In “The Ghost Birds,” your story in this week’s issue, a man named Jasper takes his daughter, Starling, on a bird-watching trip. But the birds are ghosts—the story is set in the future, in the late part of this century, when various ecological crises have caused mass extinctions, and the only birds to be seen are apparitions. Why did you want to make this a father-daughter story?

Photograph by Dan Hawk

My original idea was to write about a Paranormal Bird-Watching Society, I think as a way to channel some of the grief and horror I was feeling late last year. I’ve never gone ghost hunting, but it does seem like that and bird-watching have some overlap—a desire to observe another reality, to experience a vision, a winged visitation. Both are active vigils, underwritten by a special kind of faith. The serious birders I know all have this almost superhuman patience—a really keen and loving attentiveness to the natural world. Wide open ears and eyes.

At some point, I realized that one of these paranormal birders, Jasper, was a recently divorced father, a man who experienced a great exodus of possibilities in his own boyhood, as the devastating trends we are seeing now accelerated and worsened. He wants to share the ghost birds with his daughter, who lives in a sterile, screened-off world that I’m sure is very obviously inspired by our fire-lit reality in 2020-21.

Family is a kind of ecosystem, with its own microclimate and catastrophic weather events and resource bottlenecks. I’m always interested in family. Ten years ago, I bet I would have written this story from the teen-age daughter’s point of view (and I still feel like a bewildered fourteen-year-old myself every day). But, since having my kids, the first-person voices I’ve been able to channel are all middle-aged mothers and fathers. None of whom are winning any Parent of the Year awards.

I’m not totally sure why I’ve started writing from this flawed father’s perspective. Part of it is that, since having kids, I feel a heightened degree of responsibility for our world in progress. My kids are two and four; I turned forty while working on this story; on the innocence/experience continuum, I’ve definitely been on the “culpable” side of the slope for a long time now. Like many parents I know, I feel guilty and frightened about the world we are leaving our children. Sometimes I forget that my guilt arises from my inner conviction that I have power over a situation—the power to work to change course before more of the scientists’ dire predictions become a reality. As an individual you can feel strapped in for the ride, hauled along by these massing inertial forces, and forget that collectively we are holding the steering wheel.

I just finished a terrific book by Hannah Holleman, “Dust Bowls of Empire,” that reinterprets the dust bowl as a colonial ecological crisis—not a regional anomaly but part of an ongoing global story, one in which the decimation of lands is predicated on the domination of peoples. She points out that we do, today, have the scientific knowledge and the tools and technologies we need to avoid further catastrophic losses, and that the main barriers to change have been social, not technological. She notes that we know exactly where we are headed—have known for decades—and asks a powerful question: What kinds of social change do we need for ecological change on the scale the scientists say is necessary?

Maybe halfway into the second draft—embarrassingly late, really—I realized I was also writing about what my death looks like to me from this new vantage, as a parent of young children who I, of course, want to live forever. Many of my earlier stories are told from the point of view of children grappling with their parents’ mortality. Now I find myself praying on my knees for my children to outlive me—and also thinking, Jesus, can that really be the best-case scenario? What a cruel setup. I don’t want to leave them. At one point, while tailgating nightfall and waiting for the swifts to enter the chimney, Starling asks her father, “How do they decide who goes in first? . . . And last?” And that question echoes throughout the story, although it took me a while to hear it.

The other day, I eavesdropped on my four-year-old son grappling with the same insoluble problem. He asked my seventy-nine-year-old father when he would be young again. My dad paused and thought about this, then said, “Probably not before I die.”

I meant to mention that, about a decade ago, I read Bradford Morrow’s excellent novella “Fall of the Birds”—another father-daughter story that begins with hundreds of dead red-winged blackbirds scattered around a greenhouse. It haunted me, and I’m sure it was percolating in my mind as I wrote this story. I can highly recommend it, along with Kathryn Schulz’s “Lost & Found,” Ted Chiang’s masterpiece “The Great Silence,” Jeff VanderMeer’s “Hummingbird Salamander,” and everything by Joy Williams.

The event Jasper and Starling are in search of, the annual migration of a colony of Vaux’s swifts, is based on a real event. Have you seen it, and what’s your level of bird knowledge these days?

I obviously took a lot of creative license here, but Chapman Elementary is a real school, and its chimney is a locally famous landmark here in Portland—the world’s largest known roost of Vaux’s swifts. When I first moved here, my husband took me to see them. People flock together on a hill outside the school in a sort of gentle bacchanal to cheer for the swifts as they descend, in a dramatic rush, into the school’s three-story brick chimney. These are the tiniest swifts in North America—they are eleven centimetres long and weigh half an ounce, and you’ll hear them described as “cigars with wings,” although I’ve never seen one up close, so to me they look like flickering leaves. They gather by the thousands during September and into early October, and when you see how many there are at twilight, how wind-tossed and chaotic they appear, it seems totally impossible that they will ever snap into a formation and sleek into that chimney.

It’s one of the most incredible things I’ve ever witnessed. Words in a row really cannot do it justice. I do my best in this story, but you should really watch it for yourselves.

It also looks a lot to me like my drafting process.

There’s always a point where I think, No way can I get this random scattering of words to turn into a story. No way are ten thousand birds going to fit into a chimney.

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