It was one of those fortunate moments last week when a person gets the opportunity to stop and fully inhale his surroundings, however brief it lasts.
I was standing on the ramp at the Fargo airport marveling at the dim yet strengthening rays of light being cast by a soon-to-rise sun upon an approaching storm to the west. The cool pastels were painted unevenly across the dimples and swirls of the burgeoning cumulous cloud. It would rain soon.
The summer solstice had taken place not all that long ago, yet sunrise was subtly later now. Not crazy late, like a December morning, but noticeable nonetheless.
Yet another slight but still perceptible shift had altered this landscape. The early to midsummer chorus of killdeer, meadowlarks and savannah sparrows that provide the lilting musical soundtrack to every walk onto the airport tarmac was gone. It was replaced by the incessant chirping from the growing horde of late summer field crickets. It was clear now: Nesting was over.
Earlier in the week, I had also taken the time to stop and look at some tree leaves during a walk. They were tired. With worn edges and insect-chewed holes, the fading green leaves were showing signs of having worked hard all summer at producing energy for the whole of the greater organism. In a few short weeks, they would drop; a season well lived.
The equivalence between tree leaves and the feathers of birds cannot be ignored, the similitude just too curious. Each is vital to its entire being’s existence. Without leaves there is no tree, without feathers there is no bird.
Each, also, is good for only one season. Leaves give their all day after day—absorbing energy from the sun and, through a complicated process called photosynthesis, converting it into sugars. But the tiresome engine cannot last forever and, as described above, the day arrives when they are done, they can no longer function. They senesce, and ultimately fall.
To a bird, feathers are its “leaves.” They give it life. They give it shape. They provide warmth, protection, beauty and camouflage at times. Most important of all, they give birds the incredible, magical, enviable ability to leave the earth and fly. Like leaves, though, feathers don’t last long. They get beaten and worn, fading and weathering like a pair of old jeans. At the appropriate time every year, the feathers are dropped.
Trees will, in time, replace the lost leaves. Either continuously in the case of tropical species, or during the spring in temperate climates, leaves will erupt from buds constructed late in the previous growing season. New leaves quickly coat woody stems early in the year, starting the photosynthetic process and keeping it running for yet another summer.
Feathers, too, are replaced in a process known as molt, but they don’t wait for spring necessarily. Each species will lose and replace flight feathers and body feathers according to an ancient timetable, one that favors the birds’ migration habits, nesting habits and wintering habits.
It’s this ability to fly, though, that separates the birds from the trees, the feathers from the leaves, bringing an end to the string of parallels and to this quaint mental exercise. Birds, you see, can leave.
When the weather starts to turn sour, either short term or long, a bird can simply make the decision to relocate, then do it. Alas, a tree must stand and take it. When threatened by dangers like predators or wildfire, a bird has the wherewithal and ability to take action. A tree just stands stoically and endures. When environmental conditions like flooding or drought or heat or cold loom, birds can seek a better location. Trees, necessarily, cannot. Unlike Tolkien’s ents, trees are firmly and inexorably anchored in place and so must stay and persevere where they are. They are to the natural world what Jim Bowie was to the Alamo.
Given the choice, I’d rather be a bird.