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‘Look at the bird’: Ornithology and family history intertwine in ‘Blackbird Flying’

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: June 17
  • Published June 15

Blackbird Flying: A Memoir

’Blackbird Flying: A Memoir, ’ by Sheila Nickerson

By Sheila Nickerson. Fuze Publishing, 2019. 178 pages. $14.99 paperback, $5.99 e-book.

Subtitled “a memoir,” this lovely small book is much less a memoir than a series of short meditations on a variety of intertwined subjects: blackbirds and other birds of the eastern shore and marshlands where the author has wintered, her troubled family and the death of her mother, memory and the loss of memory, early explorations of the Carolina coast, ghosts and the supernatural, the art of birding and more.

Sheila Nickerson, who now lives in Bellingham, Washington, lived in Juneau for 27 years, years during which she was a well-known poet and editor of Alaska’s Wildlife, a magazine published by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She served as Alaska’s Poet Laureate from 1977-1981, as well as writer-in-residence for the Artists in the School Program and the Alaska State Library, and she co-founded University Within Walls, a now-defunct statewide prison education program. She is the author of numerous poetry collections and three nonfiction books, including the 1996 “Disappearance: A Map: A Meditation on Death and Life in the High Latitudes.”

In this new volume, Nickerson joins her rooted interests in natural history and mysteries of the world to her awareness of becoming the matriarch of her family, the last to know parts of its history. She chooses to observe the world around her with all the attention she can bring to it, and to use as her guides some of the early explorers and naturalists she’s researched along the way.

The well-known ornithologist David Allen Sibley taught, “Look at the bird.” Nickerson takes this as her directive. Look closely at the bird, but also look closely at everything in your life, including your influences and memories. Look at those red epaulets on the shoulders of red-winged blackbirds, admire them, and think about what they mean to that bird’s relationship to his environment and to the others of his species, male and female, that he hopes to warn or attract.

Nickerson chooses as guides several early artist-naturalists associated with the eastern seacoast. John White, back in the 16th century, served as governor of the lost colony of Roanoke. John Lawson explored the flora, fauna and indigenous ways of Carolina starting in 1700. Mark Catesby, another English naturalist-explorer-artist, wrote and illustrated a comprehensive natural history of the area. Maria Sybilla Merian, a Dutch artist, was not directly connected to the area but was an inspiration to these others and became one more who “hovered” over Nickerson’s own journey.

Nickerson leaps from historical figures to quotidian observations of her coastal environment and its birdlife, to subjects as disparate as pirates, plantations, mirages and Paul McCartney’s song “Blackbird.” She reaches from science and history into the supernatural, including seeking out the home of Spiritualism in New York state and communicating with various spirits.

Perhaps the most moving parts of the book are the most memoiristic — those that directly address Nickerson’s own family history, which is anything but happy. The publishing fortune of her grandparents dissipated into estrangement and alcoholism. Her grandfather and father abandoned their families. Her grandmother, mother, and aunts all suffered from dementia as they aged. A closeted brother led a sorrowful life that ended too soon under suspicious circumstances. A son cut off contact with the rest of the family. A close young friend committed suicide, and his ghost walked through Nickerson’s bedroom.

She writes, “On my mother’s side, I come from a family of women who lose their memories early. When I was small, I thought all older women were vacant and childlike, needing a level of care that devoured those who gave it.” She eventually became a caregiver for her mother, whose descent into forgetfulness and death is chronicled. “Now I was the generation on top, the sparrow alone on the roof.”

Alaska, as the place to which she migrated to and then from, makes cameo appearances in Nickerson’s text. In “Memory, At the Gate of Heaven,” she writes of her friendship with the fisherman and expert birder Pete Isleib when she worked at the Department of Fish and Game. Ever since his death in 1993, “I have been haunted by the thought of all that avian information exploding out of his brain — thousands of birds in sudden flight — and wondered where it, and they, have gone.” She also draws upon a Tlingit legend and mentions that red-winged blackbirds, so common in most of North America, have recently ranged northward to Alaska.

Throughout, Nickerson alternates and combines expository, informational passages with the lyrical language of a poet. As one example, in “Blackbird: Taking the Place of Moon,” she first writes of studying the moon through binoculars and thinking of Thomas Harriot, the English astronomer who preceded Galileo, before turning to the ground in front of her. “A tremulous flight of blackbirds has just sung its way out over the creek. I am reeled in to here and now, birdsong and tide: the foreground of another cold January day on the South Carolina coast.”

“Blackbird Flying” is a book to be savored and returned to, to serve as a reader’s own guide to observing the world and contemplating memory and what is and might be. As Nickerson reminds us, “We do not want to be by ourselves when we discover something of wonder ... We seek our flock and tell our story. Storytelling is what connects us and keeps us part of the tribe. Storytelling is what reinforces memory and defines our species ... Searching, discovering, sharing: This is our work.”

Correction: The author of this book review was misidentified in a previous version of this piece.

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