I have cribbed this title from E. B. White, who wrote an essay of the same name about the Model T Ford. It is an exemplar of gentle wit and craft that gives a reader a sense of what it might have felt like to sit behind the wheel of a car of this vintage, attuned to its particular whims, the wind blowing through one’s hair. But I have made the title plural because I am writing not about the Model T but about migrating birds.
Our summer birds are leaving: first the swallows and the hummingbirds, then, soon, mixed flocks of warblers, the vireos, the rose-breasted grosbeaks, the orioles, the phoebes. These and more, all going or already gone. They leave in their wake a strange summer, a time of despair and also of gratitude.
A neighbor reported that both nest boxes in her yard held families of bluebirds this year. Another neighbor visited the osprey nest a mile down the road at least twice a week and, at a respectful distance, waited for the young to fledge. There were hermit thrushes singing from the damp woods at dawn and nighthawks buzzing in the dark, high over the trees. To the west of my house is a small preserve I have written about before, with shore ledge and woods stretching along the head of the bay. I walked it often this summer, hoping to see black-throated blue and magnolia warblers and listening to the wind in the trees and the slap of the incoming tide over the rocks.
I met people I’d never seen before from nearby towns, out with their children, and we stepped off the path for each other, trying to put 6 feet between us. I kept thinking how it might feel to be a child walking that narrow path, soft with loamy dirt, to come out of the trees and glimpse the cove that is somewhat hidden. If they were lucky, they might have seen a kingfisher perched on a dead snag sticking up from the water or spotted one of our resident eagles on a high branch, assessing the bay with its lean and hungry eye. It’s a good place for birds and for children.
We’ve learned that, in their first year, birds such as ducks and cranes follow their parents on the long journey south. They learn the way from them. Songbirds, on the other hand, chart a course using Earth’s magnetic field, polarized light, and the sun and stars — a wizardly technique we cannot replicate. We’ve also learned that after their first trip, these birds have memorized the route. Long-distance migration requires astonishing physical endurance and a deft reading of clues. It is one of the most dangerous events in a bird’s life. Many fly in the dark and over long stretches of open water. They navigate the perils of tall buildings and towers with bright lights. Many are blown off course and have to recalibrate direction. Warblers, vireos, hummingbirds, and kinglets are tiny, almost weightless beings, each less than an ounce of intense and focused life.
During this upended season, the birds gave me some hope for the Earth, that we humans might do the things that need to be done, that we understood the urgency. These birds of summer, charged with energy and purpose, sang and mated and built nests and raised young without hesitation. They have, as Wendell Berry wrote, no “forethought of grief,” and we, who are all about forethought, watched them and celebrated.