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My association with words conjures up images and reminders of who I once was, who I am today and who I will become as memories and aging tend to glide together, but not forever. Did you ever read my poem, “In lessons there are butterflies”. It means more to me now than on the day I penned the words to the then blank piece of paper.
If you care to read it you can
“Slender memory, stay with me.”—Li-Young Lee, “Mnemonic” I COULD BLAME IT on a lot of things. On my education, or lack thereof, on the reasons why I still can’t spell worth a damn. Or I could blame it on my grandmother, the one who helped raise me, how she despised antique furniture as she despised anything that held to the past, especially photographs—most were thrown away, and what few she kept were tossed in the junk drawer under coupons and catsup packs.
I could blame it on my brain-building diet of Cheetos and Little Debbies, all my childhood favorites stained-finger-lickable and plastic-wrapped. Or I could blame it on my magpie of a mind, distracted by shiny bobbles and bracelets, whatever’s flashing across a screen. Or on being too busy, too flaky, too blonde.
Or I could blame it on that man and what he did to me in the basement when I was young enough to still believe in Santa Claus. To survive, I engaged in a willful kind of erasure, a strategy so successful it blunted out all of second grade.
Whatever the cause, I don’t remember things well. Take, for example, the spring of 2002: I was working for an independent press, meeting a colleague at The New Yorker on the twenty-first floor. Back then, the city was still fluttering with fliers from 9/11, so when I first saw out the window a jittering scribble of black and orange streaming past, my mind tricked me into thinking it was the tatters of homemade posters from that sad wall at St. Vincent’s blown north, all the way to Times Square before being sent sky-high. I thought it was the old shreds of one photocopied plea after the next, each with a weather-faded photo and m-i-s-s-i-n-g hand-scrawled across the top.
But a closer look revealed something else—a cluster of monarchs—maybe hundreds, maybe thousands—I couldn’t tell—it was a blast of color, a frenzy akin to a murmuration but born of confetti and not birds. I could hardly believe the wild scatter of wings, frantic, catapulted by the updraft of a building tall enough to scrape the sky. They worked their fragile bodies hard to escape the current. Some were lifted up and out of sight; others were pressed against the glass. “Ms. Quinn,” I’d said. And when she didn’t look up from her notes: “Alice. Alice, turn around.” She swiveled her chair to see what I was seeing, and terrible as it sounds, that is where my memory ends. I could hardly believe the wild scatter of wings, frantic, catapulted by the updraft of a building tall enough to scrape the sky. Why? Because made as I am, I shrugged off that memory afterward, dissolved it entire. I left that meeting and jumped in a cab, and going back all these years, I find noted in my journal not much more than the date and Alice’s name.
Because that’s how I work. Because it was too unusual, too beautiful, too wrong. Besides, wasn’t I always making things up in my head back then? I was visiting the city every few months, making the trip from Louisville to LaGuardia and back, and to get by, I was always fantasizing the smell of hay in stainless steel elevators, imagining katydid song to eclipse the grip of nightclub bass in the blue-lit filth of bathroom stalls.
And didn’t I later read that monarchs never flocked and only migrated alone? I had to have made it up. I dismissed those butterflies as another something a Kentucky girl like myself conjured to make time in the city manageable, because I never quite fit in there, never felt safe, especially after those planes slammed into our lives.
Now twenty years have passed. Twenty years to make that time nearly nostalgic. Now there are politicians who make the president back then look more like a befuddled old uncle than who he really was.
Now there are fires, terrifying blazes, and when I scroll through the news, I see flying foxes drop like overripe fruit from scorching Australian skies, koalas scream with ears burned off their sweet heads. A post beyond shows a compilation from another fire in California: miniature silver rivers stream from a melted hubcap, a roadside motel sign pours like boiling caramel from its heat-mutilated frame, a charred Port-A-Jon with its door flung open like a shit box in the seventh circle of hell. I put down my phone, say to my wife, “Things are looking Biblical,” but she dislikes when I go dark, rightly gets frustrated when I give myself over to despair, as I often do. I almost say end times but think how backwater Baptist that might sound, how my grandmother always said despair was a sin. So I say nothing, change the subject, ask what she might want for dinner instead.
