In the midst of all this, the birds carry on

Writing from Colorado’s front range at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, THP author Kayann Short must re-envision what “community” looks like for her community-supported farm in a world changed by coronavirus. One thing seems certain: community still involves birds—red-winged blackbirds, wrens, crows, robins, goldfinches, geese…

In the midst of all this, the birds carry on

by Kayann Short

This May morning in the midst of a global pandemic, four of us met to practice yoga together at our farm, our first in-person gathering since the stay-at-home and then safer-at-home orders began in March. My yoga friends and I joined each other with masks and mats and some trepidation in practicing together, so ingrained had our sequestering become over the last two months. We laid our mats on the grass and turned our covered faces away from each other in socially-distanced poses. The breeze was stiff and the grass still wet with dew in the cold morning, but we warmed as we moved until the barest sun began to shine through the clouds and we could shed our down vests and sweatshirts. We were four women practicing yoga for health and fortitude, but we were not alone.

Mid-spring is the time when lesser goldfinches return to the farm, their yellow feathers as bright as coins against the grass. I had noticed a few goldfinches two days before as they joined a flock of rusty-headed chipping sparrows near the barn. These little birds like to gather in the bushes along our irrigation ditch or flutter among the dandelions like animated blooms. As I walked out to the big field, the flock flew ahead of me, landing in wild plums that line the ditch bank before lifting to the air as one at my approach.

“The lesser goldfinches were back in earnest, a sure harbinger that spring had come to the farm, a near-wild stop on their migratory route. . .”

This morning as we practiced yoga in the grassy lawn between the old orchard and the flower garden near a stand of lilacs we could faintly smell through our masks, I glimpsed a flash of gold and then another and another in the shrubs along the bank. The lesser goldfinches were back in earnest, a sure harbinger that spring had come to the farm, a near-wild stop on their migratory route providing forage, water, and cover for breeding, a part of the farm’s natural cycle of work we consider as important as the crops we grow.

With two snowstorms the third week of April followed by unusually cool temperatures, we had been waiting for a sign like this to assure us warmer days were on their way. Farmers are used to unpredictable weather conditions, but this year’s climate vicissitudes, on top of the shifting social ground of the coronavirus, felt like a double whammy, leaving us often unsure how to proceed. Our members had returned to the farm the Saturday before, although only two at a time—in masks and separate rooms—could pick up their shares in the barn. We had also made changes to our planting plan: no peas this year, in favor of more onions, carrots, and cabbages for our local food banks. Now that spring really was arriving, we could think about planting flowers and starting to prepare the beds for transplanting tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant in a couple more weeks. Growing more food to stave off shortages seemed the right thing to do in this uncertain time, and sometimes, when the news became particularly discouraging, the only thing to do.

Until the threat of COVID-19, some farms made an extra buck by offering goat yoga, in which kids of the caprine variety jumped and climbed on laughing practitioners. Even better than goat yoga, in my mind, however, is bird yoga. As my friends and I warmed our bodies with sun salutations, bird sounds formed a harmonic backdrop to our down dogs and warrior poses. I heard the melodic warble of a Western meadowlark in chorus with trilling red-winged blackbirds, twittering wrens, cawing crows, and whistling robins from the apple trees, willows, and cottonwoods around us. Just thinking of these bird words gave me comfort as I watched a red-tailed hawk silently circle the farm before disappearing over the tree line and several starlings with shimmering wings whoosh across the sky. Four Canadian geese honked a noisy entrance into our practice as they flew over our heads to the marshy edge of our neighbor’s pasture. While we stretched and posed to the birds’ morning songs, a sense of normalcy returned to our bodies, along with the resolve to do what is needed in this crisis as long and hard as we possibly can.

“Then, at the end of our session as we lay in shivasana, corpse pose, with our backs against the earth, the smallest bird of all, a hummingbird, the first I’d seen of the season, came to call.”

Then, at the end of our session as we lay in shivasana, corpse pose, with our backs against the earth, the smallest bird of all, a hummingbird, the first I’d seen of the season, came to call. It hovered among the few apple blossoms that survived the April freeze before leaving us to our final meditation.

What is the sound a hummingbird makes, that mechanical whirring and high-speed winging like a miniature wind-up toy? Whatever it’s called, in our foothills, it’s the sound of spring arriving.

We may be in the midst of a pandemic with our fears of touch and contagion, but the season and its birds carry on before us, an assurance of nature’s continuance in the midst of human chaos. Here at our farm, we will grow crops and keep habitat intact for the creatures who live beside us. We can’t count on much these days, so let’s count on this: the earth turning, the seasons changing, and the birds rioting in song for the persistence of it all.

Kayann Short, Ph.D., is a writer, farmer, teacher, and activist at Stonebridge Farm, an organic community-supported farm in the Rocky Mountain foothills. The author of A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, she has directed memoir and digital storytelling projects with community elders, adult literacy students, and nonprofit organizations. Her writing has appeared in Midwest Review, Hawk & Handsaw, and The Hopper. Besides growing delicious food at Stonebridge, Short teaches the important place of organic food production and agricultural preservation in a healthy, environmentally sustainable community.

This project has received funding from Utah Humanities (UH). UH empowers Utahns to improve their communities through active engagement in the humanities.

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