Birds of a Lesser Paradise
I fell for Smith the day my father hit his first hole-in-one on his homemade golf course. Dad had spent years shaping the earth in our backyard until he had two holes that landed somewhere
between an extravagant minigolf spread and a Jack Nicklaus par-72.
Mae! my father yelled, hoisting his nine-iron into the air. I did it!
He was a couple hundred yards away, and because I didn’t think my voice would carry, I jumped up and down a few times and clapped my hands, trying to appear visibly thrilled. But I was self-conscious with Smith standing behind me, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his army-green cargo pants, an anxious scowl on his almost beautiful face.
Dad sauntered off to pluck the winning ball from the hole, long, white beard trailing in the wind, his spaniel, Betsy, two steps behind. It was hardly fifty degrees out, but Dad was wearing shorts and hiking boots. He was nearing seventy, but he had the bulging calf muscles of a man half his age.
I want to see birds no one else has seen, Smith was saying. I printed out the checklist for North Carolina. How soon can we mark these off?
Slow down, I said, smiling.
I don’t know if I can tell a common goldeneye from a loon, he said. Is that important?
He followed me to our picnic table, which was soft from rot and green with moss.
Smith stuck his fingers into his bramble-thick hair, hair the color of sea grass. It seemed inclined to one side, like a plant reaching for the sun. He wore a paint-flecked T-shirt covered in a school of dolphin fish.
First, I said, let me tell you what we can see here in the Great Dismal Swamp.
I opened our brochure, pushed it toward him like a menu. We had a chunk of land outside of town that had been in my father’s family for two generations. We lived in his ancestral home and ran Pocosin Birds, our bird-watching business, from the property.
In April, I began, birders can expect to sight fifty to one hundred bird species in the swamp.
Are you reading backward? Smith asked.
I have it memorized, I said.
I studied his face. His left eye was deep brown, his right hazel. For a moment, I wondered if he had a glass eye.
Eyes like David Bowie, I said, nodding my head in approval.
Are you going to take me into the swamp? he asked. He smiled. He was lean and dark from the sun. I couldn’t tell if he was twenty-five or just short of forty, impoverished or on the receiving end of a trust fund. When he smiled, he looked like too much fun to be thirty, as if he wasn’t tired of the world yet.
Typically, I said, we help our clients assemble the correct gear and map a course. We drop you off at daybreak.
I took a red pen from my pocket and circled an area near Lake Drummond.
The best nesting sites for warblers are here, I said. What do you know about songbirds?
I want to go in with you, he said.
Dad was born on the outskirts of the swamp at a time when it was desolate, hard, and flecked with ramshackle hunting cabins. His father had been into timber, and Dad was raised wild—the kind of man who could pick up a snake by its neck with the confidence I’d exhibit picking up a rubber version in a toy store. He was sentimental about his family home and the town. Anything he was used to having around he wanted to keep around. So when the town got too small to sustain a post office, he converted the blue mail drops into composting hubs in the back corner of our lot. He bought the abandoned elementary school at auction for almost nothing—no one wanted to pay the taxes on it, and looters had already taken the copper pipes and pedestal sinks. He rented it out for birthday parties, weddings, and to local artists for studio space. When a developer leveled the city park, Dad reassembled the jungle gym in our side yard near the garden and let the scuppernong vines go wild.
We lived in a dying town with a dwindling tax base. I never thought I’d come back, but the swamp was in me; if Dad was half feral, I was one-quarter. I liked the way the water tasted, the sound of birds outside my window in the morning. A few years in Raleigh studying conservation biology at the state university and I needed to find a place where I could look out my window and see nothing man-made. I missed the smell of things rotting, the sun bearing down on a wet log.
Nothing in the city seemed real to me—it was fabricated, plastic, artificial, fast. After years of biology classes, every come-on was a mating call, every bar conversation a display—a complicated modern spin on ancient rules. I didn’t believe in altruistic acts—I could find a selfish root to anything. Eventually I felt as if I was looking out at the busy world and I could see nothing but its ugly bones.
I was taught that at the heart of all people, all things, lay raw self-interest. Sure, you could dress a person up nice, put pretty words in his mouth, but underneath the silk tie and pressed shirt was an animal. A territorial, hungry animal anxious to satisfy his own needs.
At least in the swamp, there was no make-believe chivalry, no playing nice. It was eat or be eaten out there, life at its purest, and it’s where I wanted to be.
Another thing—I loved my dad. I’d never known my mother—she’d died just after giving birth to me—so he was all I’d ever had. He was honest, fun, and unapologetically himself.
I’m not asking you to come home, my dad said, when I approached him with the idea. You won’t find a husband here, he added.
I don’t want one, I’d said—and for a while, that had been the truth. Perhaps it was all the years I’d watched my father carve out a happy life alone.
Your old room is packed solid, he’d said. I disassembled a tobacco barn. Numbered the slats. You can’t move in ’til I sell it.
I’ll take the room over the garage, I said. I have some money to fix it up—I’ll put in a shower.
Aside from serving in Korea and a short stint living on a houseboat in his twenties, Dad had remained hidden from the world in the swamp, inhabiting the same house, trapping the same illegal lines, fishing the same shallow waters.
We didn’t watch the market or follow politics. That was part of the appeal, for me anyway. For centuries people had used the swamp to hide from their problems. Runaway slaves, ruthless fugitives, shell-shocked soldiers, and cheating wives—all had hidden in the swamp at one time.
When I moved from the city to the swamp, the things I could not have became special again. Cappuccino was special. Driving forty minutes to eat second-rate Indian food was special. Planning a day around the “good” grocery store—special.
You got about half fancy living out of town, Dad told me.
I was a thirty-six-year-old single woman living in a poor man’s theme park, running birding trips into the swamp. Most of my binocular-laden clients were pushing sixty and just as concerned with sunscreen and hydration as they were with spotting a pileated woodpecker. I drove them into the swamp in Dad’s pickup, left them with a map, a bagged lunch, water, a GPS device, and a phone, and picked them up at twilight in a place that seemed less wild every day.
For the most part, I was happy.