The Department of Songbird Investigations
My mother is worried that my sister has joined a cult. I’m nominated to go find out if it’s true. Mom’s paying for the trip. Katherine went down to Florida with a guy she met in AA named Bob. They married quickly but then divorced when she realized Bob had been hiding another addiction from her, and that his real reason for wanting to move to Florida was the ease of acquiring opioids.
I, an out-of-work environmental journalist, while concerned about my sister, view this as an opportunity. Either this is not a cult and all that happens is I visit my sister and write about Florida ecology, or it really is a cult and I write about that. My sister’s too disobedient to last long in a cult anyway. I almost hope it is one. My life has been exceptionally boring lately, and I could use some life-enhancing drama, maybe even a near-death experience. I’m a little nervous about the worst-case scenario, of course. What if they won’t let her leave? What if they won’t let me leave?
The landing into the tiny Homestead International Airport is a sublime and gentle aerial tour. The plane circles slowly down over a rare segment of undeveloped coastline, cutting through tall pink cumulus clouds, then finally floating over the beach and tropical forest toward the single landing strip.
Katherine picks me up. She’s glowing, shiny, ocean-washed. We ride with the windows down. Does it actually smell like citrus, is actual citrus just floating in the air here?
She tells me it all started when she was on a silent retreat, to “get grounded” and avoid drinking after Bob’s betrayal. He stole all her money (something she had not told us). “But after the retreat I stayed for a few days, and when they heard I was an art history major, they were like, oh you gotta talk to Miri she needs help with some art.
“So I go to this woman’s house, she’s a teacher there, and she liked me, so she hired me. I get three free meals a week, a room with a bed, desk, chair, and lamp in this cute little house with a shared kitchen and shared bath. Meals are all made from food they grow themselves. They grow their own food. You’ll see. And there’s a bobcat family in the nearby woods. We see them all the time. There’s too much real estate development all around here, there’s nowhere for them to go. This is like the only woods left. They live on grass and rodents.
“Anyway, their founder, Joya, I have to sort through her paintings. They’re a little like action painting. It’s weird, for her they were spiritual transmissions, they say she would go into really deep, long trances and paint. She died a few years ago and they don’t know what to do with her stuff, her legacy, you know? There’s a giant shed stacked full of paintings just sitting in the heat, unprotected from the weather. No one knows what to do with them. And some of them are really good. So now I get to figure it all out.”
She seemed focused, psyched, leaning forward, her grip firm on the wheel. Maybe it was too good to be true, or maybe she got lucky, and this was a dream gig. We’ll see.
The first person I meet is Katherine’s housemate, Arwa, who works as a pet psychic. “It just sort of happened,” she says. “I suddenly realized I could hear a dog’s thoughts. Not exactly hear, but I knew.” She had already been working as an intuitive with humans, so she expanded to pets. What surprised her most, she said, was how quickly the business took off. “The first day after I hung signs around town, I got a call for a snake, a horse, and a dog.”
“How was the snake?” I ask.
“He just wanted some flatter rocks.”
Arwa talks to people’s companion animals about their feelings and wishes; local police enlist her to find lost pets and coax trapped animals to safety; veterinarians have her assist in disease diagnosis. “I’m down in Miami all the time, I’m that good,” she says with focused humility.
She tells us that yesterday she treated a dog whose family said he had become distant and sullen. “The dog told me he loves going in the pool with their son, but one day the husband came home with a sprinkler, and the son keeps going in the sprinkler and not the pool. The dog said he didn’t like that, he doesn’t like the sprinkler, he only likes the pool. He wagged his tail and looked right into the mom’s eyes when I told them.”
I’m skeptical, but her story seems so believable—a dog would think that. I play the line over and over in my head, like a mantra: He doesn’t like the sprinkler, he only likes the pool.
