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"Nature Is Literally Our Larger Context"

An interview with Kateri Kosek

"Nature Is Literally Our Larger Context"

The cedar waxwing is the glutton of songbirds, known for stuffing itself—even to the point of incapacity—with fruit. In “The Cherry Birds,” Kateri Kosek traces the path of a 1908 act “relating to the protection of fruit from the cedar waxwing” through the Vermont state legislature and, more broadly, considers the value humans assign to the species with which we share our space.

Writing about birds is not new to Kosek; her essay “Killing Starlings”—about a seasonal job that required her to kill invasive species—appeared in Creative Nonfiction #40 in 2011. Her poetry and essays have also appeared in Orion, Terrain.org, and Catamaran, and she teaches college English and mentors students in the MFA program at Western Connecticut State University. “The Cherry Birds” is the winner of the $1,000 Best Essay prize for Creative Nonfiction #69: “Intoxication.”

 


CNF: The research for your prize-winning essay “The Cherry Birds” began when you saw a cedar waxwing killed by your housemate’s cat. You write, “But before the waxwing fluttered away and flopped to the ground, before I turned away and went inside so as not to see the cat finish it off, we stood there in the driveway guiltily admiring the finer points of its plumage.” What about that moment inspired you? Did you know right away that you would write about these birds?

Kosek: Well, it’s always exciting to see a bird that up close, and a waxwing isn’t a bird that comes to feeders, that you spend a lot of time looking at. It was beautiful, which becomes a key premise in the essay, but mostly I was struck by the tenuousness of the moment, how fragile yet tenacious the bird was, fighting for its life. I did write about it immediately, though not with any sense of the essay you see before you, or of how waxwings specifically would figure into it. At first, the poor waxwing worked metaphorically for how I was feeling at the time. Two essays I had read also colored the incident. One was “Les Oiseaux,” Angela Pelster’s very short lyric essay that opens her book Limber, in which a huge flock of waxwings descends on her yard in the winter and devours the berries off the trees, both magically and destructively (my epigraph). And Leslie Jamison’s essay “In Defense of Saccharin(e)” grappled with notions of sweetness and indulgence and included a passage about birds that were, I think, drunk on berries and banging into windows. So I was kind of stuck on the idea of gorging on sweetness even though it may do us in. I forget why, exactly, but at some point perhaps a few months later I did a search on waxwings. I kept coming across that story of the Vermont senators in 1908, which set the course for the essay. But I am first indebted to my housemate and her cat.

CNF: This essay takes a historical and personal approach to the story of the cedar waxwing. How did you organize your research? Did you find that there was some research that had to be left out?

Kosek: This is by far the most “researchy” piece I’ve written. I definitely tried to represent everything that I found (there were lots of examples to choose from), but it’s possible I could have kept looking. Most everything I used was available online. Perhaps somewhere out there, obtainable through more old-fashioned research, is an old newspaper article that would illuminate what happened when the bill to exterminate waxwings came before those senators. Not having found that, I just worked that gap into the essay.

So, similar to leaving things out was deciding when to stop combing through the research and just write the essay already. As a poet I tend to prefer a limited amount of material, when I can see everything on a page and just tinker with it. This amount of research was a little overwhelming. The sources were kind of slippery and finding them was haphazard. Luckily the legislative journals from Vermont in 1908 were digitized on a Vermont government website. Where I found those, all sorts of supplemental government-issued writings popped up, such as old agricultural bulletins. Several of those happened to contain extensive guides to different bird species, based on the research into their diets to prove that they were (mostly) helpful to farmers. But there was a lot of overlap with variation, and sometimes it was hard to tell what something was and when it was written. Submitting for this theme —intoxication—was actually very helpful. I had thought about the essay thematically for a long time, but the deadline forced me to stop staring at potentially endless amounts of material and select enough to make a narrative.

CNF: Did anything in your research surprise you?

Kosek: Some attitudes toward ecology and environmental protection were more progressive than I might have expected for the early twentieth century. I was surprised to find the origins of the “keep cats indoors” campaigns; apparently, some states even wanted to license cats. A State Fish and Game Commissioner report, after establishing how helpful birds were for agriculture, crunched some numbers about how many might get killed by cats and ended, “Those who are really bird lovers and want to have birds nesting close to the house should try the experiment of dispensing with the family cat for one summer and note the increase in bird life about the garden.” Another article was about how we shouldn’t dismiss the “lower animals,” for they can do us much good—insects keeping other insects in check, for instance. It contained the delightful sentence, “Even such a humble animal as the common garden toad deserves our sympathy and encouragement.” And I was surprised at how popular bird-watching was, to the point of newspapers running lists of the new bird species seen migrating through the locale. That was one branch of this essay I didn’t initially plan on, but searching for the phrase “cedar waxwing” in old newspapers turned up a lot of lists like that, as well as some funny items, like an Audubon-sponsored ball to which guests wore outfits that mimicked the plumage of a certain bird, and then everyone had to guess the birds … maybe something someone should bring back?

CNF: Both of the essays that you’ve published in Creative Nonfiction are about birds. What attracts you to writing about nature?

