My Son Asks for the Story about When We Were Birds

My Son Asks for the Story about When We Were Birds
By Joe Wilkins

When we were birds,
we veered & wheeled, we flapped & looped—

it’s true, we flew. When we were birds,
we dined on tiny silver fish
& the watery hearts
of flowers. When we were birds,

we sistered the dragonfly,
brothered the night-wise bat,

and sometimes when we were birds,

we rose as high as we could go—
the light cold & strange—

& when we opened our beaked mouths

sundown poured like wine
down our throats. 

When we were birds
we worshipped trees, rivers, mountains,

sage knots, rain, gizzard rocks, grub-shot dung piles,

&, like all good beasts & wise green things,

the mothering sun. We had many gods
when we were birds,

& each in her own way
was good to us, even winter fog,

which found us huddling
in salal or silk tassel,
singing low, sweet songs & closing
our blood-rich eyes & sleeping
the troubled sleep of birds. Yes,

even when we were birds,
we were sometimes troubled & tired,

sad for no reason,

& so pretended we were not birds
& fell like stones—

the earth hurtling up to meet us,
our trussed bones readying
to be shattered, our unusually large hearts
pounding for nothing—

yet at the last minute we would flap
& lift, & as we flew, shudderingly away,

we told ourselves that this falling—

we would remember. We thought

we would always
be birds. We didn’t know.

We didn’t know
we could love one another

with such ferocity. That we should.


If you like to spend time exploring outside, chances are you’ve at some point wandered off trail or gotten disoriented enough to experience that frantic, heart-buzzing feeling of being lost. I know I have. The first time I felt that panic was on a teenage backpacking trip in the blue ridge mountains. I took Stanley, our latrine-digging spade, on a too-ambitious ramble in search of privacy, and nearly lost my group, and my mind. I can still recall the relief of hearing their voices calling my name. Damn that Stanley. Since then I’ve been disoriented in white-out blizzards, and stumbled around in high brush off trail, but I’ve never really been dangerously lost without a map and compass.

Retracing your steps, looking for landmarks, hiking to a high point, or even following the flow of water may get you out of the woods (literally), but there are lots of other options — including using birds, trees, and celestial bodies — to consider when wayfinding.

Check out Atlas Obscura’s gorgeous collaboration with expert nature navigator Tristan Gooley and illustrator Chelsea Beck and learn a thing or two about wood craft!


Recommended Reading: Graphic Novel Edition

1. March (The Complete Edition), by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
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This is US Representative John Lewis’s deeply moving personal account of the Civil Rights Movement. I wept many times reading these volumes, and they feel very relevant today, providing an excellent history lesson of horror and hope, and tremendous courage and tenacity. John Lewis is a hero and a badass and an inspiration.

2. Persepolis (The Complete Edition), by Marjane Satrapi
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Persepolis is a political coming-of-age story that details Satrapi’s childhood and young adulthood in Iran and Vienna during and after the Islamic Revolution, and Iran’s war with Iraq. It’s really good. You can also see the film version of her story, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best animated feature.

3. Maus (The Complete Edition), by Art Spiegelman
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You’ve probably heard of Maus –the  genius comic series that uses mice (as Jews) and cats (as Nazis) to tell one Holocaust survivor’s story. It’s always been on my radar, but for some reason I only just read it for the first time this winter. The story alternates between past and present, documenting Spiegelman’s father’s life before, during, and after his imprisonment in Auschwitz, and also the young artist’s journey (and struggle) to understand his father, even as he pulls the story from him. In this way, Maus is a bit of memoir, history lesson, biography, and autobiography rolled into one. Read it.

4. Sheriff of Babylon, v. 1&2, by Tom King and Mitch Gerads
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Woof. This one is an incredibly complicated, brutal,  raw, and currently unfinished political story set in the streets of Baghdad. Or as Iraq War veteran Scott Beauchamp puts it in his review for Vulture, “It’s an unmasking of violence. It’s a noir mystery. . . a complex rendering of an entire ecosystem of squalor, hope, and delusion. It’s also accessible and, almost as a bonus, very cool.” The narrative shifts between linked characters, including an American ex-cop military contractor, a local Shi’ite former chief of police, and a Sunni expatriate returned to her city. I’m looking forward to continuing the story in future volumes.

