Monthly Archives: August 2014

The fragility of ability

August 7, 2014

“Don’t you ever get injured, ever get sick?” I ask. Anyone hale enough to field this question just looks at me, perplexed. “No,” they say, like the pizza place employee who walks every day for work, flyering, putting in far more miles than I do each week. “Never,” he told me. Or the endearing 77-year-old Florida man who has walked two miles a day, every day, for the past 13 years, 6,575 days in a row. Hurricanes and injuries give him no pause; even with a torn meniscus he went out, supporting himself with a cane.

Having spent most of this year with some part of one foot or the other injured, if not the bad knee, it’s tough to understand what it would be like to get around so easily, all the time. What kind of life conditions such a hardy constitution? Another one of those enviable bipeds is the novelist and marathoner Haruki Murakami, who outlined a few suggestions in a 2008 piece for the New Yorker. At least doesn’t take his abilities for granted.

Looking back now, I think the most fortunate thing is that I was born with a strong, healthy body. This has made it possible for me to run on a daily basis for more than a quarter century now, competing in a number of races along the way. I’ve never been injured, never been hurt, and haven’t once been sick. I’m not a great runner, but I’m a strong runner. That’s one of the very few gifts I can be proud of.

Unlike these fierce perambulists, the human condition sometimes demands that we forgo our ambitions and curiosities, that we get off our feet and rest. Walking is the simplest, most universally human activity; even still, its mild demands aren’t to be met by everyone all the time. What happens when we lose mobility? We take to chairs or beds, feeling trapped. We compound our suffering with bouts of cabin fever, perhaps sneaking excursions by car or bike. We wield canes or crutches. To be able to move around is to be free. Nature provides affirmation that not everything goes so smoothly, that justice is just a construct to hold up our ethics.

What’s more free than an animal, and what animal is more free than a bird? Our conviction is even preserved in idiom: free as a bird. Birds in general are auspicious symbols, portending liberation, fresh beginnings, opportunities, the arrival of important messages.

Throughout the spring and summer, the twittering of birds gives way to silence on some sidewalks and streets. The contrast between a living, flying bird and the unfortunate city birds downed by some bizarre turn of events is striking. Flattened by traffic, order loses dimension. Symmetry is destroyed; reinvented. A sad beauty haunts the remains of these creatures.

At this unnatural end is the loss of features that once made them unique, that gave them membership to a particular species. First there may be the identifiable — wings, beaks, feet, legs, organs, gore, guts, blood, flies, maggots. Color drains. Limb from limb they are torn. By whatever means the birds came to rest there, their hollow bones lose dimension, their feathers ruffle at odd angles until finally defeated by repetitive pummelling. Somehow the wispy forms of birds coalesce into dark spots, and the dark spots, no longer recognizable, must wear away to nothing.

Some say they’re a bad omen, but I’ve been observing the dead birds for years, transfixed by their shapes, their overwhelming numbers, the mysteries of their deaths. Grotesque and seemingly meaningless, even in death they hold onto something that fascinates wanderers, artists, children with sticks, and maybe ornithologists. Sad and comfortless as these apparitions are, the grounded flights give perspective — a final bird’s-eye view — on illness, injury, and feelings of stuckness and entrapment.

What follows is a slideshow sample of birds documented over the years.