Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Field Guide

Andes, Ecuador [resized].
Photo: Born2Bird.

Okay, most people thought yesterday’s poem was a stinker, so I am making up for that today by posting a wonderful poem written by a Seattle pal of mine. My friend, Jim Gurley, supports his poetry by working as a librarian. He writes about nature, science and medicine and was the 2002 winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize for his first book of poetry, Human Cartography.

Field Guide
by James Gurley

— For Ted Parker, ornithologist & conservationist, 1953-1993

Above the canopy in Ecuador, Ted Parker’s Cessna
flies into a cloud, a mountainside.
The jungle erupts with orchids and birdsong.
I read his newspaper obituary at breakfast,
while starlings land in my backyard, alight
on the summer-dried grass vying for seeds,
insects that tempt them to this patch
of lawn and what it yields. I imagine
Ted Parker patiently coaxing some exotic flycatcher
out of a thicket: one hand poised over
a tape recorder, the other pointing his microphone
into the profusion of vines and flowers.

From the stillness of birds he emerges, hiking
days for a glimpse of an unseen bird as it flies
overhead, reverberant in the gathering moisture,
as it enlightens the air with song.
He’s lulled into a trance while he waits.
What of his panic? His flight low over the jungle,
scouting out places to rescue before bulldozers
and backhoes scrape the earth clean for farms.
The canopy so close below the plane’s wings
snag on branches that appear and then disappear,
safely. The photo shows me nothing of
the opulent country he’s fallen into.

No wonder he chose this devotion. A random
element in that untenable urge to save what
vanishes, a horizon no longer blurring into cities
or houses like mine. He’s given himself
to his task. Low clouds, emptiness, clings to his
body. Which is never enough. For his urgency.
Or the starling who leads an exodus to my neighbor’s lawn.
In a flash of color, of wings. On cue they
descend to cries like their cries. Wind, instinct
pushes them. Whatever I expect, the birds,
their song — I’m lost between Ted Parker’s photo
and a color-coded map of the earth’s last wild places.

From Human Cartography (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 2002)



  1. #1 Niobe
    April 28, 2006

    I weep for what we lost.

  2. #2 Chris
    April 28, 2006

    Wow, that is a beautiful photo.

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