a series of south american birds on a branching tree.

A new essay contextualizing an essay excerpted from Kentucky Meat Shower #16. I left the issue untitled in tribute to the George Floyd protests. I still think about those protests. Here’s some of my thoughts.  


“I look, you look, he looks; we look, ye look, they look.”

“Upon my soul, he’s been studying Murray’s Grammar! Improving his mind, poor fellow! But what’s that he says now—hist!”

Moby Dick


Out there, in the hills, it was still. My partner and I set up my phone to record birdsongs, so it could identify them. Every trip to the country reminds you how many birds there really are. I pay attention to the birds here and in Wise, too and it’s not even a debate, though rarity is not the point. I’ve been as happy to see eagles on the Holston River as I have been to see sparrows bicker at the park. 

It began with my grandfather. Our yard, at the family’s stead, is covered in bird houses. Like my grandfather before me, I stood in the yard, small binoculars engulfed by my hands. My partner took a picture. Their takeaway from the country is the quiet. Quiet is not even close to what I take away. There’s always the sound of the country, and in the country, there are the birds. 

Not a month earlier, visiting theirs, we tried like hell to go to the Croatan National Forest, but we miscalculated the time and instead, as a mea culpa, my partner and I wound up going to the memorial of some Civil War battlefield set up by Lost Causers. We didn’t know, but we made sure to kiss in front of the statue of the confederate soldier that had been erected. I just tried to get used to my binoculars instead, out on the porch of the cabin they had rented for their family Thanksgiving. Before we drove home, their great aunt blessed us. They were the mother of the family church. Her hands felt small on our shoulders. We took the rental back to Richmond, miles away from the plots, the farms where their family picked soybeans and tobacco and they imagined the afterlife was running through North Carolina flat fields forever, some of the few black landowners in town. For all the sins wrought by property I don’t blame a black family for taking control of their own land for a second, especially in deep Carolina. Wilmington was just up the road, and in between a thousand cowbird eyes with voices like mine, coveting neighbors they didn’t want in the first place.

It’s no wonder my partner saw eternity in those fields. They grew up in the shadow of duplicate houses. When one family house started falling apart, the family would simply build a new one, not far off from the older house, the past decaying and hornets building nests inside. You could do that until the end of time. 

At the crook of the road, across from the land they would one day inherit, I saw one. It was a simple cottage not far from another one of those fields. I couldn’t remember whose house it was in the lineage, just that I walked the perimeter, looking inside, knowing that in this enclave, the family could be safe, and that that safety would give more time to experience all there has and will be to experience. We drove through their fields, taking our rental behind the family SUVS. I saw a deer blind. There were creeks to fish and quail to flush and then there was simply looking and watching, the same way my grandfather did. 

It’s been four years since George Floyd was killed, as well as Breona Taylor, and others. Every one of those deaths cut those people from something I’ve more or less adopted as one of life’s purposes: to experience and know as much as someone can, without spectacle mediating the experience through its troublesome collection of images. That ends when life does. You’ll probably not experience life the same way again. 

2020 was a rift in American politics that felt like Zeus’s scalp splitting open. It was sutured up the way everything is, with promises and exhaustion. It was over the minute they hit the Capitol floor in the kente cloth. My partner was two miles away when Pelosi took a knee, serving cappuccino to police to the same police they watch for. We’d meet two years later, and three years later meet everyone’s grandparents, the remaining representatives of two different strains of American rural life, Appalachian settlers and black farmers. 

I also became a bird watcher in earnest. I recorded and let my phone identify their songs when I couldn’t see them, and I bought binoculars. I would get frustrated when I’d zero in and then they’d move to some other tree, but for what? They’re not here to be seen by me. They’re here to be seen by other birds. What I am there to see is their life going on, unencumbered. I’m just a guest. All the while I still thought about Christian Cooper. I still will every time I take my kids to forests and tell them to just watch. By then I hope I will just be watching for birds and not other people.

The style of the previous essay needed some refinement, for obvious reasons. But some things must be said. “And then they shoot your cousin” isn’t just a lyric. It’s why you and your family might live in a familial section of North Carolina, or why you leave for Baltimore, Maryland. Everything takes flight in the shadow of its own past, and some essays never get finished.


