The other morning, I watched a starling make a long curving descent over a field that was just coming up green. There was a breeze from the southwest, and as the starling turned into it the bird suddenly appeared to be floating. I felt like I was finally seeing the starling’s true shape, wings extended and still — not as I usually see it, wings folded and quarreling over the bird-feeder.
To see a bird in a soaring descent like that always sets me wondering. What does it feel like to have wings and to feel the air beneath you as substantial as the earth? The same thought occurs when a pair of Canada geese pass overhead. The word “flap” is of no more use in describing the flight of geese than it is in describing the swimming of penguins. Goose wings quiver in flight, deflecting only slightly, and if you watch closely, you can see the goose’s body moving up and down against the stiffness of the wings.
At moments like those, I imagine the hopeless outstretching of my own arms. I feel that same conscious unease about my legs when I see the horses standing asleep in the pasture. It’s as though I’m really detecting how little repose there is in the human body. Surely a red-tailed hawk is resting when it soars across the horizon on a thermal. There must be a sufficiency of rest even in the flight of a goose, or how else could it fly so steadily and so far?There’s an insouciance about birds in their element that always feels to me like a comment on the human species. I see a vulture looking side to side as it slides by overhead, and it looks to me as though it’s artfully and intentionally ignoring the skill of its flight. I saw the same thing in the Chilean fjords a year ago. We sailed past dozens of black-browed albatross, and every one of them — serenely afloat — looked up at me from the waves with the self-confidence of an athlete, effortlessly drifting on the tide and wondering what element humans call their own.