A couple of weeks ago I asked my partner, Fabio, to pick up a book at my parents’ home on his way back from work. In normal times, I would have made the 10-minute drive and collected it myself. But we live in Milan, Italy, one of the places hit hardest by the novel coronavirus pandemic. I hadn’t seen my parents for two months, or left my apartment at all aside from going out to get groceries and do volunteer work.
When Fabio, whose job was deemed essential, came home, I felt a brief flare of jealousy knowing that he’d seen my parents. It disappeared when he handed me the book. The pages of my childhood copy of The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly had turned yellow, but the story came back to me immediately.
Written by Chilean author Luis Sepúlveda in 1996, this book centers around a gull chick named Lucky. The story opens with tragedy: Lucky’s mother, Kengah, is caught in an oil slick while foraging at sea. “When she came back, on the surface the light of the day was gone, and after she tried to free her head she understood, the sea curse was darkening her vision. The thick stain, the black plague, was gluing the wings to her body.” As I re-read those words (which I've translated from Italian), I thought of how the scene might describe the tragedy of the BP oil spill 10 years ago in the Gulf of Mexico. Reading on, I delighted in reliving Lucky meeting Zorba, a feral cat who, unlike his real-life counterparts, cares for the egg that hatches into a chick. Lucky soon begins calling him “Mommy.” Through many adventures, Zorba teaches the young bird to fly.
I hadn’t thought about the book in years. Then, on April 16, Sepúlveda died. I was so saddened when I heard the news from a friend, and felt fresh anger with this pandemic that has taken so many lives. Sepúlveda was still an active writer, and I couldn’t help but mourn the many untold stories that died with him. And yet, coming back to this book that I’d all-but forgotten, I realized for the first time just how much Zorba and Lucky had influenced my life.
When I was a kid, Zorba, Lucky, and Kengah taught me that human beings are not alone or all-important. We share the world with so many other creatures that have a right to exist, and need our help to thrive. The conservation ethic that these fictional creatures sparked in me has shaped not only how I view the world, but also my career choices. I am a photo editor and photographer at the National Audubon Society, where I get to use the power of visual storytelling to convey to a broad audience important information about conservation and the beauty and fragility of nature. In some ways, I hope, I’ve grown up to do with photography what Sepúlveda did with words.
During this pandemic, one bright spot for me has been creating the new Audubon for Kids page. Working with wonderful colleagues, each week we unveil a new package of games and activities for children that teach them about and connect them with birds and nature—even from inside an apartment. It gives me so much joy to think of kids out there developing a fascination with, or deeper understanding of, the natural world through our little projects. The thanks we’ve received from parents makes me feel connected to the world outside of my apartment, and I love to see what the kids come up with. I smile and laugh so much when I see drawings like the Black-headed Glider* that Oliver, 8, made when doing an activity in which we asked kids to create their own imaginary bird.
In all the sadness that is surrounding us right now, and the uncertainty about venturing back out into the world as Milan and other places begin to open up, revisiting Zorba and Lucky has brought me a sense of calm. Without realizing it, this story has accompanied me since I read it dozens of times as a child; it is now with me every time I am on assignment or I work on a story. And maybe Sepúlveda’s death has inspired parents to read his books to their kids. If it has, chances are, even after he’s gone, he’ll be making new little environmentalists.
*If you’re wondering what a Black-headed Glider is, Oliver explains: It has a wingspan of 11 feet and stands at 4 feet tall. It lives in mountainous terrain and hunts multi-eyed deer. It was inspired by its dinosaur ancestors. The birds typically lay three eggs at a time and are attentive mothers. Their long tail feathers help them to capture prey.