A man did claim to see the Ivory Billed Woodpecker in Big Woods, Arkansas, and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology did mount a search…. The author does not know who the man was, who the scientists and searchers were[,] and has never personally communicated with an Ivory Billed Woodpecker.
Such is the disclaimer with which Tom Gallant introduces his beautiful new novella, “The Lord God Bird,” a simply and movingly written story inspired by the purported rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker early this century. This is the very opposite of a roman à clef: Gallant’s principal characters have names like “the man,” “the canoe,” “the bird.” Liberated from the constraints of historical “fact,” Gallant is free to explore not what the bird was but what the woodpecker means:
“When I saw that bird, I think maybe I took it as a sign,” said the man…. “I wonder if you know what this means,” said Walton.
The man–he has no other name–is a widower, “neither young nor old,” “fit and able,” living alone on a small farm in the Big Woods of Arkansas. Ten years after his wife’s death, he takes to the swamps in the canoe his grandfather built after returning from the Great War; cleaning up after supper at a traditional campsite, “he heard a sharp knocking, distinctive and rare.” The sound is the double-rap of an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, “a kind of miracle”:
The man wanted to believe in miracles. He was tired of the relentless loss that life seemed to be.
There are in fact three Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the woods, a pair with a single female young. Their presence is a sign for the man, a miracle, and the “small measure of hope” it gives opens his world again to work, to music and art, and ultimately to love.
Others find different meaning in the man’s discovery. He hesitates long before telling “the town,” but soon enough, in the book’s closest echo of the Brinkley affair, there are ivory-billed cheeseburgers and red mohawks; for a time there is even hope, at long last, that the town might move back from its shabby edges to its once-loved center, a place both geographic and emotional.
For the searchers–the ornithologists from Cornell, and the birding volunteers who lodge with the man on his farm–the woodpecker comes to represent a number of things, from the faintly ridiculous “spirituality” of the hippy vegans to the pinched professional ambition of one of the scientists, whose fervor will admit of no doubt:
“I’m convinced…. I will not countenance any negativity on this…. we’ve got the lab, the EPA, the Conservancy, everyone. We’re talking millions for our work…. This is the kind of thing that gets your name on buildings.”
Talk like that gives the man second thoughts. He has heard and he has seen the birds, but wary of the scientist’s motives, he withdraws ever more sensibly from their enterprise, casting doubt on what he knows to be the truth of the birds’ persistence. He knows that the Big Woods and the town, their diminishment visible all around him, can be saved only if the bird is still there. But the man is persuaded, by the bird itself, to deny the ivory-bill’s survival.
“I did that for the bird. He wanted to be alone with his family…. Every family needs some deep secrets.”
The beautiful simplicity of Tom Gallant’s prose conceals the equally lovely complexity with which he constructs the parallel stories of the novella’s human and avian characters. Repetitions and reminiscences are woven through the text with a subtlety and an intricacy that is nothing less than musical. Just as the man finds a new family at the end, the birds themselves come to rejoice in the new life they discover in this season’s eggs. For both families,
It was little enough, and a great burden…but there was reason for happiness. A small carelessness, a sickness, hunger, any of it could take them from the world forever…. But for now, on this spring day in the Big Woods, there was life abundant, and gratitude….
Life abundant, and gratitude: enough for anyone.