Because the human world seems to be hanging by its fingernails above the loony bin, I need to share with you something of the gentle persistence of Gray Jays.
On a February weekend I went to the Coast Range to prune our apple orchard. The window of cold-weather dormancy for pruning is becoming increasingly narrow in this new normal that we call winter. By February the deadline for bud break, which has little do with calendars and a lot to do with the intrinsic response of trees to temperature, was already closing quickly. On the front porch of the Johnny Gunter Cabin, sunlight poured between vaporous gray white clouds levitating above the ridge across the valley. I was sharpening my pruning tools, a rare proactive move that I hoped would increase the number of pruned stems per hour per aging wrists and shoulders.
My eyes were drawn to movement in the tangled bareness of a snowball bush about 20 meters off the porch. A long feathered tail disappeared around the far side of the bush. I was struck by the gentle, purposeful way in which the bird moved. I stopped sharpening and watched. A Gray Jay appeared. There were three others further out. Two were stopped in the big apple tree on the hill where my garden once was. Another was perched atop a small chestnut tree planted in honor of my best friend’s mother. All of the birds were soft and deliberate, small pieces of cloud drifting down the gentle slope of the meadow. Even their voices were ethereal. They have abandoned the raucous screeching, chattering, and crowing of their many corvid cousins. The Gray Jays mewed like newborn kittens, occasionally throwing in a quiet chittering laugh.
Gray Jays have never visited me at the cabin, but I wasn’t shocked to see them. For years a large flock has been calling on the neighbors a mile up the road. The jays come for the cat kibbles sitting in a dish at the front of the house. Their calm, collective persistence has completely intimidated the cat. Jerry has them trained to his hand; the jays are smart and have learned that he is poses no threat. They also really like cat kibbles. This makes sense given that they eat just about anything with any nutrition that they encounter in their quiet comings and goings. As I watched the small flock from the porch, I found myself hoping that this was a different group of birds, a tiny anecdotal sign that their population is increasing.
Gray Jays first came into my life on extended family camping trips high into the mountains of western Idaho. The jays would glide in from tall spruce and hemlock and canvas our campsite for bits of food. With four young boys eating breakfast, lunch and dinner outside, the pickings must have been pretty good. Dad called them “Camp Robbers.” That sounded right to me. They were in the business of taking things.
I didn’t shed that colloquial name until college when I was studying bird identification from museum skins. The stuffed rigid specimen smelling of mothballs, neck outstretched, wings flat against its body, and legs pulled straight out behind it, was no more deserving of the name “bird” than a human cadaver might be called “person.” But I immediately recognized the “Camp Robber” from that indelible image carried from childhood, those soft-spoken fluffs of cloud dropping in from dark conifers beside a crystalline lake full of rising trout. A new name was all that was necessary for a shift away from the old pejorative. Gray Jay. Bird. Beautiful. Alive.
The pruning went well, but by afternoon my arms were tired. The low-slung sun seemed tired also, resting behind clouds, barely keeping its head above the southwestern ridges. I was reaching with a long-handled lopper into the top of the Grimes Golden apple tree when the Gray Jays came into the orchard. They were curious about my affairs. Maybe they were wondering if I had any cat food. The pruner and I took a break, leaning against the trunk. The lead jay swooped into the lower branches of a chinquapin tree near where I rested. The chinquapin takes up valuable orchard space and should have been cut down years ago. But I like chinquapins. So there it stands, now five meters high and covered with lancelet leathery green leaves that are oblivious to winter.
The jay moved in small resolute hops. Beneath her black cap, she scrutinized me with a shiny obsidian eye. I found myself uttering the question out loud. “It’s been 20 years, why have you waited?” I was alone, so my sanity would not be questioned, even though I was, after all, attempting to engage a Gray Jay in conversation without knowing a lick of Gray Jay-ese. There was no reply, only another hop, another inscrutable dark-eyed stare. From a quiet space in my mind, a place that I would have been hard-pressed to access earlier in the week, I answered for her. I came because there is an intelligent, soft-spoken, slow-moving persistence that works in this world. I came because you need to know this, right now, in this time of chaotic, hard-edged human affairs.
The jays moved on. Gray smoke rose vertically from the cabin chimney, joining the gauzy clouds closing ranks above the ridges. Then everything was drenched by a gentle windless drizzle.