I lost my voice this summer.
Nothing seemed alive in the terrible drought this July. As the world dried out, and the air became superheated, the butterflies and the frogs I’d been enjoying disappeared. The insects went too, and everything seemed still. Only the goldfinches and other birds remained to show that the world could sustain anything as delicate as life. And as the drought built, words, too, fell away like dead leaves.
While this was happening, someone close to me was spending the summer digging cancer out of her body, and cold fear and I became friends again. I had moved to a new place, as well, and as the summer wore on I wished I hadn’t. My partner, who I backpack with, hike with, and paddle with, spent the summer with near-crippling back problems. Getting outside alone was not an option. River levels were so low that a kayaking trip would’ve been one long portage interrupted by an occasional paddle. Hitting a trail when the temperatures were reaching 112 and staying that way into the evening would have been miserable, if not simply dangerous. Nothing seemed right. I had nothing to say.
I’m not ashamed to admit that for me, life as I know how to live it is almost completely dependent on staying connected to the wonder and magic that I find mostly in the natural world. Even in the worst of the cracked-earth drought this summer, I knew the magic was there; it sent messages from time to time. I just wasn’t able to tune into it, to access it, to let it become part of me as it normally does. It was as though all the sounds in the world were in another room, and were muffled by a wall. Or as though I couldn’t quite see anything because I’d become suddenly near-sighted. Or like everything tasted like cardboard. I’d become blunted. I’d lost one of my senses. I wanted badly to go somewhere to try to revive what was lost, but circumstances kept me here. I would have to ride it out, stick with it, and sit with it. I would be going nowhere. Fortunately, the world sent reminders. Ambassadors from the world of joy, as I called them at the time.
Sometime in July, after the world had become brown and still, a promised storm – the latest in a series of disappointments – betrayed us by dropping only the lightest rain that seemed to evaporate before ever hitting the ground. I looked out my sunroom window and saw movement in the fields behind the house. I grabbed the glass to look, and there in the teasing, mid-drought shower, was a pack of coyotes. One was a pup, its head barely visible just below the tips of the prairie grasses, bobbing along with its elders. That same evening I crept out to the fields with my camera and caught a photograph – a bad one – of one of the elders carrying dinner across the field. A week or so later, my dog Thomas went into a frenzy as he looked out the window at the field from our second-story bedroom. I looked outside, and saw one of the coyotes standing where the prairie grasses met my backyard. She was staring at our house, head cocked to the side.
The coyotes reminded me. It’s not you, it’s me, I told the world. My tuning dial was broken.
Around the same time, the hummingbirds showed up. The heat had crystallized the nectar inside the feeders, and in my depression I had failed to replace it. One evening as I sat in the sunroom, a shadow behind the blinds zinged up to the window feeder and, when it failed to extract anything satisfactory, zoomed away again. I rushed outside immediately, removed the feeder, cleaned it and immediately boiled water for fresh nectar. I had failed my hummingbirds.
It took a few days, but eventually the hummies gave the feeders another chance and started hanging around again. Their group included a small black-chinned hummingbird that was small even for his kind, leading me to wonder whether he was a juvenile. He seemed completely flummoxed by feeder protocol, and it took him whole days to figure it out. He would approach the feeder with the attitude of a great-grandfather navigating an iPhone, pecking at the metal band around the glass nectar cups quizzically. He finally managed to extract nectar from the feeder by inserting his bill in between the glass cup and the metal funnel that sits inside it. Well, I thought. That’s one way to do it.
At other times, he’d attempt to drink from the finch sock, sticking his bill into the mesh as the goldfinches gave him a wide berth. When that failed, he tried the brightly colored metal frog I had hanging on the crook.
I named him Dummingbird.
A friend recently asked me if I put any stock into the idea of spirit animals, or totems. And I do, though not in the way most people do. Different animals have showed up to guide me at different times in my life. Many of you were brought here by our shared interest in a Brazilian giant otter. Still others of you came here because of a post I wrote on a book about a remarkable border collie. My own dog, Thomas, has guided me through the richest, most tumultuous five years of my life.
This summer, the coyotes and the hummingbirds kept me close the magic that my life depends on but my heart couldn’t access.
The turning point came early one evening, when the temperature had fallen to a tolerable 95 degrees, and were sitting out on the patio trying to decide what to have for dinner. While we spoke, an ambulance passed by a few streets over, siren wailing loudly. As the sound grew closer, a chorus erupted from beneath the prairie grasses. A coyote pup began howling in imitation, and one after another of the pack joined in, until the siren was mirrored by the entire group of coyotes, all hidden in the fields. Thomas turned to me as if for an explanation, both ears pointed to the sky.
It was impossible not to laugh.
Shortly after that, the coyotes moved on, and the rains arrived. August brought several intense storms, refilling the ponds that the drought had turned into cracked wastelands. The world went from brown to green in a matter of days. Life returned. Butterflies visited, and insects buzzed about again. The frogs moved back to the ponds, along with the crawdads.
At the same time, other things were healing. Cancer had been successfully driven out with scalpels and cutting edge radiation therapy. Cancer freedom was bought and paid for through pain and powerlessness, but it’s more than many people get for those things, and worse. The day the lab reports came back, I surprised myself by falling dramatically apart at my sunroom table. Sometimes we might not know that there is an enormous knot in your chest until it’s gone, and you can breathe again.
When these things happen, I tend to stay within myself. After all, I had no words for it, because words – at least the written ones – come from the places in myself I couldn’t seem to access.
As always, when my words go, images take their place. I’ve been speaking mostly in imagery all summer long. My tuning dial is mostly fixed, though I didn’t realize it completely until very recently. I was looking for butterflies to photograph one morning this week, and as I was walking through the part of the field that the coyotes used to frequent, a large grasshopper exploded from the dewy prairie grasses in alarm, taking enormous leaps and trailing elaborate showers of dew behind her. The moment slowed as I watched the grasshopper soar up out of the spray. I was in the world again, and it was in me.
And so here I am again.