It’s hard to believe that a decade has passed since the attacks of 9/11/2001. The images, the shock and horror, remain vivid to this day. Like people across the nation and around the world, I solemnly and sadly recall the events of 10 years ago. In the spirit of that remembrance, I offer an essay I wrote at that heartbreaking time, “On a Day of Tragedy, Finding Solace in Bird Song.”
Waking on the morning of Sept. 11, I roll out of bed and shuffle to the bathroom. On the counter is a note scribbled by my wife, who’s already left for work. Hurriedly written, the note refers to a jetliner crash and New York’s World Trade Center and suggests “you might want to check it out on the news.”
Still a bit fuzzy headed, I reach over to the small radio that hangs above our bathtub and turn on public radio station KSKA. The somber, measured voice of an NPR reporter shocks me into wakefulness with numbing news: terrorists have somehow orchestrated an incredibly successful and destructive attack on New York City and Washington, D.C., an attack that likely killed thousands of people, most of them “ordinary” folks going about daily routines.
Stunned by these unbelievable events, and wishing to both see and hear what’s happened, I switch from radio to TV and begin a vigil that lasts all morning and extends into late afternoon.
Now and then I try to work on our home computer. But my attention keeps getting pulled back to the TV and ever-more horrific updates and images of the attack. Like millions of other Americans, I watch the surreal replays of crashing jets and crumbling towers again and again, trying to somehow comprehend the incomprehensible.
By late afternoon I can stand it no more. Senses and emotions overloaded by the depth of the carnage and immense loss of life, I pull myself from the nonstop news coverage and head outdoors to a favorite hiking path. I need to clear my head, escape the numbness, ground my body and emotions. I walk alone through a forested hillside, meeting no other people for more than an hour. I’m grateful for the solitude and peacefulness of this birch-spruce-cottonwood-aspen woodland.
Perhaps it’s true, as media analysts are already saying, that life in the United States has changed forever; that we’re on the verge of another war.
Watching and listening to news reports, it’s easy to believe the world, as we Americans know it, has gone crazy, that all is chaos and uncertainty. Yet here, in this northern forest, things are just as I’d expect them to be on a mid-September afternoon. I smell the sweet-sour scent of high-bush cranberries; hear the rustle of leaves and far-off chatter of a red squirrel; see the beginning of fall’s color shift, as scattered yellows, reds, and purples appear among the still-predominant greens. They remind me that not all the world has gone mad. For all of our nation’s horror and grief and anger, life among most of the Earth’s creatures goes on as usual. Somehow this is comforting.
As huge as it feels, today’s American tragedy is only part of a much larger story, played out around our planet. What a miracle life is – and what a miracle to be part of it.
Walking slowly, I listen for the black-capped chickadees that live in these Alaskan woods. Eventually I hear their pleasing, raspy voices, as they hunt for insects in the forest canopy. Then another sound, much louder, drowns out the bird song: the thunder of fighter jets from nearby Elmendorf Air Force Base, doing loops in the sky above Anchorage. Many local residents are likely cheering the jets’ roar, what some have called the sound of freedom. But I’m more reassured by the chickadees’ songs, which return to my ears as the roar overhead eases. In a time of great sadness and shock, the chickadees lift my spirits.
In a short while I’ll be back home, again sitting in front of the TV, again sharing in our national tragedy. But for the moment – and for the first time this day – I break into a smile. I whistle back to the chickadees and forest, a way of saying thanks, for comfort and for hope.