Taking Flight

One of the things I love most about writing nonfiction is that I get to follow my natural curiosities and questions to discover amazing things about our world or our past that I truly want to learn and understand. It’s kind of like designing my own independent-study college classes. Once I have a new question or project in mind, I dive in. I find books and other resources and start exploring, reading, taking notes… following the trail. For me, the trail is lots of fun. And unlike actually being in class, I can follow the trail wherever it leads me. Usually to more and better questions, to cozy libraries, intriguing outdoor observations, good conversations, and to insights, stories, and visions I didn’t anticipate when the idea or question first occurred to me.

It’s pretty much my dream job—the academic me and the creative me, together at work. We’re an excellent team, and we don’t mind sharing the office. However, the curiosity and questions that start my research don’t usually arrive while sitting in the office. In fact, literal trails are often the backstories of my stories, and that’s true again for the migration story I’m working on now.

Several years ago, I was out for a solo walk along a stretch of the Mississippi River that travels through St. Paul and Minneapolis. Since I was alone and not in any particular rush, I stopped to read a park sign about the river and its importance for wildlife. I’d never read (or even noticed) the sign though I’m sure I’d passed it before, and one sentence stood out. It said that forty percent of North America’s waterfowl migrate on the Mississippi flyway. Wow, I thought. That’s got to be billions of birds.

But what is a flyway? I wondered… Do all birds migrate on flyways? How do birds find them? Is it instinctual? Learned? And why (if indeed I lived on one) had I never heard of flyways? I had plenty to puzzle over as I wandered up the river.

As often happens, I knew right away that I wanted to write a story set on the Mississippi flyway, but as also sometimes happens, it took a long time for me to jump into the project. I simply didn’t have a great idea for how to approach it. I imagined a tale of a single bird perhaps or a single flock making a journey along the river. Yet it seemed to me that these stories were too similar to stories that had already been told.

Thus, two or three years passed before I realized something that I seem to have to keep relearning: sometimes the story comes first and sometimes the research comes first. This should be a no-brainer for a teacher like me, but I’m sometimes a contrary student. In any case, I finally got to work learning… in this case about feathers and flight, magnetic pulls and mental star maps, about water, wetlands, and wild spaces along the ancient flyway routes. Gradually, a story began to flutter in my imagination…

The Mississippi flyway, I learned, is a migratory route that stretches from Canada through the Gulf of Mexico. Birds of all types—but especially waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds—follow this highway in the sky because the land below is lush with places to bathe and fish and forage or to hunker down and rest. The Mississippi flyway is one of four flyways in North America and one of many more migratory flyways around the world—old as the rivers, marshes, fields, and forests below, imprinted in the genetic brains of birds and in the collective memories of flocks. Flyways connect breeding grounds and wintering grounds thousands of miles apart and are the routes where birds feed and grow and learn and play and live and fly and die on…

In the end, the story I wanted to tell was the story of the flyway itself. The story of the multitudes of myriad avian species and the powerful, ineffable force that propels them along this ancient, habitat-rich pathway, “Like an invisible ribbon is pulling them.”

Eventually, my story, too, unfurled its wings and flew. FOLLOW THE FLYWAY (Barefoot Books, August 2023) is a celebration of the beautiful, unique birds with whom we share our planet. Ultimately, it is also a conservation story. You and I and the billions of other terrestrial inhabitants of planet Earth will determine the fate of the flyways, for birds depend not just on celestial skies, but on the soils, sands, trees, reeds, and waterways where they weave their nests and rest their windblown wings.

Our lives and our landscapes are tangled up with birds. We are ever so lucky.

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