Below Mecca the whole scene changes and the eye is fascinated and charmed with the presence of a vast inland sea. Can this really be a body of water or is it only a fiction of a disordered brain?…
We are now in the region known as the Salton Sink, and the body of water before us is the Salton Sea, the mysterious inland ocean which has given rise to so much foolish and imaginative writing.
— George Wharton James, 1906, from The Wonders of the Colorado Desert (southern California) Its Rivers and Its Mountains, Its Canyons and Its Springs, Its Life and Its History, Pictured and Described: Including an Account of a Recent Journey Made Down the Overflow of the Colorado River to the Mysterious Salton Sea
WHEN I WAS SIX years old, my friend Sonja Johnson and I were walking home from Lincoln Elementary School in Evanston, Illinois, when we came upon a baby bird that had fallen out of its nest. It was a recent hatchling — its bulging blue eyes unopened, its featherless skin shockingly nude and vulnerable. I had never seen anything dead before, and it stopped me in my tracks. When we got to my apartment, I pulled out a diorama that I had begged my parents to buy in Chinatown, a glass box with two fake birds perched on a branch inside, their feathers dyed a bright yellow. We sat and stared at these birds, and I intoned to Sonja, “Think of all the things the baby bird never got to do. It never got to fly. It never got to build a nest or lay an egg.” I had us do some ritual crying before I shut the diorama back inside the cabinet over my desk.
I had been wanting to write about this experience for years — my first direct brush with death — but once I started to write the poem, it slipped away from me. The piece kept getting longer and weirder, pulling in other dead birds I had encountered (our pet finches, who had pecked each other to death; the dead pigeons I stepped over on my way to high school when the local government decided to kill them off), and at some point, it was clear that it didn’t want to be a poem anymore and it didn’t want to be about me.
Around this time the Salton Sea began to enter my awareness, via news reports in the local paper about birds dying off. Before then, I had no idea there was a giant body of water out in the middle of the desert, just a couple of hours away. The first short briefs grew longer as the bird die-off grew worse, eventually leading to a front page story replete with gruesome yet strangely beautiful photos of dead and dying pelicans. I clipped every article and pasted it into my notebook, knowing I could tie it in, somehow, with my weird dead bird poem project.
Then one night channel surfing I happened upon a documentary on PBS — The Women Outside, about women who had been forced into prostitution on US military bases in Korea. As I watched, two characters materialized in my living room; I could almost feel them breathing next to me. I knew immediately that Ava had an unfortunate habit of killing her mother’s pet birds; I knew her mother had been a prostitute in Korea; I knew Ava would have to travel to the Salton Sea to help with the rescue effort during the bird die-off and try to make amends with her mother. All this came to me in a flash, and I was terrifi...read more