After reading Terry Tempest Williams’ bestselling memoir Refuge, I have held a little spot in my heart open to the possibility that maybe, someday, I will be able to know birds like she does and maybe be as good of a writer as her. I have become entranced by Williams’ soaring descriptions and ample identification of the birds inhabiting her Great Salt Lake. The personal relationships she has forged with each species’ appearance, habitats, habitat, and quirks like they are her own beloved children is something to strive for. She knows each species seemingly intimately, almost instintively. Williams’ genius doesn’t end with her analytic eye for identification and affinity for birds- it is her ability to use birds and their ideosyncracies- even the perils of their lost habitat- as metaphores for her own life struggles. She learns from the rising Great Salt Lake, relating this to the imposition of breast cancer on her mother’s body. Williams has so completely integrated herself into the landscape that the struggles of the Earth eventually become her own.
I felt the beginnings of this, an awakening of a relationship between myself and the San Francisco Bay ecosystem when I stood at Heron’s Head Park in Southeast San Francisco last week for the first time. Binoculars in hand and scope set up in front of me, I scanned the landscape for movement. When spotting a bird gliding through the air, I peered through my instrument with rapt attention at its passing form. Almost immediately, I felt as though I was picked up by the very feathers of the creature, a sense of release and freedom flooding through my heart. I imagine that this is what it is like to fly.
Heron’s Head Park is a very intriguing place and I am glad that I will be able to learn here this year- from the wetland marsh, pickleweed, and 100+ bird species that inhabit the area. This 25 acres of wetland peninsula between Islais Creek and Hunters Point/Bayview used to be the site of PG&E’s polluting Hunter’s Point Power Plant but now it has been converted into a teeming ecosystem. However, the area is still surrounded by industrial remnants, evidenced by towering metal structures, old power lines, and empty warehouses present in the background or periphery of every view. The presence of these structures is a welcome reminder of the imposition of human industry on habitats, an increasing need to educate the public about the native treasures this land once held, but also hopeful visions of reestablished food chains on lands once polluted or used for human gain.
It was a wonder for me last week when I first visited this park, a soft sun illuminating the wetland pools, a crisp breeze blowing my hair, and the glistening expanse of the San Francisco Bay in front of me. I marveled at the sight of the telltale white of a great or snowy egret, the long-necked black of a double-crested cormorant, the thin spear-like beak of an American avocet, or the dusty blue grace of a Great Blue Heron amidst the industrial background. All seemed to thrive in this small wetland area, coexisting with dozens of other species and going about their day almost oblivious to the still-visible impositions of human “progress” in their home. The sight filled me with joy and excitement- an energy to share the gems present here with people.
I’ll admit, I have always been a bit intimidated by ornithology- memorization of bird species, squinting through binoculars to distinguish a bird from its neighbor, a split-second of studying before it hides its beak or swiftly takes flight. But wrapped up in this fear lies an intent interest- originating with my childhood desire and recurring dreams of flight, my admiration for nature writers with an affinity for birds (TTW, Mary Oliver, Loren Eisley…), and a need for intellectual stimulation that studying field guides and scrutinizing bird plumage out in the field will satisfy. So I am excited about this opportunity to learn- about and from these creatures who can miraculously propel themselves through air. I will write the necessary scientific details in my notebook while also imagining myself in the air with them, merging into the landscape, beginning to know it. And as I sit in the office, preparing myself for the adventure that is this year, I open a book, look out the window, and begin my studies.