It was inevitable, I suppose, that I developed an obsession with Pileated Woodpeckers. First of all, between my mother and grandmother, I spent hours standing at our dining room windows with binoculars, studying birds and relaying information about them. Was the underside of that wing black or gray and was the ring around the vireo's eye white? Trying to tell someone else exactly where a small bird has perched is hard enough. But I'll swear in court that we once spent a week, maybe more, trying to see if the very tiny spur curving off the foot of a very tiny sparrow was orange or just the same color as any ordinary sparrow's would be. I think that if it did have the requisite orange spur, it would be a real feather in Mom and Grandma's bird list. So to speak.
It didn't help that my Dad had specifically designed that side of our house with windows so large they had to be special ordered. The view was marvelous -- different kinds of trees, a creek, grass and flower beds. We watched deer eat the daylilies, and turtles carefully pick off strawberries one by one. Trees dropped their leaves, then budded, and soon new ones of green and silver blew in the hard NE Colorado winds. We watched it all, never failing to notice and remark on it. But mostly, we watched the birds. And studied bird identification manuals. Not content with our regulars or the occasional stranger that wandered in, we scanned the tiny colored pictures, dreaming of pelicans and ruby-throated hummingbirds. Together we mourned the supposed passing of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker. Just one more bird we would never see.
That was about the time Dad became fixated on Pileated Woodpickers. I think the word Pileated had something to do with it. It's such a fun word to say. Pileated. Even if you know what it means, and I didn't, a name like that must belong to a very special bird, wouldn't you agree? Then there's its look - basic black slashed with white around the throat. Add the long curved bill and that ridiculous fire engine red cockade, and you realize God created something special. A bird guarenteed to stop you in its tracks screaming "Look at me! Look at me!" Also it's true that it lived so far away finding one would require a very special miracle. All of that just made the Pileated Woodpecker more fun.
One day when we came home from school to find him sitting at the big windows with binoculars and a birdbook, one of us asked him what he was doing. "Not much. Just keeping a look out for Pileated Woodpeckers." Had he found any, we asked playfully. "Not yet," he said. The same words were repeated quite a few times over the next few years. Pileated Woodpeckers became our personal Scarlet Pimpernel. We sought them here, we sought them there -- but never found them anywhere. Then I married a Navy man, and the landscapes outside my window turned to identical houses set in small yards of grass. But my Dad never forgot. He followed all our moves in Peterson's, as we called it.
"You're in Pileated Woodpecker territory," he'd report. "Let me know when you see one." And I looked. I looked because he would probably never really see one, but I could see it for him. I took my camera kayaking and camping. I visited the most likely places to find them -- the places where they'd been sighted just yesterday or the day before. I never managed to find one. Then, on a camping trip to Reelfoot Lake with my family, it happened. My husband decided to take the kids to a small playground near our campsite. They begged me to go along, maybe sensing that I was tired and dispirited. But I stayed behind to enjoy the quiet. Like me, the bird I sought preferred stillness. My camera was in my hand, ready for the moment. I just sat and waited.
The woodpecker was sighted that day -- by my husband and kids. At first I thought it was an elaborate tease set up by my husband. I questioned the kids in detail, asking them about its size, markings, bill, everything I could think of. It was true. They had seen the long sought bird, my Dad's ornithological Holy Grail. I still haven't seen one, so I never got to take that picture for my Dad.
What does any of this have to do with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek? On page 70 Anne Dillard says "I found a Pileated Woodpecker in the sky by its giant shadows flapping blue on the white ice below." As far as I know she never mentions one again. But it's enough to take me back, enough for a reminder of the power of the written word -- and memories.
--Read Well, Friend