That night, I find research in Veterinary Studies saying the biological systems that create feelings are similar in humans and dogs, and that dogs may actually be more sensitive than humans. They know when someone is looking at them or talking about them from over a hundred feet away. A dog’s “emotional brain system,” the science says, affects their breath and heart rate, muscle tension, tone and rate of vocalization, and they respond to these features in others. The cumulative effect is that both animals, human and canine, are constantly producing a resonance, but the dogs pick up on it all. For some reason, humans usually miss it. I guess you could say that dogs are all about feeling vibes, but humans have been trained to repress the signal.
Katherine stays in a house for employees and volunteers, while I stay in the one she says is for “anyone paying to stay, it can be a little random.” At breakfast, I learn I have a housemate named Barry, also a journalist. We’re both open and chatty and we connect right away. He started out as a journalist covering the Iraq War, then got interested in the effects of war on wildlife, which eventually led him to cover the international illegal songbird trade. He’s traveled the world documenting the ways people catch, keep, train, and sell songbirds. That brought him to Florida.
“Just last week, a guy came into the airport with a bunch of baby birds taped to himself under his shirt. A passenger reported that a guy on the plane was chirping, and the airport people knew exactly what it meant. They called me to examine the birds because Songbird Investigations was backed up. They always are, that’s how I get money.”
“I’m sorry,” I ask, “Songbird Investigations?”
“Fish and Wildlife has a Department of Songbird Investigations.” He sees my delighted face and giggles, “I’m their backup guy. I know birds. I’m a journalist first, but I got a lot of certifications.”
Barry’s leathery suntanned face exudes both dead seriousness and absurd amusement: devilish laser eyes, often tearing up with laughter, and a silly grin, but a flat, matter-of-fact storytelling voice, with an undercurrent of having seen a lot of death and human bullshit on a global scale.
I learn that in the United States, it’s illegal to capture, kill, or possess migrating birds. Migration is understood as necessary for their continued existence. Their right to stop and rest or even stay wherever they want is protected. Nonetheless, protected bird species are routinely trapped and sold in Florida.
He lends me a book, The Opera of Migratory Birds by Rosalyn Krause, from which I learn that migrating birds fly mainly at night and navigate by the stars. Every bird species has a song for each star visible in the sky, and important stars have different songs for different angles of approach. Shit, I think, they probably have their own constellations.
Preparing for this visit, I saw the commune was near a wetland with a large population of frogs. I started learning about Florida frogs in anticipation: invasive frogs, endemic frogs, poisonous frogs, frog calls, frog songs, frog smuggling, towns with epidemics of kids licking toads to get high. I found a YouTube channel playing a vinyl record of Florida frog calls and became determined to hear a live Florida chorus frog, whose song sounds like fingertips running slowly over the teeth of a metal comb.
On my second night, Katherine and I venture out into the nearby Homestead Preserve. I have a frog call identification app that tells me what we hear: southern leopard frogs, eastern spadefoot toads, cricket frogs, greenhouse frogs, green treefrogs, squirrel treefrogs, Cuban treefrogs, little grass frogs, and yes, even my little friend the Florida chorus frog.
The preserve at night is mostly still until it isn’t. At one moment, I feel something like wind, a slight downward pressure in the atmosphere. Then, from out of nowhere, an owl appears, aiming for Katherine’s head. I catch a flash of its white underbelly as I turn my face away and raise my arm for protection. With one flap of its wingspan, it pulls upward, leaving a reverberation of soft silence.
Katherine screams, “What the hell!” We turn to look at each other, then she screams, “Here it comes! Here it comes!” and from behind I feel that same pressure split the back of my hair, blowing it up and around my face. We both duck. The owl misses our heads by barely an inch. I grab her arm. “We’re being attacked. There must be a nest. We gotta go. Keep your head down, arms down, go go go!” And I drag her toward the edge of the forest. The owl keeps dive-bombing us, always just missing, until we exit.
“I’m sorry,” she looks sad.
“It’ll make a good story—we got attacked by owls!” We laugh, but we’re both a bit spun. She squeezes my hand.
