I walk on the North shore Trail going east from Johnson's Beach several times a week all year round. Just before dawn(winter) or sunset (year round) I am absorbed by the mystery of light on water and clouds as the world emerges or disappears. The local birds, occasional rabbits, beaver or cranes move silent and alert in the their tasks. The few humans look at you fully, nod, smile and pass silently in this meditative space. Till the snow and near-zero temperatures give way to budding branches, dandelions and hellebore, migrating ducks, returning seagulls and loons, it is peaceful and often solitary on my walk.
When Covid lockdown began in the last week of March, the path became even quieter: no chainsaws, lawnmowers, leaf blowers; no yacht club drilling, hammering, polishing; not even distant traffic noise. Cormorants lined up in a row, 14 silhouettes long, on the abandoned boat slips, something I'd never seen here.
In the glorious silence, birdsong, wind, even the gurgling waves below the rotten ice were loud and clean. I would sit on my walker, eyes closed and try to be as still and slow as this sliver of wooded space felt. What a glimpse of a possible world without needlessly noisy power tools, without mindless busyness: the first, great, dark gift of the pandemic.
One day, turning onto the street from the beach lot, I spotted a splash of bright red in the middle of the road 20 feet ahead. An electric dread gripped me and I shouted over and over to no one but myself, "No, No, please No!" But yes, as I approached it on the road, it was not a lost toque, but a large male cardinal, mangled and broken, dead on the road.
Without hesitation or thought, I pulled over and sobbing loudly, climbed out, wrapped the bird in a car-cleaning cloth, placed it in the hatchback and continued home. Tears rolled down my face and I kept repeating, "NO, NO NO" and thinking unkind thoughts about whoever had struck the bird in the side of the head and carried on, leaving a dying or (hopefully already) dead heap of flaming feathers in the middle of the road. Carelessly killed --for what?? ten seconds advantage? -- on a deserted road ?
I was furious at the death of such glorious, hardy beauty: he'd made it through the winter, was probably gathering dry grasses for a nest when, flying too low across the road, he'd misjudged the speed of that oncoming car or truck and paid with his life.
Still sobbing, I rushed into the house and dragged my always willing husband outside with his camera to photograph the crime and the beauty before we buried the sad creature. I felt compelled to keep some of its feathers: I couldn't let all those exquisite bright orange and red bits of magic go into the ground.
Next morning, guided by those feathers and the photos, I slashed down the colour and the carnage in charcoal, conte, and my favourite for emotional punch, pastel. I moved them around--recklessly-- with water (for my tears). As a final gesture to honour the cardinal's beauty and my grief, I positioned its feathers is their death-throe pose.
It was several months before I understood this intense reaction as a channel for my own grief and fury at the needless deaths from Covid-19, the beauty of community spirit rising to cherish life, and my rage at the ongoing carnage inflicted by the arrogant policy decisions that put private profit over community safety. Many more months on, I look at the framed picture daily on my way out the door and it still says how I feel.
Written by SSAC Member Valerie Losell