As I peel the potatoes, I can hardly remember what I was so upset about. These past few years, I’ve disassociated daily, much worse than before. Some days, I hardly remember a thing. Some days, I hesitate when asked my own name, afraid I’ll answer wrong.
Last spring, I tried to do something to make myself feel better, which meant signing up for a class to learn something of ornithology or at least look at birds with a group of people who love to look at birds too. I knew the instructor, knew if anyone could jump-start my flatlined life with a little wonder, it would be him. Besides, it seemed like a tweedy, retiree-mellow thing to do, something no more emotionally charged than binge-watching The Great British Baking Show.
But even that wasn’t safe. On our first day, a woman in the group spotted something high in a tree. She looked hard, then quickly looked away. The others in the group followed, looking hard before also looking away, so I had to look too. What I first saw caught in the branches was a cheap, black grocery bag, the crinkly kind I used to get from the little bodegas in the city. No. I adjusted my binoculars and made out something else: a black kite bound by its own string. But then: a blue sheen to the black. Oil-slick glossy, ruffled in the wind. Then: a sun-bleached black sock. No, a deflated length of bike tire. No. A neck, bald and gray, a neck turned the wrong way. A beak pointing down. A beak pointing down toward the trail below, straight toward me. What we had found was a black vulture, or at least the freshly limp body of one, suspended in a sycamore. What we had found was a creature done in by the death grip of fishing line. I later told a friend who adores birds and knows more about them than I ever will that it was an unmistakable sight, something I could never forget. But I lied. I should have said the truth: I nearly forgot what I saw, could feel my brain doing its fan dance of turn away, already blocking for me what I did not want to see before I even looked.
But this time was different. Because a few weeks before that vulture, there was Alice again—that colleague from all those years ago.
It had been nearly two decades since I’d visited her last. And because of the virus, she’d put together an anthology of poets responding to the pandemic, and because of the virus, we were reading together, but online. From her home upstate, she read poems from an empty room into the small black aperture of a computer’s camera, and from my new home in the mountains of North Carolina, I did the same. Foolish as I felt, it took me an hour to ask, thinking for certain I’d made up that memory, but just before she signed off, I took a chance, asked, “Hey, Alice, I know this sounds odd, but do you remember those butterflies?”
And just when I was sure she’d give me a confused look, she brightened, said, “Oh! You? You were there?!? I’m glad a poet was there with me.”
Then, just like that, my memory was given back to me, whole and real, simply because she’d remembered it, because that’s what witnessing does. So that day, standing under that sycamore, instead of doing what I usually do, I stayed. I stayed long enough for the rest of the class to move on, each of them looking up before shaking their head and walking off, each following one blissful little citrine note after the next into the woods, turning to sweeter things instead.
I stood there a long time, long enough to feel embarrassed, long enough to fear I was being macabre, overly dramatic. Joggers went by, dog walkers too, but not one cared to ask. Or perhaps none dared ask. Perhaps I looked intense, the argument I was having with myself blooming across my face: I was trying to memorize something I wanted to forget; I was trying to force myself to remember what I was wired to let go.
When that didn’t work, I apologized to my memory. I begged her: Please, memory. Stay, stay. Don’t listen to that old part of me if I tell you to go away. This isn’t about me but what happened in that tree. Please. Don’t go. Survival has to do with remembering what you most do not want to face. It has to do with not turning away, in believing your own testimony, in writing it down. Finally, my mind let me map the forensics, to trace how the great bird must have flown into the invisible threads left over from a sloppy cast, lines tangled in limbs reaching over the nearby lake. How the bird might have thought it a spider’s filament at first, but the more he fought to free himself, the more things tightened and snared. The shimmering white glint around the base of both wings, the white glint suspending one leg.
I stayed to try to forgive the fishermen along the shore, how perhaps they were oblivious of the ghost lines they left behind. I wondered if they too would glance up and also mistake the sight for a black grocery bag.
