Illustration: Steffi Walthall

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Remembering Toni Morrison, the Bird Whisperer

A year after Morrison’s passing, a journalist and birder reflects on how her time with the cherished author changed her relationship with birds—and with herself.

Deep readers of the visionary novelist Toni Morrison appreciate the significance of birds in her work—they show up everywhere in her illustrious canon. I had the great fortune of experiencing how she treasured them in her everyday life. I met Toni when I interviewed her for The Pieces I Am, a film about her art and life. A few months later, she invited me to visit with her at her home, a magical boathouse along the Hudson River where a ghost named Beloved visited and where she wrote and dreamed until her passing one year ago. On the calendar, our friendship was fleeting. Spiritually, the bond endures.

Every time I visited Toni, birds somehow winged their way into our conversation, and we’d spend precious moments exchanging stories about our avian adventures. To my joy, I got to be a bird nerd with the celebrated author.

Yet as much as Toni revered birds, she was not a traditional birder. She kept no lists. She did not go on hikes or trek to faraway places in search of exotic sightings. And she surely did not join birding groups. While she understood the longing to see birds, efforts to time a trip for one that may or may not show up sounded too complicated for her taste. (Once I gave her Birders: The Central Park Effect, a documentary about New York City birders who go to great lengths to catch a rare sighting. She rolled her eyes).

Instead Toni marveled on what was happening outside her doorstep—the river, the trees, and the sublime gifts of the morning hour, which included scores of local and migrating birds. Like ghosts emerging from the river, Toni loved it best when birds visited her. 

The novelist, reared on the banks of Lake Erie, was a lifelong nature lover and sky-gazer. Memories of her childhood experiences in nature made their way into her writing. As a little girl in 1938, she looked up at the night sky of Lorain, Ohio, and saw the northern lights, an event that would inspire her writing life: “I remember that most shocking, most profound event,” she said of the dazzling show in the essay The Writer Before the Page. “After that how could I be content with one simple color?” The plant world was another great passion. She tended vegetable gardens and sweet-smelling flowering plants like roses, geraniums, lilies, among many other beauties. But her favorites were elegant jades. A sturdy shrub that came from a cutting of Nelson Mandela’s bush was among her most beloved possessions. She planted with butterflies and birds in mind.

I teasingly called her the “bird whisperer.” So when I had a bird-poop problem a few years ago, I sought her advice. White-winged Doves, pelicans, and pigeons that fly around my house in Puerto Rico, which is situated next to a lush nature reserve on the island’s northeast coast, were always sullying my balcony. Toni’s house, meanwhile, with wraparound porches and a long white pier that extends a hundred feet into the river, was always sparkling and spotless—a wonder considering the number of ducks and gulls that lived on her property and traveled overheard. “What was her secret to keeping her pier and balconies so clean?”

She replied: “Take a shotgun, and when you see the birds come close, shoot a couple of rounds into the air. Only a few rounds though and never directly at the birds. This lets them know that they are not to shit on your space anymore. This is your space now.”

I don’t own a shotgun and perhaps that wasn’t her point. Toni’s unconventional suggestion eloquently summed up her influence on my life by reminding me that in order to claim and protect my space from trespassers, I had to be courageous, intentional, and if needed, an outlaw. She giggled, and I joined her.

I first met Morrison in the wondrous place where writers and readers connect.

I began reading her novels in 2013. A friend told me about a big read she did of Joan Didion’s body of work. She’d been grieving her husband’s death and the experience lifted her spirits. I was in a different state of mourning. I had just moved to New Hampshire with my youngest son and husband, who’d been recruited to teach at an elite boarding school. A few weeks in, a deep loneliness engulfed me. I was a stranger in a village, a brown girl in a white town. I missed my oldest son, family, and girlfriends. I pined for my old life, to eat Joe’s pizza and New York City bagels. Transitions are always thorny no matter how much they are welcomed or needed. Maybe a big read of one great author would mend my lonesomeness, too.

I had only read a few of Morrison’s books and always meant to return to her. But there were other writers whose bodies of work I had my eyes on. I committed to Morrison after remembering a remark my husband made when he first met my family in Puerto Rico. My relatives reminded him of characters in Morrison novels, survivors of historical oppression and violence and whose stories of love and survival are heroic and also poetic.

Puerto Rico’s origin story of indigenous slaughter, slavery, and oppression—under military occupation by the Spanish Crown since 1493 and the U.S. since 1898—runs parallel to the history of the United States. And the southern region of the island where I was born—home to the Igneri clan, my mother’s native ancestors for millennia—is fertile land for this history.