“I’m so glad you’re here!” We hold hands and walk to the car. The stars shine bright with no city light to dampen them. Other than that, it’s all cricket and frog sounds out here. But mainly frogs. Frogs own the night. But so do owls.
The next night, a classic rock cover band made up of some boomers from the commune is playing at the local motorcycle bar. Katherine says we should go. Upon entry, a young woman yells to Katherine, who turns to me and says, “Ah, you will meet the surfers now. That’s Paula.” The surfers offer us a hit of their joint. We sit with them.
Some of the boomer women from the commune are at the foot of the stage, going wild for the band, pretending—or not really pretending—to be groupies. One of them tries to throw her underwear on stage but ends up tripping on her clothes instead, falling and spilling her beer in the sand. A group helps her back up and to a table. Her friend gets her a new beer.
Two older gents approach our table. “This guy manages the front office,” Katherine tells me. His companion asks if we’ve heard that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund has invested $400 billion in a virtual reality amusement park in the Everglades. We had not.
“It’s a VR experience of the Everglades . . . in the Everglades! A ‘true to life’ (he makes air quotes) experience. Leaked documents suggest the scale is massive. They’re building it to withstand deep underwater pressure.” I make a joke: “Imagine the ad campaign: Who needs the world when you can come visit a replica here at The Neverglades!” Everyone groans. “No,” the man looks me dead in the eyes, “it’s a bunker for when this place goes underwater, a bunker for the rich.” Extremely conspiratorial, yet believable. “You got that right!” Katherine yelps back.
Paula tells me she’s been informed that I’m here to write about local ecology. “You gotta come out with me, you gotta! I know everything about the ecology here! I’ll show you everything you need to know!” She insists I come out with her the next morning. She is very insistent that we will go on a bike ride, tomorrow, early, and that I am going to love it.
I try to tell her I am not athletic, but she is not having it. “No! you look great, you’re in great shape,” she insists. “I may look like I’m in good shape,” I say “but I’m actually pretty weak and have respiratory problems.” But she says, “No way, you can do this bike ride, I know you can, it’s easy.” She furrows her brow and rubs my arm, seems concerned that I feel bad about myself. I say, “I don’t feel bad about it, I’m just not athletic.” She’s not getting it, so I give in. I reconcile myself to the fact that I am going bike riding with Paula the pushy surfer chick, tomorrow, bright and early. I’ll probably survive.
The next morning, I am nervous about whether I can do the bike ride that this super-fit white girl insists will be “sooo easy.” Up the giant overpass, we can ride, she believes, in thirty minutes, “And then we’ll be at the inlet!” The inlet, I am told, is where it’s all happening.
“Do you ride with headphones in!?” she almost shrieks.
“Ride with headphones . . . bikes? I don’t think so, no.”
“Okay, then we’ll do that. Riding with music is the best.” She’s very enthusiastic.
I’m in the middle of a Pink Floyd retrospective; I choose Ummagumma for my soundtrack. Their albums aren’t aging well, but Ummagumma mostly is. The Wall? Not so much. As a fifth grader, “Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone” felt like a genuine threat to organized society. Now I realize the success of that album came entirely from its being pitched at a fifth-grade level.
The ride begins on a narrow path separated from the beach by a row of thick tropical shrubs. Wildlife overflows the boundaries everywhere, birds flit, tiny lizards zoom, insects swarm, low-hanging palm fronds sweep. On the overpass, the ride becomes difficult. All I can say is that I found and set on fire the exact place where my thigh muscles meet my femurs. I have burned my legs down to the bone. At the top of the overpass, I stumble from my bike in a nauseous haze and vomit over the side rail. Over the beautiful blue inlet of St. Sebastian, my vomit twists and splits apart in the breeze, then dissolves into air. No part of it ever hits the water.
On the way back I take a more exploratory pace, giving zero fucks about keeping up with young Paula.
