An Essay from the Future: “What the Birds See” by Janice Lee

Nonfiction: Janice Lee

What the Birds See

—for and with AH

Bird 1: How might we envision a future that is not ours, but could be?
Bird 2: What you are asking about is the rejection of linear time, because linearity is for the colonizer, in which there is only one kind of progress.
Bird 1: And what kinds of progress do we have?
Bird 2: Ones that do not put their faith in finality.
Bird 1: What of finality? Do we reject that too?
Bird 2: We reject finality because in a story with only one beginning, middle, end, there is a hierarchy created that dismisses the simultaneity of voices, experiences, multitude of differences that co-exist and thrive. In believing in finality, we also believe in extinction, and again, we are erased.
Bird 1: Like the dodo?
Bird 2: That may be one example.
Bird 1: Or the sentence?
Bird 2: The sentence is another privileged and colonial form.
Bird 1: How might we reject the sentence? Aren’t we speaking in sentences now?
Bird 2: You can reject certainty, cleanliness, rigid form, the period! It has been said that the full stop belongs not to birds but to God.
Bird 1: And so do we believe in God now?

A bird who is an oracle steps forward and catches that kind of rare breath that signals the possibility of speculation, and because the bird has memory and because the bird has sight, it is able to speculate beyond the present, that is, the future can be formulated via dream and crying and desire, not just the constraints of a tethered present, and yet the other birds don’t know what to search for and can only see below them and forward, and though as they fly they soar above the land and trees and people and see the cycles of greenness and war and forgery, they don’t always know how to see it all simultaneously, at both the grand scale and the small, and the type of narrative a bird might spin is often mythological and encompassing and they don’t yet see the need for maps because they can see it all spread out below them and because they have memory.

Yet another of these, a bird who has been exiled for documenting and archiving and creating maps and records of flight patterns and migrations and the shapes of clouds and different species of trees, this bird who sees value in concretizing memory to outlast one’s own life and trajectory, is also capable of being homesick, of longing for a home that exists or could exist because the diagrammed language is also capable of forging a threshold between this world and the dream world, and so that in-betweenness might be labeled as a concrete space and there might be new language manifested to articulate all that does not yet fit into the confines of current restrictions, that is, there are so many different types of knowing, and we have so many words to describe all those forms of knowing that privilege certainty and fact and truth, and yet everything else becomes relegated to feeling or intuition, as if there is a hierarchy that is predicated on certainty, and we know of course that certainty is an illusion and a framework for control, for cutting down trees, for carving out swaths of land to be territorialized on maps as evidence, for allowing some categories of living beings to have hope and for others to never glimpse the possibility of future beyond tomorrow.

How do you bridge the gap between pigeons?

A bird, like a compass, faces whatever direction it is most drawn to.

Today, only a single bird traveling quickly across the sky.

A moving speck, a bird, a breath.

The first bird announces, let us imagine new worlds.

In one world, the bears and trees share dominion over their planet. Their language is branching, and encompasses tangents and cycles, like the migration of trees and the thought patterns of living beings that hibernate and know that time is circular. Here, the plants remember their purpose, even if we have forgotten. A famous bear poet once wrote,

“Being unto existence
Existence unto us all
Us all unto being.”

Of course the trees have always reached for the stars, so it is only natural that the bears too have found their own motivations for space travel. The trees have a cosmic perspective because their own life is intimately linked to the stars, and because both trees and bears hibernate, the landscape knows balance and we can imagine a world where the vantage point is of reciprocity rather than control.

In another world, the in-between liminal states of day and night, land and water, life and death find concreteness in the pale colors of the sky. These are certainties rooted in transition, and the creatures here know to pay attention. “Think lightly of yourself, and deeply of the world,” they repeat. The amphibians that inhabit this planet know the treacheries of polarizing life and death, and so in their journeys on both land and water, still remember the invigoration of the birth of civilization itself. Here, nothing is ever forgotten or forgiven. The amphibians, in their dependence and profound understanding of the environment, the cycles of the sun and the erosion of time, constantly ask the question of home, and know that the map is not the answer. Because before all of this, there was a before that was rooted in an ugliness, a kind of ragged contentment in difference, the distance between a body and home as equal to the kind of forbidden question, What is home? A famous axolotl poet once wrote, “We all begin as grains of sand that once sprang forth from stars.”

In yet another world, a population of bunnies once declared, “We are no one’s prey,” and learned the strength of togetherness, of unity, of numbers, learned the hard truth of earning peace through conquest, and so because the bunnies fear galactic insignificance even more than individual insignificance, find their worth in the aphorism, “From one, springs many. From many, springs more.” What are the sacrifices of survival? What is lost when one gains the strength to survive?

And in another world, we see what it might mean for an entire culture to be crowd-sourced, to have all of history be about themselves. “Let it all end the way it once began, with an opening of eyes and demonstration of brilliance,” they justify, and from the created framework of linear time, a planet of fish have created too the ideas of success and failure, of decision and indecision, of cause and effect, all of these ideas tied to the belief in linear time, all of this to learn speed and efficiency, all of this to solve and resolve and see finality as an answer that supports the polarization of above water, below water, good and evil, right and wrong, encompassed in a watery center. Here we learn to speculate based on the past, to see the future as having an origin point, to create goals in order to achieve and to continue swimming, perhaps in patterns, though we see too that the recognition of patterns itself is not the only way to assess life.

In the end, it’s important to remember that everything we know about the universe, everything we take as certain and true, it is important to remember that there is always another way to explain it all, to see all of the same things as we do from another vantage point, to arrive at the same point in space via completely different means.

The birds fly out in a V-shape over and us, as if launching off a runway and dispersing at a perfect, symmetrical angle.

The birds aren’t watching you. You’re watching them, while they’re watching everything else.

Janice Lee is the author of KEROTAKIS (Dog Horn Press, 2010), Daughter (Jaded Ibis, 2011), Damnation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013), Reconsolidation (Penny-Ante Editions, 2015), and most recently, The Sky Isn’t Blue (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2016). She is Founder/Executive Editor of Entropy, Co-Publisher at Civil Coping Mechanisms, Assistant Editor at Fanzine, and Co-Founder of The Accomplices LLC.


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