Pushcart 2021 XLV: Annie Sheppard, “We At Old Birds Welcome Messages From God, Even If Unverifiable” (nonfiction) from Fourth Genre #21.1

Though we tend to lose sight of the fact, it is not unheard of for the occasional missing species to be rediscovered. An entire taxonomy — the Lazarus taxon — has been created for species thought to be lost forever but found again.…
Although it seems wrong to complain when a lost species is found, on the whole I think it preferable that our missing things say missing. If we find these things definitively, we need no longer go looking for them come, and we clearly need stuff to look for. This is a view I inherited from my father, who always favored things that were missing over things that were found.

This is one of those essays that seems to meander — from the Lazarus taxon to birdwatching to an aging father with a complicated legacy — but manages to say something quite profound along the way, even if it’s not entirely clear how it hangs together. And, here’s a tip: when someone’s described as complicated, that does not mean good things.

The Lazarus Taxon originated in paleontology, classifying species that disappeared from the fossil record for a substantial time, only to re-emerge in later eras. It’s now been broadened to species thought to be extinct but discovered alive. Dozens of such species have been found in recent decades.

This seems to be the closest thing to a unifying theme here: just when you think they’re out, they drag themselves back in. This certainly applies to the complicated father:

And he took liberties with his daughters. He took things from us — innocence, trust, confidence — that were not is to take, and he has been, so far, more defensive about this then repentant.
Dad’s an old bird now, held in captivity well past his natural lifespan. He’s tangled up in his diaper, he’s weathered and hairless. He has, at best, a handful of rather grim years left to him. Science says that’s all he has. One chance, you blew it, too bad. But the Lazarus taxon says otherwise.…The world — the natural world — speaks a language more hopeful than the language of science. It says life is as resilient as it is beautiful. It says things come and they go and they come back again. They return.

I would say it isn’t the father himself who will return, but the effects he has had on his daughters, and through them, the world. I get the sense that the family has done a good job of moving past his destructiveness, though that might be wishful thinking on my part; yet the past is always lurking, ready to spring out at a vulnerable moment, making self-defense a skill perpetually carried at the ready.

The title, which lends some jocularity to the piece, comes from a different idea:

A citizen science website that someone should create but not me is Old Birds. This would be both a reporting site and a literary Journal. Subjects sought by the editors of Old Birds: aging, dying, birds, anything numinous. Artists please submit. …Your long hindsight will find a home here, as will how dumb you still feel, even now, when you have been promised wisdom. We at Old Birds also welcome possible messages from God and any other sightings of a holy nature, even if unverifiable.

We wait all our lives for Wisdom to come. Could we have had it all along, but didn’t recognize it?

2 responses to “Pushcart 2021 XLV: Annie Sheppard, “We At Old Birds Welcome Messages From God, Even If Unverifiable” (nonfiction) from Fourth Genre #21.1

  1. I just loved this essay. I loved its humorous tone, its winks, its bits of small wisdom. I can see someone being horrified, not amused at all. Yes, the father is a monster. Yes, he needs to be hidden, not acknowledged. But he also needs his diaper changed by his son. Life is complicated. The narrator can tell the story in a humorous tone. Quite likely the victimized women could not. It has just hit me that I was assuming the narrator is a man, in fact it is a woman. Does it matter? In this case probably not. A woman might find transgressions of this sort less forgivable than a man, less amusing. Are these vast generalizations, not relevant here? Obviously I am a little troubled by my own reaction to the essay. Should I be horrified by the father? The narrator is not. As I said, life is complicated.

    • I’m always interested in how people read ambiguity. I’d assumed the narrator is female because the author is female and it’s non-fiction; and she mentions “He took things from us”; if this were a brother, I would have expected it to be “from them.” It also just read very female to me, but that’s very subjective and I can’t really pinpoint a reason.

      Paradoxically, it can be harder to lose a parent who was a problem than someone who was ideal. I’ve known people who went through something that wasn’t quite grief when a less-than-ideal parent died. I think it’s related to wanting an apology, some acknowledgment of regret, and knowing that now it will not be forthcoming.

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