AFTERWORD A Love Story BY BRENDA BELL et me tell you a story. LIt’s a story about a bird that became real to us only in death, in the pages of the remarkable novel that was both its epitaph and the instrument of its resurrection. It’s about the power of a simple narrative to transfix and endure, to sustain a life of its own beyond the author’s imagining. And it’s the story of what scientists call extirpation, the annihilation of a speciesa natural process that is accelerating at unnatural speed. Today it is 10 to 100 times the rate of prehistoric times. Birds are surprisingly resistant to this process; for millennia they have survived environmental changes that killed off other creatures. But the fragmentation of their habitat by human intrusion now makes avian species among those most vulnerable to extinction. The final disappearance of a living organism and all its kind doesn’t happen the way you might think, a slow and steady declination down to zero. Instead, it’s a herky-jerky process marked by confusing reversals. A speciesa frog, a fernis gone before we know it, only to reappear, ghostlike, over and over again, until that undetermined moment when it slips into oblivion forever. We pick up the thread of our story on a narrow road on Chappaquiddick Islandyes, that Chappaquiddick. That’s where John Nelson and his teenage son were driving six months ago when a familiar-looking bird landed in a nearby salt marsh. Familiar because Nelson, an eighth-grade science teacher from West Tisbury, Massachusetts, has been obsessed with this particular bird for 35 years. Many people share his fascination with the Eskimo curlew, numenius borealis. It is said that immense flocks of these curlews helped guide Columbus, a poor navigator, to San Salvador in the fall of 1492. But the plump birds were slaughtered by the millions in the late 1800s, and stuffed in tills like tasty fruitcakes. Like the passenger pigeon, they never bounced back. They apparently became extinct more than 50 years ago. Their sad demise inspired Last of the Curlews, a slender novel that became an unlikely bestseller in 1955. Its Canadian author, Fred Bodsworth, was a moonlighting journalist who worked for Maclean’s magazine and wrote fiction at night. Last of the Curlews was the first of his six novelsand, as it turned out, the most successful. Bodsworth follows the last known pair of curlews on their migration between Patagonia and Alaska’s Kotzebue Sound above the Arctic Circlean arduous round trip of 18,000 miles.The journey to the northern breeding grounds is interrupted in Saskatchewan, where the female is killed by a shotgun-wielding farmer.The male lingers by her body for many hoursthe Eskimo curlew was fatally inclined to return to its fallen companionsbefore flying north to build their nest alone, an instinctive act of faith. In one of the saddest occasions of foreknowledge ever visited upon a reader, we know, as the bird cannot, that another mate will never come. It’s hard to say why this sparely written book, only 123 pages long, is so compelling. Every now and then a writer tells a story, a seemingly predictable tale, in a way that has a profound, even physical effect.Think of The Red Pony or Old Yeller. When I read Last of the Curlews for the first time, I took to my bed in a paroxysm of grief, the first real grief I had ever known. I was 11 years old. But you don’t have to be a kid to get caught up in a story that begins in the steady cadence of these plain words: By June the arctic night has dwindled to a brief interval qf grey dusk and throughout the long days mosquitoes swarm up like clouds of smoke from the potholes of the thawing tundra. It teas then that the Eskimos once waited for the soft, tremulotis,far-car . rying chatter qf the Eskimo curlew flocks and the promise qf tender , flesh this chatter brought to the arctic land. But the great flocks no longer come. Even the memory of them is gone and only the legends remain . . . The odd survivor still flies the long and perilous migration from the wintering grounds qf ilrgetttine Patagonia, to seek a mate of its kind on the sodden tundra plains that slope to the arctic sea. But the arctic is vast. Usually they seek in vain. The last of a dying race, they nollIfly alone. The poet W.S. Merwin was 67 when he finally discovered a worn paperback copy of Last of the Curlews and persuaded Counterpoint Press to issue a new hardback edition in 1995. Merwin and I have a lot of company. Over the decades the book has sold three million copies \(including a condensed Readers’ Digest up birdwatching, which has become one of the fastest-growing hobbies in America.You would be hard pressed to find an avid birder who has not read it, who does not dream of spotting an Eskimo curlew someday. While it hasn’t achieved the celebrity status of, say, the ivory-billed woodpecker, the curlew is one of those Holy Grail species which would gal 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 3/28/03
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