Kosek: Well, I’ve been a birder since I was a little girl. I certainly didn’t share such a questionable hobby with my peers growing up, but the more I wrote, the more I decided to claim and tap into that rather unique area of knowledge. Nature in general has always anchored me, so it seems to follow that it also anchors most of my writing. It also embodies mystery, which is important for my writing. I’ve always written more personal things too, but often in the slightly veiled form of poetry, where nature may exist symbolically. In prose, recapturing extended dialogue and scenes intimidates me. I’m more comfortable describing exterior elements—birds and landscapes and my movements in them—and they also provide that bigger picture that’s necessary for creative nonfiction to avoid falling in on itself. Nature is literally our larger context. The backdrop of the natural world can prevent writing from being too purely confessional. Where I live, in a river valley in western Massachusetts, surrounded by mountains, hiking on the Appalachian Trail regularly, it’s hard for me not to notice nature on a daily basis.

CNF: How does your background in science overlap or feed into your writing?

Kosek: Actually, somewhere in cellular biology lab my freshman year of college, I abandoned wanting to be a scientist, and went in the direction of literature and writing. I wouldn’t have made a very good scientist, because I can’t read science without being struck by the poetic implications of it. So, you could say I “use” science to render it lyrically. But I’m also very interested in what it has to say. The poetry I’ve written in the last few years has a strong environmental consciousness to it, though it’s also very personal. I weave in various effects of climate change, the disruption of weather patterns, my longing for snow in the winter. We can’t afford to ignore science these days. But art and imagination are important vehicles for it.

That first essay that appeared in CNF, “Killing Starlings” (Issue #40/Winter 2011), I wrote after a seasonal job teaching environmental education, and the scientific principle that says invasive species = bad was at the heart of that piece, but of course it’s more complicated than that. After that essay, I noticed that I was fascinated with the larger concept of how we ascribe value to other species, particularly birds—which ones we as a culture cherish or ignore, which we deem okay to hunt, or despise, and how those biases change if one is a birdwatcher. So science certainly plays a role in that discussion.

CNF: The passage that describes the cedar waxwings drunk on fermented berries made me laugh out loud. Did you start writing knowing that humor would be an important element, or is that something that developed as you wrote?

Kosek: No, I definitely started in a more poignant mindset, but the more I read, the more I found the writings about birds in the early twentieth century to be inherently humorous, and I suppose I wanted to convey some of that. The very notion of passing moral judgment on birds based on their habits or diets, all of which we now view objectively through the lens of science, is endlessly amusing. (Though I’m not against anthropomorphizing the natural world to a certain degree. If we don’t see ourselves in nature, we risk distancing ourselves from it.)

I’m also pretty aware that writing focused on the natural world carries a stereotype of reverence and awe—and, often, boredom for the reader—so I suppose humor is one element that works against that. Most writers who write about nature these days find something that erodes that stereotype. It’s also worth mentioning that although I had a draft and many notes, I rewrote this essay with the theme of “intoxication” in mind, so perhaps I was drawn to the many facets of the word, one being the humorous connotation. But from the start I was captivated by the fervor with which these birds can gorge themselves, so “intoxication” seemed fitting—also the way their beauty can intoxicate us, or the way we need to let ourselves be intoxicated by the natural world if we hope to protect it.

CNF: Your essay ends with a lovely but tragic description of “Albatross chicks on Pacific islands, crammed to the throat not with insects, but with bright bits of plastic” and “stunned, jeweled bodies of warblers piled below a skyscraper.” What would you like the reader to take away from these final paragraphs? Do you believe that writers also have an obligation to be advocates?

Kosek: Ideally, yes, but being an advocate could take so many different forms, I wouldn’t presume to tell anybody what to do, writers or readers. Of course—using that example—don’t throw your plastic in the street, but I’m not sure a reader in America can greatly impact the problem of plastic in the ocean, which stems mostly from six or so nations on the other side of the world. It is easier, though, to put decals on our big glass doors so birds don’t fly into them. So sure, there are measures we can all take, but mainly I just hope readers are at the very least more aware and attuned to something the essay touches on after reading it—maybe the birds themselves, or maybe the current administration’s regular attempts to roll back laws that protect endangered species and environmental regulations. 

I certainly find it easier to write than to be an advocate. It’s hard and overwhelming to keep track of every issue and make sure I’m doing something about it, but as a writer, I can follow an obsession with one particular place or bird or story and present that to readers. Of course, the hope is that art can make a difference because people need images and stories in addition to science and facts. A student of mine recently quoted a line from Words that Sing: Composing Lyrical Prose by Mary Ylvisaker: “language has the power to transform people … by adding to or altering the images in the subconscious—the place where 90% of our opinions are formed and decisions made.” I liked that scientific explanation to the sense that writing can translate to societal change.

CNF: What are you working on now?

Kosek: I plan to put together a book of essays exploring what I mentioned above regarding our various attitudes towards other species, particularly birds. One I worked on recently focuses on the Bicknell’s Thrush, a bird considered rare and prized because of its very limited mountain range. Lately, I’m drawn to braided lyric essays, because they allow me to be more of a poet while still writing essays. So that one also has some threads about me and my proclivities. I have another lyric essay about swimming that needs finishing. And a few months ago, I traveled for the second time to Poland, where my father is from, so I have a lot of material from that floating around.

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