Essays: Baltic Amber

She tells me her name. It’s a faux portmanteau of candle and mandolin. She uses her digital SLR to show me a bufflehead, a common goldeneye, and a scaup. We don’t know one another, but we are the only two people standing on top of Clinton Dam which, at eight hundred seventy-five feet, towers over Clinton Lake. We are here to watch waterfowl. That’s as good a formula for a fast acquaintanceship as any. Bird lovers talk to one another. We’re an endogenous group with overlapping interests that include conservation, education, outdoorsmanship, and a good-hearted love of birds (with a bit of competition thrown into the mix). I’ve seen folks pull up beside one another in popular birding areas to share information on what birds are present and where they are located. “Seen anything interesting” is a common refrain. That’s exactly what the woman on the dam said to me before introducing herself.

It’s supposed to be in the forties, but it isn’t. At this height, the wind cuts right through my layers. It might as well be in the low teens. I don’t feel like a warm-blooded creature. This is how the stones on the side of the dam must feel, losing all their heat to the frigid air and thereby becoming the essence of frigidity. I jump up and down to stay warm. It’s a futile endeavor. My body heat flows into the surrounding air.

Lake Clinton was built under the Flood Control Act of 1962 by damming the Wakarusa River. Funds were allocated the year I was born, just one state to the south, where we’d had a recreational reservoir since 1944. My family adored that bloated watering hole, whose creation necessitated the flooding of four towns. Artifacts from those engorged ghost towns still sit at the bottom of the lake, including marble tombstones that emerged a few years ago during a drought. The creation of Lake Clinton required destruction as well. Ten communities were wiped out with the lake’s development, as well as rich histories, such as underground railroad sites. The Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum now operates out of an old milk shed that was once part of Bloomington, one of the towns washed away when the lake was filled. The historic house the shed belonged to was razed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in 1981 after agreeing to renovate it.

It’s only my third trip here. I made the most recent one yesterday with my partner. Somehow, we managed to miss the turnout on the dam, which is one of the lake’s best spots for watching birds. When I got home, I realized our mistake and decided to come back out on my own. Birding is different alone. There’s something both calming and unsettling about looking for birds without a partner. There’s a kind of intimacy in finding a bird and sharing that experience with the person you love. It’s nice to run into other bird lovers, in part because they are so enthusiastic and in part because it takes the edge off the loneliness that can accompany solo birding. But it’s not the same as being out with my partner. I have more time to think, for one thing, which is both good and bad, depending on the thought.

Off to the right, the woman and I see two American white pelicans. To the left, a great blue heron flies in and lands on the rocky shore. The heron was here yesterday, too. The woman and I talk about how surprising it is to see a heron in such cold weather. My worry is evident in my voice, which cracks from more than the cold. I’m concerned that our unusually warm weather has affected migration timing and that many birds, not just this heron, are now in danger. In a matter of days, the temperature has plunged from the forties and fifties to the single digits, with subzero temperatures on the way. The woman and I talk about how cold we are before drifting back to our respective cars and cranking the heat. She drives away. I am on my own now, again.

I make my way up and over the lake to an area called Bloomington West. It takes longer than I expect. “Alone, alone, alone.” The word pecks at the deadwood in my head. I realize this is the first time I’ve done anything on my own since I experienced a period of great trauma in 2015. After that year, I retreated into what was safe and comfortable — into myself, mostly, and away from other people. I didn’t know a pair of binoculars would send me back out into the world — alone, alone — no less. This open-ended time is terrifying on some levels but also healing. I felt like the earth is putting me back together bone by bone, like a someone preparing a bird skeleton for display at a local nature center.