Ummagumma’s slow builds and withdrawals collude with the pulsations of the environment. Birds hop from bush to bush, and I hear them in the recorded birdsong of “Grantchester Meadows.” I pass through a stream of dragonflies, hundreds of them, hovering along the path. Each one zips aside as I approach. Is that a form of communication? I pass without incident, to soft guitar plucking and a half-whispered lyric about a dog fox gone to ground. A group of birds fly from the hedge, swirl in a circle over the bike path, then, as the guitar trips and trills, they dive back into the scrub as the music tumbles down. A recorded fly buzzes in my headphones as I pass the last dragonfly. This may be the meaning of “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict,” excruciating divine harmony. The pleasure of vital coincidence, aware that everything listens, is life, the ultimate game of chance, where anything is possible, in accordance with the blinking rhythms of the sun.
When the album is over, its sweet reverberation lingers, and I can only hear the stillness and quiet in all things.
Katherine takes me to see the paintings. It’s a mess. Paintings removed from their canvas frames, hung like laundry by clothespins on ropes across a shed with a leaky roof. “We have the money to reframe about twenty-five of these, so start choosing.”
We spend a whole day sorting hundreds of paintings. “She also gave away hundreds, and no one knows where they went. Many of her followers scattered after she died. There is something magical about these.” They’re not quite like anything else. Somewhere in the arena of the elemental symbolism of the most abstract cave paintings or the scrawled geometries of Franz Kline. But suffused in a thick pain that somehow achieves the meditative, floaty haze of Rothko. “These are the real deal. But no one knows about it.”
Several of the paintings have rust stains on them from the clothespins. But after a few hours, we find twenty-five with no stains that seem good for rehabilitation. At some point, Katherine reveals that Bob, in his hunt for opioids, fell in with a rich older woman con artist who marries men and divorces them for money, and who had him withdraw their savings and max out their credit cards. “They live in some McMansion in Winter Park.” “What the fuck?!” I burst out. But she calmly retorts, “He really fucked me. But I’m just gonna start completely over, and this job is my focus now. I keep thinking maybe this brought me here, you know?”
As horrifying as what Bob did was, I had to admit that Katherine’s falling into this painting situation was a synchronicity I was inclined to support.
Mom calls. “Why have you not called me,” she says sternly.
“Because I’m waiting for even one unusual thing to happen, and it’s not. She’s fine. This place seems like it’s just some people in the woods trying to have a nice life.”
“Hippies?” she asks nervously, from the heart of her Eisenhower-era sock hop mentality.
“Really nice people. I don’t know if they are hippies or not exactly. . . . They grow their own food. I saw a poster that they are having an event for trans activists, a trans woman runs the cafeteria. There’s a ninety-year-old woman who’s lived there since the late seventies who is always in the dining hall doing tarot readings. It actually seems kind of interesting.”
“You’re not thinking of staying now, are you? Oh my god!”
One evening at dinner, a woman named Jasmine who grew up there tells me a few stories. “Early on, some Nazis came and burnt a cross at our entry. Joya took people outside to stand in front of them while she screamed bloody murder in their faces: we are not afraid of you, we will never leave, keep coming every night and I’ll be here, I’ll meet you here every night, we will never leave. She was busting on them, like screaming and then making fun of them. She said she knew they peed their pants cuz she scared them. She was, like, possessed. And we never heard from them again, like they disbanded or left town or something.”
On my last night, Katherine and I decide to stop by the biker bar to prolong our delight in another impossibly beautiful Florida cotton candy sunset. It seems clear to me that whatever the commune is all about, my sister feels really clear-headed. No one has tried to recruit me. I’m not worried. I might possibly even be jealous.
Upon arrival, we are greeted by Paula, sitting with the surfer crew, screaming to us, “Come over here right now! Did you bring your recording equipment?” I always carry a recorder. “Oh my god, we gotta start this story over again, OK, I’m gonna start over, is everyone OK if I start over?” Everyone nods approvingly, staring at my recorder in the middle of the round weather-beaten picnic table.