5. Pyongyang, by Guy Delisle
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In the early 2000s, contract animator Delisle was one of a few Westerners granted (partial) access to enigmatic North Korea’s capital city. During his two-month stay, Delisle recorded is personal observations, bizarre encounters, and run-ins with state propaganda, documenting  what he was and was not allowed to see and do in this dangerous country. His account is smaller in scope than some of these other books, but no less interesting. I also recommend Adam Johnson’s excellent novel The Orphan Master’s Son, if you’re curious about North Korea.


A few days ago Brian Doyle passed on to a new dimension. He was a friend to many, and a father, husband, son, and brother to a very lucky few. He was a storycatcher, a writer and editor who saw a good lesson or yarn in every direction he looked, and a guy who was constantly, delightedly, gobsmacked by wonder and grace. He was also a deeply spiritual, hawk-obsessed, hoops-loving, wine-sipping, run-on sentence-using, mustelid aficionado who laughed and wept in equal measure, and often punctuated his spoken sentences with this funny little mmm sound. It is the exact noise I would expect a small bespectacled mammal  in an Irish children’s book to make as he enjoyed a taste of honey on a breezy summer day, and I know the great BD would grin at that thought.

I cannot pretend to know Brian so well as many others, though we did enjoy the odd lunch together, and years of bright and brief email correspondences, but my heart has been with him every day these past few months as his light began to flicker and shift. In my thoughts I have spent many walks pointing out birds to him, and many nights in vigil at his bedside. I have read a dozen of his books and countless essays over the last two months, (this for a project about which I hope to have good news to share soon,) and the regular updates I’ve received from close mutual friends have left me by turns heartbroken, astounded, humbled, and incredibly moved and inspired by the love and grace of the Family Doyle. That is to say, he has occupied my thoughts, and facilitated some new friendships in a very real and meaningful way that has left me changed. And I know I’m not alone in this, because Brian, and his words, have moved so many people.

I have a long list of personal favorites when it comes to Brian’s essays, some of which you can read here, here, here, and here. But just last week I found this one at the end of the last book in my pile, and it made me shiver. He died on a Saturday morning, and I heard the news with a baby sleeping in my arms. I looked down and remembered that morning I had dressed him in an otter shirt, thinking it was a day for otters. And so it was.

Brian, you are missed, even as you live on.

Last Prayer
by Brian Doyle

Dear Coherent Mercy: thanks. Best life ever.

Personally I never thought a cool woman would come close to understanding me, let alone understanding me but liking me anyway, but that happened!

And You and I both remember that doctor in Boston saying polite but businesslike that we would not have children but then came three children fast and furious!

And no man ever had better friends, and no man ever had a happier childhood and wilder brothers and a sweeter sister, and I was that rare guy who not only loved but liked his parents and loved sitting and drinking tea and listening to them!

And You let me write some books that weren’t half bad, and I got to have a career that actually no kidding helped some kids wake up to their best selves, and no one ever laughed more at the ocean of hilarious things in this world, or gaped more in astonishment at the wealth of miracles everywhere every moment.

I could complain a little right here about the long years of back pain and the occasional awful heartbreak, but Lord, those things were infinitesimal against the slather of gifts You gave mere me, a muddle of a man, so often selfish and small. But no man was ever more grateful for Your profligate generosity, and here at the very end, here in my last lines, I close my eyes and weep with joy that I was alive, and blessed beyond measure, and might well be headed back home to the incomprehensible Love from which I came, mewling, many years ago.

But hey, listen, can I ask one last favor? If I am sent back for another life, can I meet my lovely bride again? In whatever form? Could we be hawks, or otters maybe? And can we have the same kids again if possible? And if I get one friend again, can I have my buddy Pete? He was a huge guy in this life–make him the biggest otter ever and I’ll know him right away, okay? Thanks, Boss. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. See You soon.

Remember–otters. Otters rule. And so: amen.