by Katie Fallon
Ruka Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-9830111-1-8
Reviewed by Cheryl B. Torsney
Book Editor’s Note: Cheryl Torsney writes a beautiful review of Katie Fallon’s Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird, in which she illuminates the many purposes of Fallon’s book: it is a memoir, an ecological call-to-arms, an elegy for a murdered student, and a meditation on grief. In the act of tracing the vanishing songbird, Fallon restores her own spirit. Tornsey’s review also reminds us to take time from our professional reading to read books, such as Cerulean Blues, that will restore and redeem us.
In my position as an academic administrator, I spend way too much time reading new books like Transforming Undergraduate Education: Theory That Compels and Practices That Succeed, edited by Donald W. Harward (Jossey-Bass, 2012) and Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession, edited by Anne Colby, et al. (Jossey-Bass, 2011). Informative and provocative as these texts are, that’s no kind of reading life for a longtime lover of literature.
I’d been hungry, starving really, for a book to feed my spiritual needs, to pull me out of my work-a-day world of program development, personnel issues, and strategic planning. I found it in Katie Fallon’s Cerulean Blues: A Personal Search for a Vanishing Songbird (Ruka Press, 2011).
In the spirit of full disclosure, Katie Fallon and I were both living in Morgantown, West Virginia, at West Virginia University at some point in the first decade of the century. I am acquainted with people she mentions in Cerulean Blues; I recognize places to which she refers. I wonder whether she bought her Hillbilly Gypsies CD in my husband’s old record shop. We share at least one friend, and I expect we had a beer or two together at a holiday party at some point. We know each other on sight, but we’re not buddies. This book, though, makes me wish we were since it reveals a young woman who is honest, ethical, and engaged with the problems of our age; adventurous, curious, and committed to being a part of the answer. Who she is and who she wants to be is told through the story of the cerulean blue, an endangered warbler.
Fallon had been studying the bird in a dilatory fashion for some time until Monday, April 16, 2007, the date of the Virginia Tech massacre. Fallon was on site, teaching English at the Blacksburg, VA, university. Her memories of the day and its traumatic aftermath are deeply moving. We see her sitting on a couch at the home of friends, watching the television coverage of wounded students being carried out of Norris Hall, obsessively refreshing her computer as the list of dead students continued to be revised. She cries, sleeps fitfully, wonders if it is appropriate to hug a frightened or grieving student, and attempts to come to terms with an event that has no reason and no logic.
One of her students, Rachael, whom Fallon remembered as a confident, mature, focused young writer who “sometimes lamented the traffic problems around her hometown, who wrote about her love of quiet, pre-dawn mornings,” had been one of those killed. Fallon’s pursuit of the cerulean provides at first a distraction and then a way to move forward in the wake of the tragedy. She quotes William Cullen Bryant’s much anthologized “Thanatopsis”:
. . . When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, . . .
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings. . .
Like many before her, she turns away from the horror and tragedy of everyday life to something more enduring and comforting – Nature – more specifically the cerulean warbler.
During the course of what we might call an eco-memoir, Fallon decides to track the disappearing warbler from its local habitat in West Virginia’s Cooper’s Rock State Forest to Columbia, its migratory winter home. Cerulean migration is mysterious, but Fallon does her best to demystify it:
During the spring migration, may researchers believe that cerulean depart from their winter homes in the Andes in March and then fly above Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Honduras before stopping in Belize, Guatemala, or Chiapas, Mexico, though the exact route many vary. From there, they take off across the Gulf of Mexico, flying nonstop until they read the Gulf Coast of the United States, probably in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, or even the west coast of Florida. . . . [M]ost biologists think it takes songbirds about fifteen hours to cross the Gulf of Mexico from Central America.
The reader follows her along the way as she learns about spotting cerulean nests high up in the forest canopy from a “nest-finding Jedi finder,” about avoiding arrest for having an innocent glass of wine in a state park to celebrate her first cerulean sighting, and about the oddities of the Fifth Annual Migratory Birds Festival in San Vincente, Columbia, which features boys dressed as warblers and girls dressed as fairies.