On the road, a man approaches from behind, fast. I’m going the speed limit, but he wants me to drive faster. Now I am not alone, and I want alone to return. Alone suddenly feels like an empty nest, safe and solitudinous. I worry about being out here at the lake and meandering through the rural areas that surround it. How easy it would be for someone to mess with a woman, with me. I feel old traumas speaking through my body, marks left by the men who have harmed me. Some experts call what I am experiencing the sequelae of trauma. Others call it post-traumatic stress disorder. The language I use is different. My trauma is subjective, not objective. It is visceral, not clinical. Psychologists don’t capture my experience any better than the authors of the DSM. I think about the eyes of the Cooper’s hawk who hunts behind my yard. They are the color of Baltic amber. I imagine my body is made of amber that, over time, has grown around what it has encountered, each occlusion an infraction — something forced, something taken, something threatened, something denied. The body is still there but so is what the body has been through, what it remembers. I have hardened around these memories.

I turn on a street with a funny name: E 251st Diagonal Road. The man is still behind me. I turn again, onto a road that will take me to the shore. The man keeps going straight. “Alone,” I exhale, as if the word were a mantra. I pass a newly tilled field and scare up countless meadowlarks and European starlings. They skim the field’s teased surface. I continue all the way to the lake, past a sign that reads “Road ends in water.” Perfect. A road to no-road feels existential in this moment. At the water’s edge, there’s another sign. This one says parking is not allowed at any time. I see nobody, anywhere. There aren’t even boats on the parts of the lake that haven’t frozen over. I park the car and step onto a wooden loading dock. Its yellow poles are as bright as a red-shouldered hawk’s legs and feet. The rest of the scenery is hazy, as if someone is holding a sheet of onion skin paper between me and the world. At first, I hear nothing. Then, there is noise everywhere — around me, beneath me, near, far. All at once, it sounds like singing and cracking and heavenly voices mixed with ghostly nightmare cries. My heart feels like a heron slipping on a frozen marsh until I place the sounds. It’s the water freezing, the everywhere sound of solidification. Imaging one thousand people bending saws and one hundred sticks cracking all at once. This is what the Sirens must have sounded like. Enchanted to the point of being driven mad, those poor sailors never stood a chance.

Now that I understand what I am hearing, the terror turns to strange beauty. This unsettling and unexpected improvisation has reduced my lexicon to a single word: “Wow.” I say it over and over. I look up from the ice to take in this abandoned corner of the freezing lake and see a tree full of bald eagles. I say wow again. And again. One eagle flies away. Another flies in. I see one in another tree. I see one on the ice. Wow. Part of me wishes my partner was here. Part of me wishes the woman I’d met on the dam was here. I know she would love this. But those parts are easily subverted. In truth, I want this experience all to myself, and I have it all to myself. The eagles. The lake. The haunting ice. And me.

I drive by Bloomington East, past the closed Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum, before heading out the way I came in. I stop the car in front of the field where I saw the meadowlarks and schlep into the freshly turned soil, aware that I am trespassing. I watch groups of starlings and meadowlarks skim the surface of the land, first left, then right. Through the binoculars, the birds don’t look real. The starlings are on one plane and the meadowlarks on another, like two paintings on separate sheets of glass with a space between them. I feel like I’m looking at an image in a View-Master. Not 3D, not really. Not the world the way the human eye and mind see and understand it. The binoculars create a beautiful distortion that turns the world into a piece of modern art.

I turn to walk back to the road. I think I see a party limo, but there’s a casket in the back. It’s a white hearse with a dancing neon license plate cover. A trail of cars follows. Ordinary cars. Nothing festive about them. They are the kinds of cars people in rural areas drive, ones that sit high off the ground, get around in all types of terrain and weather, and are always dirty. The occupants of the vehicles look sad and also a little irritated about passing a stranger standing where she has no business standing. Heavy with impatience and shame, I wait in the space that separates the life in the field from the death snaking beside it. The procession passes. I get in my car.

My road does not end in water, not today. I drive back the way I came. Hawks perch in the trees and on power lines along the highway. They give way to rock pigeons, then starlings. I arrive home in time to see a white-breasted nuthatch and a Carolina wren in the yard. It gets darker. Only the northern cardinals remain. Then they leave. Darker still. I see a mourning dove on the edge of the birdbath. Then nothing.