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  • Trish MacEnulty

Cerulean's Single Bird Sings

I was first introduced to naturalist Susan Cerulean's crystalline prose in her book Tracking Desire: A Journey After Swallow-tailed Kites (University of Georgia Press, 2005), in which she depicts a personal awakening to the natural world through her fascination with the swallow-tailed kite. The book forever changed the way I look up at the sky.


Now, in her new book, I Was Assigned the Single Bird, Cerulean recounts her growing awareness of the looming ecological crisis thanks to overdevelopment and climate change with the parallel story of her personal journey to care for her aging father, who suffers from dementia. The two stories -- a wildlife advocate's dread of the demise of the natural world and a daughter's heartbreaking witness to her father's slow diminishment -- correlate in ways that Cerulean with her keen, careful eye is especially attuned to.


Here she writes of the peril of our natural world: "The tide was low when I arrived. Ghost crabs constructed their kingdoms on the expansive shingle of the shore. Over the course of hours, the tide rose, corsetting all of us species -- shorebirds, crab, and human -- against the grasses and oats growing on the dunes. The day's tidal range reminded me of the larger geological rhythms of the planet and how the seas were rising and would continue to do so."


Through her work writing wildlife guides and designing nature programs for the public, Cerulean runs up against the hard realities facing Florida's ecosystems. The outlook is dire. It's just as dire for her father as Alzheimer's encroaches on his mind and old age saps the strength from his body. She describes her father's struggle to adapt to his limitations: "Dad felt the currents of activity flowing around him in the room and understood that little of it had to do, in that moment, with him. He thrust himself into the flow of flying words, and the back-and-forth, summoning his best effort at communicating his needs, his state of being."


At the beginning of the book, her father is in the early stages of Alzheimer's but soon enough his loving but beleaguered wife is no longer able to care for him. So Cerulean does what so many children of aging parents have to do: divides her life between a parent living in a distant state and her own home and family. As she desperately searches for ways to enrich her father's crumbling life, Cerulean must also help her fledgling son as he leaves for college in New England, far from their Florida home. In some ways she's like the snowy plover that she patiently observes, trying to distract death from her chick. Eventually, she moves her father into a facility near her house where she finally surrenders to her own limitations in creating a life of dignity for him. She comes to realize that her role as witness is as important as her role of savior.


In chapters that often read like lyrical essays on the loss of a beloved father's faculties and physical abilities in conjunction with the loss of habitat for Florida's once abundant wildlife, Cerulean's voice is a clarion call for us to pay excruciating attention to the world around us.

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