At age sixteen, Kenn Kaufman left home to travel the world in search of birds. Now a grown man and a renowned ornithologist, he has come back to visit his ailing mother and explain to her what drove his obsession with bird life. His explanation forms a series of interlocking tales from the frontier where the world of birds intersects with the world of the humans who pursue them. The stories range over settings from Alaska to Africa, from trackless jungles to parking lots. They delve into subjects from first dates...
At age sixteen, Kenn Kaufman left home to travel the world in search of birds. Now a grown man and a renowned ornithologist, he has come back to visit his ailing mother and explain to her what drove his obsession with bird life. His explanation forms a series of interlocking tales from the frontier where the world of birds intersects with the world of the humans who pursue them. The stories range over settings from Alaska to Africa, from trackless jungles to parking lots. They delve into subjects from first dates to last rites, from imagination and desire to sleep deprivation, from poignant encounters with eternal mysteries to comical brushes with biker gangs and secret agents. But as the stories unfold, the ornithologist comes to realize that he can still learn from his mother some things about life and even about the meaning of birds.
Flights Against the Sunset brings together nineteen essays, mostly adapted from Kaufman's long-running column in Bird Watcher’s Digest. They weave an original story that examines how we communicate about our passions with those who do not share the same interests and how to celebrate the world of infinite possibilities and wonder.
“I felt the same way,” JB told me. “It’s awkward to talk about your trip halfway around the world when you know that she hasn’t even been out in the hall for three months. But you know, she genuinely wants to hear it. All of it.” My brother had just come back from a film-history conference in Europe. I had just come back from leading a group on a nature tour in South America. Down the corridor from where we stood, our mother, going nowhere except gradually downhill, was lying in bed in a square white room on the fourth floor of a care and rehabilitation facility in Wichita, Kansas.
I had just arrived in town. At the conclusion of my South American tour, I’d gone home just long enough to clean up from the trip, and then I’d flown here, rented a car, and come straight to the rehab center, just as I always did. It had been six weeks since my last visit, and I was lingering in the hall, talking to JB, who was just leaving, while I steeled my nerves for the emotion of seeing her. Mom loved all four of her sons and she had never played favorites, but my three brothers all lived here in Wichita and they came in multiple times every week. I was the one who lived a thousand miles away. When I came here it was a different kind of visit.
In just a moment I would go on into the room. She knew I was coming, we made a point of not taking her by surprise, so I knew how it would go. She would be sitting up as best she could, and smiling, putting on a brave face, still determined to take care of her sons in any way she could manage, even if it were only to hide the pain and pretend that she was feeling fine. I would smile, too, and try not to show my shock at the fact that she would look even thinner than last time, the lines of pain etched deeper into her face. We would both put on this pretense for all the best reasons as I walked into the room.
Someone, either a staff person or one of my sisters-in-law, had washed her hair and put a ribbon in it. “Hello, beautiful,” I said, kneeling next to the bed and hugging her as well as I could. “Your hair looks nice.” I kissed her on the forehead.
“Oh, you,” she said, the words slow and a little slurred. “Don’t you know . . . it’s not nice to lie to your mother.” “Oh, of course!” I said. “I would never do that!” She had been beautiful all her life, but my father had loved her for her character and spirit, not just her looks. My father had adored her until the night he died, a night that had arrived with ferocious abruptness just a couple of years before. Married at twenty, never on her own, my mother had struggled with the agony and sheer terror of being alone for almost a year, and then a stroke had nearly taken her away. She had been in a coma for three weeks while my brothers and I stood vigil at the intensive care unit, deflecting the polite inquiries from doctors about pulling the plug, and then she had opened her eyes and started to come back to us. Mentally she came almost all the way back, and in a couple of months it was obvious that she knew us, she knew everything, and only her body was wasted and half paralyzed. Her speech was pained and slow, but she still knew all the words and she would bravely struggle to make conversation with anyone who came to visit.
I had begun making regular visits to Wichita, every few weeks, to do what I could to be helpful. There were still things to be done at the house— the house that we had moved into when I was nine, the house where Mom had lived with Dad for more than thirty years—and I wanted to do my part to help out. We were all operating on the stated belief that Mom’s recovery would continue, that she would get better and better, and eventually she would be able to go home again, so we kept up all the standard maintenance, down to the level of mowing the lawn and cleaning the windows and even filling the bird feeder. So I would come to town with the idea of working around that house, but first I would go to see Mom, and she would beg me to stay and talk. And I would. I would sit by her bed and we would talk about everything, everything I could possibly think of to keep the conversation going, to keep her mind off of the pain. We would talk for three days, and then she would fight back the tears when I left for the airport to fly back home.
“So,” I said, perching on the edge of a chair. “Are you causing plenty of trouble?” “I’m trying,” she said. “Doing my best.” “Keeping the staff awake at night with wild parties? Loud music, dancing girls? Although, I guess, dancing boys would be more like it.” “Dancing bears,” she said. “I’m holding out for dancing bears.” “Good idea,” I observed. “Doesn’t take as many of them to make an impression..” “They’re . . . not easy to get,” Mom said. Her speech was slow and halting, but she would persevere to finish a complete thought and to be understood. “I could probably call and get a pizza delivered. But nobody will deliver dancing bears.” “Well, here’s an idea. Here’s a way to combine two needs. We could start a pizza company that delivers, but instead of having pimply-faced teenagers bring the pizza, we could have it delivered by dancing bears. All we have to do is find the dancing bears and teach them to drive.” Mom gave me a long, doubtful look. “I guess it’s a business model that has never been tried. Maybe for good reason.” “I can see it now. Bearly Edible Pizza, Incorporated. Do you want to be CEO?” “If you got too close to the bears,” she said, “it would be C E O” We had always done this, she and my brothers and I, and sometimes my dad as well, we had always engaged in this kind of banter and wordplay. Mom’s mind was still good enough for her to dream up interesting ideas and bad puns, and it was only physical strength that was lacking, making it hard for her to talk. But the strength of spirit was still there. She would act cheerful and as if everything was fine, hiding the discomfort that we knew she was feeling.
