Bear Safe

That particular feeling when you see yourself and some friends on a poster advocating bear spray…

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.