Like so many others, artist Jessica Maffia took refuge in nature in the earliest days of the pandemic. “I’d been thinking about our local nature for some years, but during quarantine, that’s all I wanted to do,” she says. “I wasn’t making art for a long time—I was just coming and getting to know who the more-than-human neighbors are.”
Although she took part in her first guided bird walk in 2016, it was only in the spring of 2020 that she began birding more seriously, taking classes on birdsong—Maffia can now identify more than two dozen birds by ear—and patch birding, revisiting the same place and learning its avian residents and visitors. Since then, Maffia has embraced Inwood Hill Park in uptown Manhattan as her patch. That’s where I reached her by video call in May, her face framed by trees, the birdsong in the background as clear as her voice. “I’m finding that my nature enthusiasm and art practice are very much merging,” Maffia says. “I really want to get to know Inwood Hill in depth, and all of the uptown Manhattan parks and all the plants and trees there.”
She draws on these local plants in the most literal sense in her collage of the Wood Thrush, a bird that breeds in Inwood Hill Park. After some internal debate, Maffia decided to use a mix of both native and non-native species. Fuzzy seeds from London plane tree fruit make up the feathery head; two maple samaras (the seed pods that spin like helicopters when they fall) form the bill, open in song; Yoshino cherry petals are the white of the eye and London plane is used for the iris. Beech leaves compose the body, and seeds from Japanese pagoda and black locust form the distinctive breast spots. The base of the portrait is lichen-covered bark from London plane. It’s a tactile piece, but delicate: You want to touch it, but it looks like it would crumble if you did.
“I was thinking about fragility, and how to convey the fragility of these creatures who are threatened by human-manufactured climate change, so I was thinking about what kind of materials I could work with that would convey that,” Maffia says.
She also nods to the thrush’s melodic tune with its spectrogram, a visual representation of the sound, in the background. “I think the Wood Thrush has one of the most enchanting and magical songs,” Maffia says. “And now, in retrospect, before I learned to identify birdsong, I know I had heard that song, like a magical flute in the sterling forest, and not known what it was, but had been totally enchanted.”
This story originally ran in the Summer 2022 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.