Illustration: Steffi Walthall

My father was five years old when he began working at Hacienda Clementina, a sugar plantation, handing out cups of cold water to dehydrated cane-cutters for a nickel a week. Though only a 30-foot tall brick chimney remains, I could still see in my child’s eye the sea of fields where he and my godfather worked, and where African and Native bodies labored to near death for hundreds of years. Their valiant struggle, intrepidness, and art has not been fully explored in the island’s literary canon, so when I encountered Morrison’s work, it was as if she were writing about my Black and Native family in the Caribbean. The similarities of the blessed and tragic lives of her African American characters, their inventiveness of language, joy, humor, charm, magic, and dignity reminded me of my relatives and extended kin on the island. In her lush and epic imaginary worlds, I was spiritually and intellectually at home.

During the time I began this reading journey, I also started birding. (In hindsight, perhaps it was also Toni who was quietly hinting to go out and be with and among birds and the natural world.)

I learned quickly that New Hampshire is a haven for wildlife. I went on nature walks with a small group of avid birders, comprised of my husband’s colleagues, retired teachers, and spouses. I reveled in my new landscape and language. The first birds I met were a cardinal couple and their babies. They perched high on the sugar maple tree outside my kitchen window. The male sang to his family at the start of each day, serenading as I made pancakes for my son at dawn. One morning, I ran outside in the freezing New England snow in my bata to record him to make sure I was not dreaming. A few months later—whoa!— I met darling warblers that fluttered by the hundreds, announcing that spring had arrived. Birds became a beauty to behold both in my life and, I was now finding, in Toni’s fictional landscapes.

Birds are everywhere in Morrison’s work, both literally and figuratively. Doves, ducks, hummingbirds, peacocks, hawks, parrots, canaries, and geese in her books are conduits for myth, lore, and wisdom. In her hands, birds embodied danger, terror, love, evil, longing, beauty, goodness, lunacy, defeat, life, death, and rebirth. But, most of all, freedom. In her unforgettable Nobel Prize lecture, she chose to represent language with the image of a bird, “susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will.” She teaches that birds have agency and that they look back at us, even if we don’t always acknowledge them as witnesses to our human folly.

In Sula, Morrison’s second novel, about friendship and forgiveness between two Black women, a plague of robins famously accompanied the return of the book’s protagonist, Sula Peace, to the fictional town of Medallion. The image of a pack of robins descending on Sula’s neighborhood reminded me of my father’s birthplace, El Barrio de Santo Domingo, a small enchanting rainforest sharecropping community in Peñuelas where I witnessed nature’s surreal performances. The town is crisscrossed by three lush rivers, populated by ancient trees, and is blessed with copious flora and fauna, including emerald hummingbirds, San Pedritos (Puerto Ricans Todies) and Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoos, which seem to arrive, sing, or shriek at perfectly timed and auspicious moments—in the middle of a burial, the birth of a baby, or car crash. The place is also filled with lots of gossipy church ladies who judge everyone but also who teach, like the women in Sula, that love is a sustainable force that has to be distributed freely and equitably, leaving no one out, including the town drunks and outliers.  

In Beloved, her prize-winning masterpiece, Morrison writes about Sethe, an African woman born into slavery who took freedom into her own hands. Among the many memorable characters—and there were plenty—was a royal and deformed rooster, Mister, who walked around free to be his arrogant rooster self, treated finer than the enslaved humans. Paul D saw Mister’s freedom as a cruel affront to his wretched circumstance. “Mister, he looked so … free. Better than me. Stronger, tougher…. Mister was allowed to be and stay what he was. But I wasn’t allowed to be and stay what I was.”

Morrison wrote about characters as birds, some shattered and marooned, unable to fly but imbued with the capacity to heal their crushed wings and soar. She teaches that our task in life is to be light as feathers, to be free of the terror that weighs us down, and to discover—as Milkman did at the end of her third and dazzling novel, Song of Solomon, when he found faith and deliverance in the act of flying—that “if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”

In The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s spectacular debut novel, she introduced us to the precious Pecola Breedlove, a Black child mutilated by racism. Pecola is left, at the end of the book, “a winged but grounded bird, intent on the blue void it could not reach,” a bird that cannot fly. The tormenting image of a wounded girl with smashed wings, talking to herself in front of a mirror, opened my heart and she has stayed with me forever.