I stayed to imagine what was to come. First, maybe ants. Then flies, beetles. Then maybe the vulture’s own mother, his own sister, his son. Would they finish him off, sky-burial style? And would that be a horror or a sacrament? But, no. Didn’t I read that vultures wouldn’t eat one of their own, that when farmers back home had problems with vultures killing newborn lambs, they would shoot one of the wake and tie up the body with bright bailing twine, making a grisly scarecrow for others who thought of doing the same?
Either way, a year from now, would I find this bird again? Would a wind chime of bones be rattling the tree? A gray rag of skin, a clump of feathers? And really, how long would that nearly unbreakable plastic hold?
I stayed longer than was healthy, my arms quivering as I gripped my binoculars, craning upward so long that when I returned home, my neck was an angry cable of pain.
I won’t pretend my memory isn’t still a rusted colander or a sail shot through with holes. But it’s different now.
Now, I realize witnessing that vulture wasn’t so much about making myself look hard enough to remember but looking so hard the looking made not a memory but its stain. Now I realize the sight of those butterflies was a gift I threw away, not because I didn’t believe what I saw but because I didn’t believe in myself.
And though what I read all those years ago was true—monarchs do migrate alone—there’s always more to learn. They do fly solo, but when they’re all going the same way at the same time, sometimes they drift together by laws of temperature and wind and rain. A collective of them is not a flock but an aggregation—they gather in mass, sometimes in trees at night, and the right weather can lift the glorious mass of them at once. Most likely, that day they were riding a thermal, and when they started to come down, they were caught up and pushed against the windows of that high-rise that held me inside.
What’s harder to admit is what I saw all those years ago was a glimpse of the last migrations as they were—as they’re meant to be—right before their populations slipped off the edge of a precipice entirely human-made. All this year, I’ve looked and looked, but I swear: the best I could do to spot a monarch was to find a single specimen visiting mildew-spotted milkweed ruined by recent floods. So what is it I need to learn well enough to recite by heart? Why work so hard to verify a cloudburst of butterflies migrating so long ago through the busiest part of one of the busiest cities on Earth? Why struggle to memorize a vulture who likely starved upside down?
Because above me now, I see my memories—all our memories—as an aggregation tossed aside by impossibly wrong winds. I see them as a kettle of winged things circling, circling, not sure where to land, but hungry and smelling yet another of their own kind dismantling in a tree.
Because survival has to do with remembering what you most do not want to face. It has to do with not turning away, in believing your own testimony, in writing it down. Years ago, the act of writing wasn’t just about casting light on the dank recesses of my childhood, but just this—rising up to share words to help others who have passed through the same.
What I mean to say is it’s no longer just about my memories slipping from me or why. Because the trauma of this time no longer belongs to me or any one of us. It never did, really, but now there’s no denying the trauma is ours, is collective, is happening to all living things, human and not, all of us, at once.
We must remember, each of us. We must keep remembering in case one day another needs that memory to survive. A Note from the Author: This essay will appear in Solastalgia: An Anthology of Emotion in a Disappearing World, edited by Paul Bogard, forthcoming from UVA Press in 2023. Special mention to naturalist Luke Cannon of Astounding Earth for leading me to that vulture and teaching me much about the ecosystems of western North Carolina; to David George Haskell for showing me throughout the years just how paying attention is essential in our current ecological crisis; and to Kay Milam, producer and director of the documentary film The Butterfly Trees, for her expertise on monarchs and their migration. Also, much gratitude to poet Alice Quinn for allowing me to write our shared remembrance here.
Nickole Brown is the author of Sister, Fanny Says, and The Donkey Elegies. To Those Who Were Our First Gods, a chapbook of these first poems, won the 2018 Rattle Prize. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she volunteers at several animal sanctuaries. Since 2016, she’s been writing about these animals, resisting the kind of pastorals that made her (and many of the working-class folks that raised her) feel shut out of nature and the writing about it. She coauthored Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire with her wife, Jessica Jacobs, and they regularly teach generative writing sessions together as part of their SunJune Literary Collaborative. Every summer, she teaches at the low-residency MFA at the Sewanee School of Letters.