We are asked to pull to the side of the road at a checkpoint outside of El Paso. Deep nowhere in the high desert of West Texas. Big sky country with a carpet of archetypal Chihuahuan desert shimming to the horizon and back. Our rig loaded with stringed instruments, boxes of books, binoculars, various technologies for coffee making. The bone and feather talismans on our dashboard make us suspect the moment we pull up to the roadblock. At the side of the road a man with a gun instructs us to exit our cars slowly, with our hands clearly visible at all times. We do, eyes compulsively scanning sky and scrub. This is new country for us and we are hungry to meet its animals.
After 5 hours behind the wheel, I extract myself awkwardly from the car then double back into it, reaching for my binoculars behind the drivers seat. The officer nearest me swings his shouldered gun around and tightens his grip on it. Keep my hands where I can see them. But we are birders, we explain, benign naturalists who have long since traded in the fiery roach of youth and revolt for the hand lens of tranquility and natural philosophy. Blank stares and they tear our car apart. Hounds sniff the trunk and floor boards. Sage bundles and pressed desert marigolds are the closest they will find to the illegal botany they are so sure we harbor.
The officer guarding us plays good cop. ‘So, you do a little weed once in awhile? A lot of people do, its no biggie.’ I don’t really hear him. I am distracted by the halo of birds he is wearing. A great ringing has filled the structure and the sound is spilling out into the desert beyond. We are being swarmed by cave swallows.
They are nesting here, in this house of fear and suspicion, up in the corners of the open structure. Their thriving village a counterweight to the paranoia we have built here. Birds falling in and out of their basket homes, earth worked masterpieces of clay, water and spittle, the same ingredients used to make the first woman and man. Peering over the lip of these exquisite potteries, their foreheads aflame with some ancient knowledge. Flying in the face of those who see and exploit borders and shitting upon this blasphemous house.
My co-pilot asks the men with guns to look up at these birds. See, they are nesting here. They help raise each others young. The men are hesitant. They are used to telling people what to do, to forcing confessions, to bullying without resistance. But this woman is contagious in her conviction. They steal glances up to the corners of the building. They want to believe her. In the edges of their eyes, I can see that they want to come with us. To trade in their rifles for spotting scopes. To press flowers, their nostrils caked with pollen as they set the plants between the pages of their field guides. To stalk birds in the gathering light of the early hours, watching birdsong leave birdthroat as a vapor, as a supplication, to the backlit dawn.
This guest post was crafted by Cassidy Grattan, a birder and storyteller equal parts gifted and cursed. The Cave Swallow image was provided courtesy of Nate at This Machine Watches Birds.