Holding Pecola’s pain close healed mine. I saw it. I saw what racism and neglect does to a vulnerable girl of color, and also to the children who grow into broken adults. I leaned into Pecola’s pain because I, too, felt ugly as a child, born and raised in the oldest colony of the United States and reared inside a toxic muck of a colonized culture that is violent to African and Native and poor folk—a culture that teaches us to hate ourselves and love the colonizer. When I immigrated with mom and four siblings to New Jersey, I was submerged in the beast of a mainstream American culture that rendered me completely invisible, except for the stereotypes of knife-wielding Puerto Ricans in West Side Story. Pecola was me, except that I didn’t want blue eyes to make me visible, beautiful, and really loved. I longed to have a thinner, thinner nose, less flat and wide, less African. It was an obsession. I wished I read Toni sooner. In her books my African nose was regal. I was gorgeous.

By the end of her eleventh and last novel, God Help the Child, I was infused with invaluable lessons—mainly that, as a Black and Indigenous woman, there were pressing things I needed to understand. My race and culture are a harbor, an armor, a resistance, and a medicine. More importantly, I have to be vigilant to not let the world’s racialized neurosis weigh me down. I saw my origin story anew and had renewed veneration for my ancestors. By sharing the inner lives of remarkable Black Americans and the choices they made in her extraordinary fictional worlds—so evocative I could smell, taste, and hear them—Morrison showed me the sweetness of loving thick, the meaning of sovereignty, and the glory and grace of root women, ancestors, and Black cultures everywhere. I saw the perils of life for Black women, and particularly, the dangers of the white and male gaze and its lethal effects. Toni showed me a way to understand the past, how to consider choosing what is useful, and reject what isn’t so that I can live in the present, liberated from racialized neurosis.

I could even say that at the end I was so light I could fly. Such is the power of literature but more this is the power of language in the hands of a literary artist. After finishing my Toni reading project—an endeavor that took almost two years—I was a different woman. I stood taller. I walked straighter. I had a new set of eyes. And I was light, like turquoise and emerald Puerto Rican Parrot feathers.

Illustration: Steffi Walthall

I wanted to see a film about the author who had done so much for me. When I realized that there were none, I made it my mission to help make one, invoking her advice to writers everywhere: “If you find a book and you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” The result was the 2019 documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (available to stream on PBS and Hulu). I spent two days interviewing Morrison and our friendship sprouted from there.

In the treatment to the film, I cited Maya Angelou’s insightful observation about her fellow writer: Toni Morrison is shamanistic. I always felt there was magic around my Morrison story: how her books entered my life, when they entered, how she became a friend in my head, and then, a friend in the flesh. It is a story replete with dreamlike miracles that I am still rejoicing.

One of the more memorable bird stories Morrison shared with me involved a tree, a majestic weeping willow that she said was a stunning and glorious centenarian before Hurricane Sandy’s fierce winds broke it in two. Four years after the willow’s death, Toni was still mourning her favorite tree. Here was a woman who, like my indigenous mother, talked to and grieved trees and plants as deeply as she did humans.

The willow, she explained, was a bird magnet. In fact, Toni’s boathouse, located on the Hudson’s northeast riverbank, is on the Atlantic Flyaway, one of the busiest bird highways in the nation. Hundreds of millions of birds mirgrate through the region, and many would stop and rest, eat and nest, on her waterfront property and on her magnificent willow. There was always some sort of aerial show or concert. Thunderous Canada Geese traveling south for winter and back again for summer, big-headed robins feasting on worms, raucous gulls circling her pier looking for food, and chirpy warblers, orioles, sweet hummingbirds, woodpeckers, and lovely loons. The state’s Audubon society has registered nearly 500 bird species and the local Rockland Audubon Society has counted more than 150 in her area alone. And for Toni, her willow tree friend was the center of it all.

She loved it best during the morning hours when she’d hear loons on the river and the sweet songs of chickadees and Yellow Warblers on the willow. Every year a cardinal couple nested there; so when the hurricane killed the tree, she wondered where this darling couple had gone. With only the stump remaining, the flow of birds ceased. Toni suffered two losses, and I don’t know which she grieved more deeply.

Toni’s bird blues touched my heart, and the next time I visited, I brought her a tiny yellow birdhouse, which I hoped would be hung by the window on the side of the house where the willow once lived. I figured serenading birds by her window would be the finest gift I could give an artist who offered the world, and me, deliverance. A few months later, I saw it hanging on the grounds, right near the old willow stump.  

The gift of seeing a beloved through the beloved’s eyes is sublime. After seeing birds through Toni’s wise and profound gaze, how could I ever view them the same? Birds are not simply graceful creatures that soar in the sky or sing gorgeous songs that take our breath away. They are endowed with profound glory. Birds are a spiritual wonder, messengers from the heavens, darling beings—friends, even. Today they not only enrich my waking life, but thanks to Toni, they also populate my nocturnal dreams. 

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