Throughout Cerulean Blues, Fallon provides the reader with maps, horrific images of strip-mined landscapes, a reproduction of an Audubon plate; and personal photos of cerulean fledglings, fellow birders, and Mr. Bones, Fallon’s pound rescue. She also offers several bird lists, which record the species she has sighted at each of the international locations her commitment to the cerulean takes her. These names are their own music and poetry: Bananaquit, Russet-backed Oropendola, Scarlet Tanager, Mourning Dove. For authenticity of rhythm and rhyme, these names challenge the more formal “Thanatopsis,” Tom Will’s poem “Interpreters of Cerulean,” which prefaces the volume, Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things,” and Robert Service’s poetry, which Fallon’s husband and her fellow birder buddy, Hillar Klandorff, recite in a bar after a day of birding in the desert.
Although neither preachy or teacherly, Fallon instructs the reader throughout with much grace and generosity. Did we know that part of the reason the cerulean warbler is endangered is that their habitat is being destoryed by mountaintop removal? Did we understand that our insatiable love of coffee is further minimizing the bird’s habitat? What we can do personally to increase the bird’s chances of survival is to reduce our reliance on coal and purchase coffee beans that are grown in the shade:
In the last twenty-five years, many shade-grown coffee farms have been converted to full-sun because the coffee plants can be grown more quickly and produce more beans. But since the beans are not allowed to remain on the plant for as long a period of time, the result is weaker-tasting, less-acidic coffee. Besides the coffee’s flavor, the conversion to full-sun plantations has other detrimental effects. The Coffee Research Institute warns that on a full-sun farm, ‘production is higher, but fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are often used.’ In a heavy rainstorm these chemicals can be carried down mountain slopes to the rivers, streams, and towns below. Handling dangerous chemicals could also put the workers – often peasant farmers, or campesinos – at risk.
Who’d have known? By accompanying Fallon on her trip to Columbia to track the migrating cerulean warblers, we grow to appreciate in a deep and abiding fashion, the interconnectedness of the birds, our ecosystems, and our fuel- and coffee-driven lifestyles.
In a short epilogue, the reader finds hints on saving the cerulean warbler. We are advised as follows:
Purchase shade-grown coffee.
Contribute to organizations that support cerulean warbler conservation.
Support the efforts of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative.
Speak out against mountaintop removal coal mining.
Learn the names of things.
Let nature help you heal.
Get out there.
The first five items on this list are practical, public gestures. The volume has explained to us why they are important. The last three items, though, respond not only to the disappearance of a small warbler but also to personal tragedy. Fallon’s advice is good: it is borne of experience. One closes Cerulean Blues thinking about how we can help not only cerulean warblers but also ourselves.
Cerulean Blues is many things. It’s a fine work of nature writing that has its roots in American transcendentalism and in works that precede it, like Jonathan Edwards’s Images or Shadows of Divine Things. Further, it’s a twenty-first century ecological manifesto, a plea for help in saving a small warbler whose song is disappearing from our forests. Most impressively, perhaps, it’s a personal narrative that records the arc of the heroine’s voyage from death to redemption. Cerulean Blues is Fallon’s grief work, her cerulean blues; it records her path toward discovering everything she can about a small bird – and her own soul -- with the help of an international community of naturalists. With every step on this path, she moves beyond the Virginia Tech tragedy and the hate and paranoia of one disturbed individual. She is left battered but strong, like the small bird she studies.
Cerulean Blues is dedicated to Rachael, that young woman who took notes, paid attention, never rolled her eyes, came to office hours, and read aloud when no one else would. For eons, birds have been understood as spirits. With this book, Fallon, carrying Rachael’s spirit with her, takes wing.
Cheryl Torsney wishes she were a creative writer. Instead, she toils as a university administrator currently serving as interim provost at SUNY New Paltz. She has written on late nineteenth-century American fiction, quilting, and liberal education and still plans, someday, to complete an anthology of essays on thrift store shopping.