Common Ravens at play
Common Ravens at play

I received the email this past weekend, while we were out of town.  I am left with pieces of her lifetime on a morning of emptiness in mine.  It was really no surprise, an uncommon and progressive lung disease (she’d never been a smoker).  She’d been fading from us for awhile.  Not like the death of a parent certainly, but something akin to it, echoes of loss and mortality shaking the soul.

She was independent and assertive long before those qualities became watchwords for her gender.  She had opinions, fully formed and often stated, and she did not suffer fools gladly, particularly condescending males, but there was a soft side for people she liked.  And she had great energy and passion for things she liked.  And one of those things, of course, was the natural world and the birds that filled it.

She often claimed she was not religious, but that was just code for the many of us who worship in the cathedral of nature and wonder at the things out there for which we cannot account.  She was happily married for sixty-five years, raised five children, and was vibrant enough almost to the end that I was shocked when I discovered, not all that long ago, that she was old enough to be my mother.

I only heard her curse one time—she was driving on a chase we made to Aravaipa Canyon, locked her keys in her car at the trailhead, and realized she had made me late for work.  I only saw her embarrassed once—I laughingly suggested she and I should have had an affair to jolt our spouses’ attention to our shared passion for birding, something they didn’t quite share.

What she taught me about birding were the joy of being out there, the tenacity of the search, the precision of the identification, and the necessity of healthy habitat.  And, yes, she was a lister and imbued me with that too.  She had a hundred mnemonics for songs and calls, and a hundred devil’s details for the subtle nuances that separate difficult pairs and groups.

Why she took me under her wing I can only speculate.  A mutual friend once told me it was because she knew, with my athletic background, that I had good hand/eye coordination and could put binoculars to bird quickly.  I took her to task about this, fake chagrinned that she hadn’t mentioned my charming personality or my uncanny birding skills.  We laughed about this for years, but she never got around to giving up the real answer.

Once, as we watched a pair of Common Ravens cavorting in the updraft at a wilderness cliff face, she confided a fervent desire, if there were an afterlife, to return to this world as one of those notoriously spectacular aerialists, seemingly so full of sass and vinegar and the sheer joy of life.  Pat Beall.  She changed my world forever.  My world without her will never be the same.  I will be watching ravens now.  Watching for some sign.