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

The weight of this year—of pandemic, of election, of fires in the West, the list goes on—presses upon all of our shoulders. In today’s That Thing With Feathers: Hope & Literature in a Time of Upheaval, Torrey House author Nicole Walker feels the weightiness, the “heavy gray,” as she watches birds, writes postcard after postcard, and fills a big orange bowl with water, putting in some work for the future.


Who knows what the heck these birds are doing in the branch of ponderosa that hangs over my deck? Two black-and-white tiny things, (black-and-white warblers? Snow buntings?) are punching through the bark with their noses (they’re not woodpeckers), they’re following each other around, flapping their wings at each other. They’re jumping up and down on each other. It could be they’re fighting. They might be play-mating. They bonk beaks one last time and fly off, one right after the other. It might be joy. It might be boredom. Maybe it’s desperation. Maybe they’re working hard.

I’ve been reading a lot about the pathetic fallacy—ascribing human emotions to animals. I’ve been thinking a lot about the objective correlative—seeing in nature something that describes a human emotion. I’ve been thinking a lot about Robin Wall Kimmerer’s invocation of the gender neutral but pronoun rich ki, which she advocates we use for all the living objects of the world—Ki ponderosa. Ki little black-and-white birds. My students and I go back and forth on whether language can change the world. My students who use they pronouns certainly think so. William James knew that beliefs shaped reality but how far can you take that premise? One of my high school friends thought he could envision my best friend to fall in love with him. She was already practically married to someone else.

You can’t just believe. You have to put in a little bit of work.

I read, perhaps from Rebecca Solnit, that optimism isn’t the same as hope. You can relax with optimism. Optimism is a belief system that suggests rose-colored glasses. Although I’m usually an optimist, nothing is looking particularly rosy to me. Every day, I wake up and look at the ceiling, the walls, my bedding, the carpet. It looks perfectly green and blue and beige—not rosy but not gray cloudy skies either—which is the color I feel. Some days, I wake up thinking, “I hate everyone.” Other days, I wake up thinking, “I cannot do this.” But then something, maybe hope, gets me out of bed. Solnit says hope is knowing we have work to do and if we do the work, we might approach what we hoped for.

It is hard not to feel the heavy gray of 2020. My dear friend’s father died of COVID. An amazing teacher-fellow in a seminar I’m leading lost her cousin and then her cousin’s son to COVID too. So many people in the Diné community have lost people. The numbers are climbing up and it is getting colder. I see friends only outside. How will we buoy each other when we are all indoors? The election feels heavy, and even though I feel hope, my hope feels jaded. So much is at stake. Lives are at stake.

I’ve been writing postcards and texting and writing letters about voting. I plan to do some phone banking even though I hate calling people on the phone and I rarely answer if anyone calls. I am putting all my hope into these tiny missives, these outreachings that might convince someone who wouldn’t otherwise to go to the polls.

I am an optimist by nature. I’m always surprised when things go to hell. How did this happen—the COVID, this politic, these fires?—I ask the little black-and-white birds. They don’t know. They tell me to go look up their Latin name if I’m going to keep talking to them. I truly don’t know if they’re talking back to me or not. I have no objectivity and no objective correlative. It is so beautiful outside. The sky is perfectly blue.

The aspens are making bargains with the sun, borrowing a little yellow for a few more days sky bound.

But I don’t feel beautiful. I don’t feel perfect. It is a big freaking drought—two years of record-low monsoon storms in Arizona. Colorado is still burning. California is still burning. A new fire, sixty miles south of me, called the Horse Fire, is now burning. I worry about the horses. When the fires burned outside of Portland, my friend in Estacada lost two of her horses. Wild horses get trapped by fire too. And all the animals are trapped by drought. About fire, horses are never objective. No animals are.

A couple of weeks ago, my dogs, on a walk with my husband, Erik, ran across a lynx and chased him into a tree. Erik wonders if the animals might be coming closer to town, looking for water. The lake near our house, which probably quenched many animals’ thirst, has been drained in a fight between homeowners and the HOA. I had this dumb idea. Truly, a ridiculous idea, to take the dogs’ big orange water bowl into the forest and fill it up with water from bottles I carried into the woods. What animal would find this? What animal would trust it? How is a big bowl of water ever going to be enough?

The next day I checked on it. No water gone.

But the next day—the water bowl was missing. I found it a hundred feet away, upside down. Did a lynx or coyote or cougar drink the water and then run off with the bowl?

It’s not really my job to know. I left the bowl to the business of the animals. But, even though I’m ridiculous, that goofy bit of work maybe gave some forest animal a drink of water in the middle of the long drought. A little bit of work, even ridiculous work, makes the flighty thing of hope as weighty as a bird.


Nicole Walker is the author of The After-Normal, A Survival Guide for Life in the Ruins, and other books. Recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and noted in multiple editions of The Best American Essays, Walker is nonfiction editor at Diagram and professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. Her book Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster is forthcoming March 2021 from Torrey House Press.

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