“Was it Africa this time?” she asked. “No . . . no, you were in South America, weren’t you?” “That’s right,” I said. “Northern South America. Venezuela again. I’ve been there a bunch of times now. I’ll never know it like the U.S. or Mexico, but I feel like I’m starting to get a handle on the birds there.” “Tell me about your trip,” she said. “I want to hear . . . all about it.” I paused before answering, and in that moment it occurred to me that I always had to pause, shift gears mentally, get myself into a different frame of mind before I started to tell her about my travels. It was always a challenge to describe my experiences to her, or to describe them to most of the people I met.
My lifelong passion for observing birds and nature had been a gift, a treasure, coming out of nowhere in earliest childhood. It had provided me an intensity of experience beyond what most people have in their daily lives. But it also had made it harder for me to communicate with those who did not share this level of fascination. If I told everything the way it truly happened, the way it felt, it would sound like an exaggeration to anyone who had not been there. So I often found myself applying a kind of conversion factor, toning everything down to a milder and more general description.
How could I describe my trip to South America in a way that would mean something to my mother? She already knew the basics: I was paid to act as a tour guide, leading groups of bird watchers to exotic destinations to show them types of birds that they had never seen before. It would be simple enough to say that our group had visited two main sites in the coastal cordillera and then had gone out to the flat llanos, the central plains of Venezuela. It would be simple enough to say that we had sixteen participants in the group and two of us leading the tour, simple enough to talk about the minibus and the hotels and the meals and the weather. But none of that would touch the essence, the core of the journey.
How could I describe the richness of the experience? I might want to tell my mother about the extraordinary variety of bird life in the tropics. For example, that the single nation of Venezuela, smaller than the state of Alaska, has twice as many different kinds of birds as all of the United States and Canada combined. But that comparison would mean something only to a person who had some concept of the bird life of the United States and Canada to begin with. To anyone else, it would be abstract in the extreme, the difference between x and two times x. I might try to fall back on numbers: to say that more than four hundred species of birds had been recorded here in the state of Kansas but that you’d have to bust a gut to see two hundred of those in a week during the peak of spring migration, while Venezuela hosts more than fourteen hundred species of birds and we might see over four hundred of those in a ten-day trip, despite the greater logistical challenges. But any such spewing out of raw numbers would turn off the most devoted listener. I dared not go that route.
How could I make the essence of the experience come alive? I had already encountered the difficulty of explaining the terms “bird watching” and “birding,” which overlap in meaning and are both misleading. So many people —not my mother, she was tolerant of any approach, but other people—had expressed condescending amusement: “How can you just sit there and watch a bird?” As if it were some kind of toothless voyeurism. So many times I had tried to explain that it was mostly not a matter of watching, more an activity of seeking and finding and recognizing. That there was a sense of accomplishment in learning these birds: being able to go out to the tidal flats and recognize all the sandpipers, for example, to know the subtle differences among twenty species there. That on every trip afield we birders would find dozens of species of birds, most of them expected, a few not. That there was reassurance in going out and finding the wrens, flickers, kestrels, thrushes, finches right where we anticipated they would be. That there was reassurance in the expected seasonal patterns: the blackburnian warblers coming north on their way to Canada in April, the golden plovers passing through southbound in September, the tree sparrows arriving for the winter in November, just as they did every year.
Then I might explain that the reassuring predictability of bird life was only half of the attraction—the other half was provided by the element of unpredictability, the chance for novelty. Birds have wings. Even on familiar ground there is always the chance that some totally unexpected bird will show up. And we could be sure that if we went to some new place, there would be new and different birds there. I had taken my tour group to Venezuela with full certainty that I would show them types of birds they had never seen before, but with no way to predict exactly which birds those would be. Birding is like a treasure hunt, with thousands of potential treasures waiting to be found.
How could I describe the heart of the experience? I might want to focus on one moment in the field, on a moment of learning, when my understanding increased and with it my three-dimensional view of my world. I might describe, for example, watching a mixed flock of birds moving through the treetops in the jungle at Rancho Grande. Looking out from the trail toward the steep downhill side, so that the tops of the nearby trees were at eye level, with sunlight filtering through and sparkling on drops of mist on the moss and bromeliads that covered the high branches. Focusing on a small brown bird called a streaked xenops and seeing, for the first time, how it would hammer on a branch with its little wedge-shaped bill, prying off a bit of dead bark to look for insects underneath, so that it was searching for food in a slightly different way than any of the twenty other kinds of birds traveling with it. One more tiny bit of information to add to my store of knowledge. But it was so hard to tell this in a way that would mean anything to a person who had not been there. My mother would listen if I told her, and she would try to care about the fact that I had learned something, but she could hardly be expected to care about the streaked xenops, a bird she had never heard of before and would never hear of again.
No, the truth was that I could not hope to communicate by talking about the birds themselves. For most of the people with whom I would be speaking, that was psychologically foreign territory, more distant and unfamiliar than the wilds of Venezuela. But I had to say something now. My mother was looking at me, waiting, her eyes shining as they always did when she looked at one of her sons—maybe shining also with a trace of tears, from trying to ignore the physical pain she was undoubtedly feeling. I had to tell her a story that would occupy her attention.
This was no time for dry details of ornithology. My subject matter would have to come from that frontier where the world of birds intersects with the world of the humans who pursue them.