“I was at Emerald Beach. It’s not a beach really, it’s just an access point. It’s called Emerald Beach because the old Spanish shipwrecks are right off this coast and sometimes their treasure washes up. Anyway. It was late in the day, about three or four. Steve, he’s the lifeguard, was working at Riding and I was walking the dog up to Emerald, and I see this guy out ahead reaching down and pulling stuff out of the water and throwing it in a pile. It turned out it was two-liter soda bottles, he had a whole pile of them. I say what is all that, he said he just called the coast guard, and that it probably came off a raft. There was a duffle bag with these elongated two-liter bottles that weren’t like United States soda bottles. Then I get a text from Steve saying do you see a blue raft? Then I start getting multiple texts, blue raft, headed your way. Steve says immigration guys are here, and you know cuz Steve’s the lifeguard he gets informed of this stuff.
“So I walk away myself. I’m looking for people, bodies, bobbing heads, and helicopters are suddenly all over, and the waves were rough, I mean really rough. I’m worried people will drown out there, but also that immigration will find them before they hit land. If they can get a foot on land, they can’t be immediately deported. They have a chance. Steve tells me the water looks like it’s flowing right toward Emerald Beach. Great, cuz I am at Emerald, so I try to figure out where the water is going. And then these very official looking guys come, they’re dressed like they just came from an office, they have office shoes on, on the beach, and ties and long sleeve white shirts. So I try the girl-in-bikini-asking-questions thing, right? But that didn’t work, they are not having it. They wouldn’t even make eye contact. Eyes on the horizon, I mean glued to it. But I see the water is coming in further down. These guys are not looking in the right place, and since they are just standing there not talking to me, I go ahead, and I start walking toward where I know it’s gonna come.
“And so I’m standing there, and all of a sudden this huge swell forms, and out from behind it pops this blue raft, it’s the blue raft, it is literally coming right directly toward me, and it lands right at my feet. And where I am along the beach, no one can see me, so I start looking in the raft, and there’s clothes and more of those soda bottles, and it looks like it had an engine but the engine fell off. So I had this blue raft to myself for like ten minutes. It was small, maybe fifteen feet, and covered with a tarp. I have heard of these rafts falling to shore before, but I had never seen one of them. It’s amazing, human beings rode on this thing and then most likely jumped out and swam to shore from somewhere on the horizon. The water is so rough here, it’s why we surf here. It’s why ships wreck. I can’t imagine they all made it.
“So I’m rummaging through all this stuff, and then I see those official looking guys and the helicopter, and they’re all coming toward me, but I keep sorting through everything anyway, and when they get there they’re yelling get away from there, get away! But I stay and take pictures until they get there, and they are like really, really menacing and yelling at me, get away from this scene, you’re tampering with a scene. But I didn’t stop. After a while they left. They took everything away. I waited for a couple of hours in case anyone appeared out of the ocean. Nobody did. I hope those people made it, but I don’t know. No one appeared.”
Everyone agrees that this happens “all the time” around here. Blue rafts just wash up. All the time. Everyone also agrees they’d help survivors hide from the law, but none ever appear. I like to imagine an alliance of surfers and refugees. But it’s the border that kills.
We return home for the night to find Selene, Katherine’s housemate, garden hose in hand, standing by a red VW Golf with the hood, trunk, and every door open. Katherine tells her I’m there to do nature research.
“Do you know what to do with a car full of frogs?”
“What? Really? No. But I am interested in frogs.”
“Frogs are my worst nightmare,” she says. “I got this car from a friend of ours. It was sitting in her garage forever, and she’s like, if you can get this to run you can have it. It was moldy so first I had to power wash it. But when I opened the doors, there were like hundreds of frogs, hundreds, and they just start jumping out and falling out the car door. So we start spraying in there, and the whole time there’s just frogs coming out everywhere. Eventually, we get it under control enough to try to start it. It starts. Great. I take it. But on the way back here, frogs are just like sitting in my lap while I’m driving. So I’m trying to wash out the last few, but like hundreds more frogs are just coming out from everywhere, they are in every single empty space of the entire car unit. It’s a frog breeding ground. I have been home now for two hours, and every minute another frog appears. It’s a friggin’ frog clown car. I don’t know what to do. But anyway, Marie says if we spray mint oil all around in the car, it will repel them, so she’s bringing some.”
