Page 29


Don Blietz, April 1962 tractedly about over our heads, notwithstanding the numbers that every moment fell . . . Notes on the Ornithology of Labrador, 1861 Bodsworth’s careful descriptions of the. curlews’ physiology, the aerodynamics of wings that tirelessly beat at a cruising speed of 50 miles an hour, reveals a born naturalist. Last of the Curlews is also unfashionably anthropomorphicit projects human characteristics onto nonhuman forms oflifebut in his hands, it works. It’s not just the curlews’ suffering that breaks our heartsthe lung-bursting flights over the Andes, the dark Atlantic storms that beat them down into the seabut the innocence of their own mortality. Time passes too swiftly; the seasons of renewal at the ends of the earth, as Bodsworth constantly reminds us, are short.Yet the last curlew presses on, seized by a biological imperative that takes the familiar form of foolish hope. Like a lover waiting at the station, he searches each incoming trainflocks of plovers, whimbrels, sandpipersfor a mate that never arrives. Like a prospective parent preparing the nursery, he fixes a nest for a family that doesn’t materialize. And when a mate finally appears, their lovehopeful, ecstatic, blindis already doomed. One second the curlew was feeding busily at the edge of the breakers, surrounded by dozens of plovers, yet alone; the next second the female curlew was there, not three feet away, so close that when she held her wings extended in the moment after landing even the individual feathers were sharply distinguishable. She had come in with a flock of nine plovers. They had dropped down silently, unnoticed except by the sentinel plover that stood hawk watch while the others fed. She lowered her wings slowly and deliberately, a movement much more graceful than the alighting pattern of the plovers. Her long, downward sweeping bill turned toward him. Love figures prominently in other Bodsworth books, including The Strange One, which marries the story of a wild goose with the romance between a Cree girl and a Scottish boy. But when I suggested that Last of the Curlews is, at heart, a love story, Bodsworth was taken aback. He had never thought of it that way. “Well, my editor at Maclean’s at the time did say it’ s a boy meets-girl story,” he recalled.”Except there’s no boy and no girl.” At 82, Bodsworth soldiers on, consumed by a project that has occupied him for many years, a dense book about climate change. “It’s really a swamp when you get digging into it,” he told me. “The first thing is to get the science right, then tell it in terms of anecdotes and narrative that can make a popular piece of reading. I hope I’m doing that.” In the long winters and brief summers of a northern city, he works against the clockdriven, it seems, by the nagging success of his first book. “It makes me more and more anxious to not live on in any past glory, and at least get one more thing out that will make a difference.” Meanwhile, a month after John Nelson saw the bird of his dreams on Chappaquiddick, another birder thought he saw an Eskimo curlew on Chesapeake Bay. The birds have rarely been spotted there before, but the timing was right for their fall migration south over the Atlanticthe same trajectory that took them past Columbus’s ships five centuries ago. Little is known about the specifics of their spring route northward across South America and the Yucatan peninsula, a journey that takes six weeks or so. But in March or Apriljust about this time of yearEskimo curlews used to show up on the Texas coast. In his book, Bodsworth tells us this was when the last pair of curlews made their honeymoon flight from the Yucatan, joining the chattering hordes of cuckoos, thrushes, bay-breasted warblers, bobolinks and vermilion flycatchers over the warm, moonlit waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Maybe another pair is out there now, waiting for a favorable wind from the south. Of all their traveling companions, the Eskimo curlews always fly the fastest, for they have the furthest to go. And the seasons of lovetheirs, ours, does it really matter?are so short. Brenda Bell grew up in Texas. She now lives, writes, and teaches in the Seattle area.