A Panting Junco and Silkwood

This morning in my usual way, I flung on a coat over my robe and went to the backyard, planning to spread seeds for the birds. There in the driveway where I’d been throwing handfuls of seeds all winter hunched a small gray-black bird. It was panting.

In the last week the air has been full of juncos, twittering in their more musical way than the sparrows’ insistent, mindless chatter. I’d never seen so many of the dark males before, so dark as to almost black, but identifiable immediately when they flew, spreading their tail feathers and showing off the strips of white on either side.

Poor little bird, I thought, as I stood there in the chill drizzle, watching it pant. We had silhouettes of hawks on all our windows facing the back yard, but still it may have bammed into a window. Other than its panting, it didn’t move, just hunched over its legs, keeping warm. Deciding to wait before doing anything, I returned inside, read the paper, drank a cup of coffee. I still hadn’t fed the birds. But there were distractions. I confessed to my husband that I’d been feeling lonesome lately. I wanted more company, I wanted to host a dinner party. He wasn’t opposed, just not eager. Odd how we have changed as time passes. I’m more forgetful. He is less social. Babysitting his grandchildren once a week, and playing Scrabble at least that often, he doesn’t seem to need more contact outside the home.

Throwing on my coat again, and stuffing my feet into boots because it was drizzling, I went out again to watch the panting junco. It had moved maybe three inches to another patch of seeds. Still hunched into itself, still panting. I decided to take action. Don’t ask me what triggered the decision. I knew what to do since for years I’ve been taking injured birds to the Wildlife Rehab Center on Dale, north of the freeway. I even took a bat last February when I returned from a writer’s retreat at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, only to discover the next morning, a bat in our Saint Paul sink. Yes, it could have come from our own stash of bats in the attic. But this bat was in the kitchen sink. Hydrophobia! I thought terrified. Within minutes, Fran had captured the bat and put it in a cooler, I had clothes on, and was in the car driving north on Dale. I arrived a half hour before the Center opened, and walked in a woodland, hoping the incarceration in the cooler wouldn’t kill the bat. A week later, a report came: it was normal and would be kept until the weather was warm enough for its release.

Recently Fran and I watched the movie Silkwood, directed by Mike Nichols. We were probably inspired by Meryl Streep’s nomination for an Academy Award, and memories of seeing her luminous, intelligent performances in other movies. But I think our motive this time was more about the facts, the real life on which the movie was based. Silkwood is a bio-pic about a real woman who worked at a plutonium pellet fabricating plant during the 1970s. The movie chronicles her transformation from a flighty, friendly, humorous sort to a no-holds-barred activist.

The transformation is halting–she becomes disturbed hearing a co-worked scream as she’s being treated with a corrosive substance to “clean” her from a “spill.” She begins to notice slipshod practices that endanger herself and others. She is “picked” by management to be part of a surveillance team largely, it turns out, so management came keep an eye on her. Her home life with lover and roommate begins to fragment. She is not dependable in old familiar ways. She contacts the Atomic Energy Committee in Washington and is flown there to give testimony. She presents her fears and findings to a group meeting of workers, hoping to unionize them. Ultimately, she is killed on the road at night. We’re sure it’s inspired by the company.

Reading about the real life aftermath, we learn that her friends and children sue the company, and the case goes all the way to the Supreme Court. The company must pay a large sum of money. Ultimately the plant is closed. Yet, there’s a sense at the end of the movie that she has given her life to help protect others. Maybe this is exactly what she was doing in real life.

The element in the movie that most interests me is Silkwood’s slow built-up from awareness to taking action. It’s this hiatus that I experience almost every time I put my body in action to help another being. Of course I’m not risking my life or job. The stakes are smaller. Yet every time I have taken a bird or yes a bat to the Rehab Center, my own needs and plans become, at some point, hugely secondary. I cannot NOT take action.

This morning, as I asked Fran to help, rushed to get dressed, readied a basket where I’ve taken birds before, and selected a small towel to throw over the bird so it could be captured, I flitted from this to that, not finishing one thing, finding I’d left a crucial piece somewhere, imagining opening the car door before capturing the bird, seeing myself on the road with the wicker basket beside me, seeing myself carrying it into the Center and plunking it down, and hoping the small junco would live.

Luckily when we went out with the basket, the bird took a hop, flew a few feet, then lifted higher and arrowed between the garage and wire fence, where there are with lots of sticks, a safe place for a small bird who may not be panting anymore.

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