I go to my room and google “How to Remove Frogs from Your Car,” but all the results are about how cars inadvertently run over frogs at alarming rates.
Over breakfast before my flight, Barry, at my request, tells me his most chaotic bird rescue story.
“In summer 2014, this guy was selling blue buntings, hundreds of songbirds, in Boca. He’s a known trader. So that time, there was a raid, but they think he released them when he was about to get caught. The very next day, I got a call about an injured bunting. I take it to Fish and Wildlife, and the DNA matched the down they found at the aviary the night before. So the bunting was treated and let go. But keep in mind, they always put a little bracelet on the leg of any bird they come in contact with, to track it. We’ll come back to that.
“The next summer, one night, there’s a call about noise, and it’s this same guy’s house. We get there and you can hear like this wild crashing and banging everywhere. And it’s just . . . crows everywhere, just tearing shit up, knocking stuff over, trash cans, flower pots, ripping down everything in sight. This guy, he was genuinely terrified. We find him covered head to toe, just cowering, in a huge blanket. These crows, oh my god. The aviary doors all open and it’s just crows going at it, eating the bird food, throwing it on the floor, knocking empty bowls over, tearing apart cages, pecking at every piece of wood, ripped wires, screens knocked out.
“Cops are there. The guy knows he’s in trouble, immediately he denies having any illegal birds, and if he did, they’re all gone now. He’s almost crying, holding his chest, I dunno . . . it could be like a huge financial loss if he lost birds he was gonna sell, but also just the devastation of the aviary. Crows at night, trashing your whole yard and everything, I mean . . . how do you get your head around it? He looked like he’d seen god, or the devil. I felt that way too. We just had to wait it out.
“One of the cops tried shooting a gun to scare them, but the crows came in from above, like they knew exactly who shot the gun, and they just dove at the cop who did it. They knew to come at him from behind too, they knew, then they started coming at everyone. I stepped away and just went to see if any songbirds were around, from the aviary. And this is the point of this story, I still cannot believe it. I saw, perched way above in a tree, looking down on the scene like a little innocent thing, a blue bunting, with a yellow Florida Fish and Wildlife bracelet on. And I think, that’s the bird from last summer, he’s come back.”
He giggles. A lot.
“Buntings are smart, crows are way smart, and birds will work together if the situation is right. They will tear each other up in some situations, like territorial battles, but they will work together against a greater aggressor. This bunting was like, overseeing the whole thing. Now this guy with the aviary needs to be careful, seriously, because crows will come back again and again, forever. They will haunt you. If you do crows wrong, or their friends, you are done, they remember.
“There’s a story of a cop in another town that messed with a crow, and now years later every single cop and cop car in town gets terrorized by crows. I mean years later. They just shit all over any cop car, like they gang up on it, it’s genuinely dangerous, they just hate everyone in uniform, they don’t care who, and they are teaching this to their offspring. It will never end. They even moved the police office, but crows found them anyway. Last I heard they were gonna change their uniforms and cars just to hide from these crows.”
I’m caught between gasps and laughs.
“Never mess with birds” were Barry’s parting words.
Katherine drives me to the airport, windows down, and the humidity envelops us in summer. Impermanence makes us beautiful and sad. Can despair be held off by this scent of lime and jasmine everywhere? I feel I’ve found something special in this mostly unknown region of this overdeveloped state, this weird little semi-autonomous zone. I think I’ve seen life at a human scale. Is there a future, or am I a fool for imagining such a thing? We fight the momentum of departure, slowly rolling on a country road. Florida classic rock is on the radio, but we are in the rhythm of planet earth, where life and death rise and crash in waves, or sometimes stun, and everything falls eventually.