The Lantern Books Blog: Lantern Books 2005 Essay Contest Runner-Up, Tanya Sousa
April 13, 2006 1:25pm
Looking in the Mirror
by Tanya Sousa, Barton, Vermont
The church filled my eyes while hundreds of Berliners flocked past me in cars, on foot, by bike, moving along as if there was nothing strange about a hollowed out, wrecked stone building in the midst of more modern structures. One thousand years old and still standing after storms and bombings. Amazing. I was a tourist. My Berliner-born aunt said the German people left the wreckage as a reminder of war and how people survive.
My aunt spoke of history and struggle, family stories and bits of regional trivia, twittering as my feet brushed over cobbled side streets. Her words blurred away when I set eyes on a cannon, the iron silent and cold, a killing machine now a work of art. Astride the formidable reminder of human hatred was a starling. Her plumage was still speckled from winter, and she raised her head to the sky and sang strains I’d come to love. I grabbed my video camera to catch her there, zooming in as she delivered what seemed a history of her own.
I used to wake up every morning to starlings singing at my bedroom window in Vermont. As the sun striped its way across the wooden floor, so did the warbles and clicks; the magical flute of starlings meandered through the open window to my ears. There was such joy and lusty life in the notes, and I often couldn’t help but glide quietly to the glass to see several birds on the roof, scrabbling sometimes to stay in place on the slippery tin, with the most positive outlook I ever witnessed.
“Nasty birds!” My aunt’s high lilting voice broke my thoughts. “They are like rats. They are everywhere and make a mess of everything!” We kept walking, leaving the ravages of the church behind us. There was another part of this great city my relatives were aching to share. “It’s the great reconstruction.” She breathed deeply with reverence. Everywhere I looked there was construction among rubble; skeletons of buildings that would soon be fleshed in towered, with prongs of steel puncturing the sky. The noise was deafening from jackhammers and large machinery, voices yelling and giving directions in guttural German. “Berlin is being reborn after all these years.” My aunt wiped a tear from her eye.
I could remember crying too when the starlings disappeared from my window. I didn’t know for certain where they’d gone, but I cried because I heard the cracks of a gun behind my neighbor’s house day after day. I suspected he didn’t share my appreciation of their morning symphonies and the nesting habits that brought them to inhabit any hole in the eaves. Some days I’d watched my neighbor remove the nests with angry defiance, but the birds would simply reconstruct and raise more of their kind.
Berlin was also full of people who were not content to have their homes torn down. They too thrived despite challenges. My mother and aunt grew up amidst bombs and wailing air raid sirens, running to school and falling to the ground periodically as they had been trained, hiding under their school desks as did classmates and teachers when the warning sirens sounded. Afterwards, though, life would go on and lessons resumed. When the bombing became too intense and American and Russian troops were arriving en masse, women and children were evacuated. My mother and aunt migrated to a small village in what would become East Germany.
Maybe that’s the kind of retreat my own dear starlings tried. I can only hope. I don’t know about other places in the world, but here in Vermont there is much teeth gnashing and wringing of hands over “non-native” species. I was surprised to learn, that day in Berlin, that starlings were actually “European starlings” that had been transplanted to the United States in a small group. When I returned to Vermont from my mother’s native land of Germany, I did some research on my beloved birds and found websites dedicated to these “parasites”—these “vermin.” The websites talked about poisons to eradicate this avian plague while outlining the damage they do and diseases they can spread. Most spoke of how this non-native species succeeds to an unreasonable degree and drives out other, native, “desirable” birds.
Starlings have willingly traveled to some parts of the world and been carried by our own hands to others. Wherever they go, they thrive. They build starling communities and take advantage of resources at hand. Amazing.
After the war, my mother met a handsome American soldier and flew with him to another country far from her own. She knew little English, left family behind, and entered a strange world. Still, she managed to settle in comfortably. “I can’t imagine Germany as home anymore,” she told me in the days before she passed away. She wasn’t native to Vermont, but found a way to nest here and raise two daughters until she felt part of the greater whole. It didn’t matter where she came from, because the Earth is home to everything and everyone, and the only constant is change.
Not long ago, a group of swans settled on Lake Champlain in Burlington, Vermont. When it became clear that they intended to stay and were not passing through, all of them were euthanized. As I walked through Berlin with my aunt that day and looked at the European starling still chirruping on the great iron cannon, I felt lucky there was no “special” species to decide we are not native—or a life form on some distant planet who could have interfered when the mammals were thriving in conditions the dinosaurs were unable to tolerate. Indeed, if we are to worry about any invasive species, we should focus more on ourselves. Our own migration led us from Africa to every corner of the world. In our wake, other humanoid species disappeared, landscape was changed, and other species have been hunted, driven out, or eradicated. We raise our heads to the sky and sing of our success and our history while we continue to spread and use any resources we need to thrive.
I didn’t hear my aunt’s voice at all anymore. There was nothing but the winsome sounds of the starling as I realized why I loved them so much. Most people hate them because, in reality, they are too much like us. I stood there entranced as I looked into a mirror.