There’s a junco in the butterfly bush, and I have a sudden, irrational, urge to apologize to it.
I came out to water my garden, although the garden is strange this year. The crookneck squash gets to be a handspan long, then matures and drops. The eggplant hasn’t set fruit yet despite a long and glorious flowering season. And the volunteer broccoli settled for eclipsing the peppers – two per plant – and is largely ornamental at this point.
I cover the sun with my thumb. It’s easy to locate and easy to cover, a hot-pink blot in the smoky sky. For a while this morning we had winds up the Gorge bringing high-desert air on which I imagined I could smell the tang of sage, buckbrush, volcanic earth. The sky was briefly and incongruously blue. Now it’s not.
The junco stares at me. I know it’s a junco because of the shape of its beak; there’s not much else to distinguish it in the late-evening darkness of three o’clock. Time is strange not only because of the smoke darkening the sky, but because I was up all night monitoring fire lines, trying to figure out if my parents or friends are behind them. I slept in fits and starts, texting my dad you’re ok for now and it’s moved south.
I don’t remember when I learned the shape of a junco’s beak. Probably around the time I learned the few words of Spanish I retain. These are things you are supposed to know on the West Coast: three types of trees; enough Spanish to order food or apologize; the shape of a junco’s beak.
The butterfly bush is an invasive species, and I feel vaguely guilty for having planted it, even though it wasn’t designated invasive when I did. It has no urge to spread, sitting tidily between the volunteer quince and the Oregon grape. Hummingbirds fight in the quince: Anna’s, and Ruby-Throated. I saw a red-shouldered hawk the other day. It’s not native to the area either.
The junco stares at me: it doesn’t speak human. If it speaks human it speaks Cowlitz, Clackamas, Calapuya, a handful of other languages that I don’t. I didn’t even learn Spanish; I speak French, Russian, Polish, languages from colder places, formed in mouths wrapped around food that isn’t salmon, pine nut, salmonberry and huckleberry.
The junco takes off, but there’s nowhere else it can go. The sun is entirely gone. I go inside and adjust the air filter.