The Story Behind “The Crucified Bird.”
1986 was the last of an agriculture golden age for California as many small farms there and around the nation were in decline. The medfly was on the attack and there was increased spraying, the kind of chemical warfare that would one day trigger my grandmother’s Parkinson’s. Los Angeles wanted the water. Farmers were bitter with this battle. My grandfather, disgusted by the fled urbanites, complained they should all go back to the city if plow dust disturbed them. It was a changing eco-system, and my father recognized that.
My father, who built the Louisiana State University photo department, was on sabbatical. San Joaquin Valley in central California was his proposal, and we set off to capture a moment of time about to change forever. I was there to carry equipment and to gopher. No slight task as Dad worked with a large format camera, an 8 x 20 banquet camera, film holders as large as TV trays. Digital was in its infancy, and I was writing college papers on one of the first Macs as boxy as a microwave. My father had no idea that twentieth century photography was a dying craft shrouded in silver-gelatin. Great photographs were pure know-how and darkroom magic, but they were in decline as was the changing landscape we were documenting. My job was also to drive, pay attention, pour water, hand over driving snacks, and provide moral support. Trapped in a car with my Dad, I became a listener—a skill I still use in my current life as a therapist.
Our base camp was Lindsay, California, were we stayed with my grandparents on their small “retirement” grove they’d named Last Chance Ranch. It was an abundant life, filled with the literal fruits of ones’ labor. The kitchen table was laden with sun-ripened grapes and the bloodiest tomatoes I’d ever seen. The electric juicer was a whir every morning. Grandma picked low hanging fruit from the nearest tree. Almonds and chocolates stashed in every candy jar. My grandparents, who had grown through the depression, had the mentality: I’ll never go hungry again, and thought no one else visiting their home should either.
By eight o’clock, the car was packed, the breakfast dishes were rinsed, and we were on our adventure, headed up to Camp Nelson where the Sequoias trees grew to the size of Redwoods, and locals still found pleasure in jumping off rock cliffs into deep pools of mountain water. A lot of work went into my father’s craft, and he carried with him a many concerns. What he looked for was in the language of light, but light was always fickle and to set up a photograph took time. There were other worries as well: heat, snakes, the sudden farm truck barreling past on the narrow road with no shoulder. The psychological concerns, however, were even heavier to bear. He carried the stigma that the art world did not care about any “back woods southern professor,” and felt the pain of that obscurity. At that time, he was fond of the saying, no honor for a prophet in his own country. In my own lifetime, I’ve only seen this disparity become more divided as coveted New York shows are held for the children of wealthy patrons. Art programs have been cut from secondary education, not to mention anything labeled “liberal” arts is non-meritorious in the activity of making money. The academic jobs that supported my father have disappeared. Ask any adjunct professor (I myself was one for many years), who are the white-collar migrant workers? Professionals of all ilks have been marginalized. Human resources, natural resources—all gobbled up to feed the American way—manifest destiny to the brink of destruction. In 1986, we knew things were changing, we just didn’t know how soon nor how dramatic.
I first saw the bird left to rot on the barbed wire. It was carrion, a death eater. Still, no way to leave one of God’s creatures. I was disgusted, but that bird became a symbol, perhaps a portent of these things to come. The Crucified Bird was a way to describe the sacrifice of the natural world, the end of a way of life. We are all dying. All moving towards God. My grandparents are dead. The family farm is long gone, acres of olive tress plowed up. The water is going to Los Angeles. Parkinson’s is showing up in younger people, thirties and forties. My father is retired, taking naps in his chair. He’s dealing with the battle of a lifetime, a deteriorating body that will one day lead to his death. I work with the disfranchised, the desperate, and the broken. I hear the stories of lives sacrificed. All the while more mental health programs have been dismantled, and the cries of the people lift their voices. Why?
We learn to live—like all life—on the edge. To find our way to forgiveness for what is. The Crucified Bird has long been buried under the drought-dried grasses of California’s richest agricultural valley. In one-way or another, we are all crucified birds.
© Patricia L. Meek
Author of Noah: a supernatural eco-thriller.
“The Crucified Bird” will be reprinted in an upcoming issue of Redux: A Lliterary Journal.
“The Crucified Bird,” Puerto del Sol, Volume 29, Number 2, New Mexico State University, Summer 1994.
AWP Intro 1993 for Fiction. National Competition for the Introduction of Emerging Writers in Fiction and Poetry. Ivan Gold, Judge