From a wren hunt in port st. mary. a group of people lock hands in a circle on a beach.
they come from all over to hunt the wren on the wide open ground.

Once I saw a bald eagle while fishing. My stepdad and I and my uncle were on the holston river. I was having a rough day fishing. All of a sudden my stepdad pointed out up above in the sky was this gold brown dart. I’ve seen bald eagles before, mainly at Dollywood. But seeing one fly in the wild, unencumbered by jingoist sentiment, that’s something different.

Then there was the great horned owl. A girlfriend of mine wanted to go birding. And so we did. It was on Pony Pastures. I can’t remember much about it but this crowd gathered. And if you looked in the trees, there was a brown and white smudge with black eyes. It seemed aware people were gawking. But not enough to do tricks. It just went on living it’s owl life.

There’s a japanese concept called mono no aware, that roughly translates to the feeling that things are impermanent, fleeting. It’s the bittersweet feeling you get when you see something that you can only see once. You know the feeling when you feel it. You only see the leaves turn once a season.

I think when Christopher Cooper went into the Ramble he was searching for that. Maybe he wouldn’t see anything new. But what he’d see he’d only see once. Then came Amy Cooper with her centuries inbred cocker spaniel off a leash. He asked her to leash the mutt through the Ramble. Her response was to threaten to call the police and tell them a black man was threatening her. I don’t have to tell you what this may have meant for Christopher Cooper. We see what the possible meaning is in every report of “excessive force”, in every “officer related shooting”, in all our obfuscated language to glance over the fact that lynchings never really ended, that Dixie was never drove down, that Jim Crow becomes debates about mortgages and who gets to go to what school, and slavery became a prison system that replenishes itself with mandatory minimum sentencing and gang enhancements.

Now instead of the impermanence of things Chris Cooper has experienced becoming Chris Cooper, the man who shot video of Amy Cooper, the lady who threatened him. What could have been something that only mattered in the brief bonds everyone carries, that every person you pass has an entire history and life, is going into history books. Recorded history is a burden, especially when you’re a protagonist, so what’s it like walking around every day wondering if you’re gonna be the next Eric Garner?

So to me, it’s very simple: of course a Target got burned down. Deny people a voice through conventional politics, and their politics will become “unconventional”, though I fail to see the difference between a Target getting burned and a bunch of tea getting dumped into a harbor after. It’s very simple: an occupying force’s money got fucked with. That’s how it goes. If there’s a debate, it mostly has to do with who is doing it.

But in this instance there’s something more fundamental being attacked, the globalized homogenization of a city, and the symbols thereof: the garish lights of the Target bullseye, the italicized bubbles of an Autozone. By the point we see board games about identifying brand logos, the logos are as palpable and powerful as a cross, a hammer and sickle, a moon and star. By destroying the symbols that govern over your reality, you can begin demanding a new one. No longer can these buildings just be buildings.

It’s sabotage, plain and simple. Nelson Mandela laid out the value of sabotage in his “I Am Prepared to Die” speech:

In the light of our political background the choice was a logical one. Sabotage did not involve loss of life, and it offered the best hope for future race relations. Bitterness would be kept to a minimum and, if the policy bore fruit, democratic government could become a reality. This is what we felt at the time, and this is what we said in our Manifesto (Exhibit AD):

“We of Umkhonto we Sizwe have always sought to achieve liberation without bloodshed and civil clash. We hope, even at this late hour, that our first actions will awaken everyone to a realization of the disastrous situation to which the Nationalist policy is leading. We hope that we will bring the Government and its supporters to their senses before it is too late, so that both the Government and its policies can be changed before matters reach the desperate state of civil war.”

That’s all we see now. That it’s leaderless and spontaneous isn’t more important than the simple fact that it’s part of a long tradition that gets results. It’s a more explosive form of the economic war that takes place when you ruin local businesses ran by community members to put up a big box store, then get people from the communities to work there, doing work for a future they can take no realistic part in other than to make somebody else rich.

If this is too much, you should have just let Chris Cooper birdwatch the way I got to on two weekends forever ago.