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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Baby Chicks (p. 153)

From chapter "The Goal Is the Process"

It is spring. Today I took two chicks out to the coyote tree. Both of them so young to die, four days old, or perhaps five. One of them hatched with a crossed beak and only half a head, and had struggled from the beginning. It learned how to eat, how to drink, and then how to die. The other, in all seeming respects normal, thrived three days, began to cry on the fourth, and died later that night.

I carried them in the warm spring noontime. I walked past nuthatches beginning to nest in the birdhouses I attached to stacks of dead bee boxes—I think I’ll choose this one. No this one. But this one is so near to all these twigs. I walked into the rocky woods to the east, past the fine white feathers of a goose dead a couple of weeks and through a broad meadow jumbled with volcanic rock, buttercups, and camas. I arrived at the coyote tree, half-mast relic struggling to survive, her top lying jagged and still green in the slough near her base. I touched her trunk—How are you? and placed the dead chicks among the feathers of past offerings. I said to each chick, quietly, Now you get to be wild. Go, little one, go. I touched the tree one more time and climbed back to the rocky meadow.

In addition to the flowers, yellow, purple, I saw also surveyor’s stakes and the yellow of their flags. They’re going to build here. Hundreds of houses and thousands of apartments. They. Developers, I guess you’d call them. I don’t. Nor do I call them speculators (speculate: to meditate; to contemplate; to consider a subject by turning it over in the mind and viewing it in its different aspects and relations). Killers is probably the best name for them, because that’s what they do. Developers. My dictionary defines develop as to cause to become gradually fuller, larger, better. A child develops into an adult; a caterpillar develops into a butterfly; a baby nuthatch—tiny, featherless—develops into an adult who can survive the winter by eating insects and insect eggs that id left alone would develop into adult insects, and baby hummingbird—even more tiny and just as featherless—develops into an adult that can fly south, past pesticide-laden fields of monocrops, clearcuts, and poisoned waterways, to a warmer home for the winter, and then find her way back next year to make her so-tiny nest in the same boughs of these same pine trees, saying, like the nuthatch, I think I’ll choose this one. But a beautiful rocky meadow, ripe with flowers, full of the coyote tree’s struggle to survive, full of the dailiness of tiny flies and anthills and coyotes and deer and baby pine trees and the decaying feathers of chickens and ducks and geese and the falling snags of pine tree elders who died in last decade’s fire: all this fullness does not develop into greenlawned and sterilized houses, or white box apartments.

I sometimes wonder if the coyote tree gave up last winter, if she used the ice storm as an excuse to leave behind a life she knew would no longer be so rich. Did she know what was coming? Do the salmon, too, and the frogs, and the salamanders, do they all know, and are they giving up to become ghosts because they no longer enjoy, no longer can tolerate what we have become?

Two weeks ago I had a dream, the worst of my life. I heard the voice of the Dreamgiver, resonant and caring. It said, “You work so hard to make a better future. Would you like to know what lies ahead?” I nodded ever so slightly. Then—how do I say this?—I saw nothing but black, nothing at all, and I heard nothing but my own screams, of horror and despair. I know from this dream that it is possible, in fact quite likely, that the future will be far worse than I can imagine, worse even than I can dream. Perhaps bull trout, blue whales, and manatees wish as little as I to see this future.

It will not long slow the machine, but if I am not going to blow up dams, which for today I am still too frightened, too bound, too small in my own person to yet do, the least I can do is remove these stakes. I removed them, each and every one, and removed the flags from bushes and dead trees and the limbs of tall standing pines. After removing all these, I returned home to where the baby chicks, out of the bathtub where they stay through the chill of the too-early-spring nights and into the sunshine of the Yard, were doing their dances of joy, leaping into the air and dashing back and forth, glad to be alive, glad to peck at the soft dust beneath their feet.