an invitation to answer. “They flunk the test. They flunk the test!”