Bill Clinton, the first boomer President, knew a stinker when he saw one. Unlike Richard Nixon, who had created the EPA, and unlike Jimmy Carter, who had set aside twenty-five million acres of Alaska as permanent wilderness, Clinton needed the Sierra Club a lot less than it needed him. In the Pacific Northwest, on lands belonging to the American people, the U.S. Forest Service was spending millions of tax dollars to build roads for multinational timber companies that were clear-cutting gorgeous primeval forests and taking handsome profits for themselves, preserving a handful of jobs for loggers who would soon be out of work anyway, and shipping much of the timber to Asia for processing and sale. You wouldn't think this issue was an automatic public-relations loser, but groups like the Sierra Club decided to fight the battle out of public sight, in federal court, where their victories tended to be Pyrrhic; and the boomer President, whose need for love was nonsatiable by Douglas firs or spotted owls but conceivably could be met by lumberjacks, soon added the decimation of the Northwest's old-growth forests to a long list of related setbacks—an environmentally toothless NAFTA, the metastasis of exurban sprawl, the lowering of average national vehicle fuel efficiency, the triumph of the SUV, the accelerating depletion of the world's fisheries, the Senate's demurral on the Kyoto Protocol, etc.—in the decade when I left my wife and took up with a twenty-seven-year-old and really started having fun.

Then my mother died, and I went out birdwatching for the first time in my life. This was in the summer of 1999. I was on Hat Island, a wooded loaf of gravel subdivided for small weekend homes, near the blue-collar town of Everett, Washington. There were eagles and kingfishers and Bonaparte's gulls and dozens of identical sparrows that persisted, no matter how many times I studied them, in resembling six different sparrow species in the field guide I was using. Flocks of goldfinches brilliantly exploded up over the island's sunlit bluffs like something ceremonial and Japanese. I saw my first northern flicker and enjoyed its apparent confusion about what kind of bird it was. Unwoodpeckerish in plumage, like a mourning dove in war paint, it flew dippingly, in typical woodpecker fashion, white rump flashing, from one ill-fitting identity to another. It had a way of landing with a little crash wherever. In its careening beauty it reminded me of my former girlfriend, the one I'd first glimpsed tangling with a floor lamp and was still very fond of, though from a safe remove now.

I had since met a vegetarian Californian writer, a self-described "fool for animals," slightly older than I, who had no discernible interest in getting pregnant or married or in moving to New York. As soon as I'd fallen for her, I'd set about trying to change her personality and make it more like mine; and although, a year later, I had nothing to show for this effort, I at least didn't have to worry about ruining somebody again. The Californian was a veteran of a ruinous marriage of her own. Her indifference to the idea of kids spared me from checking my watch every five minutes to see if it was time for my decision about her reproductive future. The person who wanted kids was me. And, being a man, I could afford to take my time.

The last day I ever spent with my mother, at my brother's house in Seattle, she asked me the same questions over and over: Was I pretty sure that the Californian was the woman I would end up with? Did I think we would probably get married? Was the Californian actually divorced yet? Was she interested in having a baby? Was I? My mother was hoping for a glimpse of how my life might proceed after she was gone. She'd met the Californian only once, at a noisy restaurant in Los Angeles, but she wanted to feel that our story would continue and that she'd participated in it in some small way, if only by expressing her opinion that the Californian really ought to be divorced by now. My mother loved to be a part of things, and having strong opinions was a way of not feeling left out. At any given moment in the last twenty years of her life, family members in three time zones could be found worrying about her strong opinions or loudly declaring that they didn't care about them or phoning each other for advice on how to cope with them.
"My Bird Problem" excerpted from The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History by Jonathan Franzen. © 2006


Next Story