Mac McClelland is no stranger to risk and discomfort: This is a woman who has reported on rape in Haiti’s tent cities and genocide in Myanmar. But she didn’t expect to fear for her life when she set out to write a story about a birding expedition for Audubon.
“I think I tend toward a conversational style much of the time. Even with topics of great gravity, I’m still just a human telling other humans about something, in the end.”
She also didn’t expect to climb mountains of slippery clay for 12 hours straight. Or ride without seat belts on switchbacks with foot-deep holes. Or suffer from diarrhea when the only privy around was doorless and had been nicknamed “The Worst Toilet in the World” (by a man who had seen some pretty damn bad ones).
But sometimes the things you don’t expect — and yes, the things you suffer through — make for the best stories.
McClelland’s story, about a pair of birders on a quest to discover whether the elusive (and probably extinct) ivory-billed woodpecker survived in Cuba, wasn’t really about birds. No, it explored what motivates people (including, say, journalists) to go to extreme lengths for a cause many would consider pointless.
In the piece, which was a finalist for the 2017 National Magazine Award in feature writing, McClelland reveals the impeccable timing of a comic and the unexpected rhythms of a Beat writer (who happens to be funny).
McClelland, who was a reporter at Mother Jones until 2013, is a full-time freelancer based in San Francisco. Her memoir, “Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story,” came out in 2015.
Did you have any idea what you were in for when you set out to report this piece?
I didn’t. It was a pretty fast turnaround. After I had already accepted the assignment, I started reading about Tim Gallagher (one of the birders I was writing about) and how he would sleep in cars and canoes. It sounded terrible, and I thought, “This guy has a really high tolerance for discomfort.” But when I talked to him on the phone, he said we’d be camping in the jungle for five days out of two weeks, and for the rest of the time we’d stay in bed and breakfasts. I’m not a camper at all. We ended up camping pretty much the whole time, and you wouldn’t even describe it as camping. I had no idea these guys were so extreme with a capital “E,” and I was not prepared for that.
In some of your stories, including this one, your personal safety is sometimes at risk. How did you balance your concern for your own safety with getting the story or protecting your relationship with sources?
I certainly didn’t take a stance of, “Hey, I’m just a journalist. No matter what happens, I’m going to follow blindly because I’m a machine observer with no human needs.” I was pushing back. There were four of us: two birders, a journalist and a photographer. It wasn’t that they were going to take these risks and we were going to watch. We were all going to get into that Jeep in the dark in the rain and try to drive up that wet rock. At points, there was dissent in the group about what exactly we should be doing and when. I wasn’t trying to mold everything to my own preferences and schedule, but when something particularly dangerous came up, I would say, “Can we wait until it’s light outside like these locals were suggesting?” What I voiced didn’t affect anything other than one of the birders’ level of irritation with me. But I was advocating for safety — I didn’t want them to die, either. I believe I’m generally considered cooperative and not that hard to work with, but when I’m disrespected in terms of very basic safety, because it is my life at stake, we argued a lot.
Your writing has a quick pace to it, even though the story is about something many people would find boring: birding. What do you think gives your writing that dynamism?
My sense is that pacing is probably set by the length of the sentences. I write very long sentences and very short ones. I never start a sentence thinking, “This is going to be a long one.” I write things as I write them and look for rhythm when I read them back over. When I decide whether something needs to be lengthened or shortened, it’s based on rhythm and feeling. People tell me I talk fast, and my inclination to write really long sentences might be a product of that. Or it might come from the fact that I’m sort of energetic.
You often include yourself in your features (even on serious topics, such as genocide) and have also written a memoir and personal essays. What are the benefits and challenges of putting yourself out there that way?
“I write very long sentences and very short ones. I never start a sentence thinking, ‘This is going to be a long one.’ I write things as I write them and look for rhythm when I read them back over. When I decide whether something needs to be lengthened or shortened, it’s based on rhythm and feeling.”
I came up at Mother Jones, and my editors there had no issue with first person. It never occurred to me that it would be wrong, and no one ever told me not to do it. I didn’t go to journalism school. I get the impression from some of my friends that the first-person gets beaten out of you there or is at least heavily discouraged. There were times that I had concerns that some editors wouldn’t want to work with me, because I was disclosing very personal things about my mental health. I was worried that it would give me less credibility or editors would say, “This chick is nutballs.” It’s hard not to wonder what people are going to think and how you will be judged — that’s a very human thing.
But it’s a feeling I had to embrace and work through. Anytime I was using the first person, I was doing it for a reason. And it has never been a problem in terms of hiring. There could be editors out there that thought about calling me and didn’t, but there has been no lack of possibilities in terms of outlets and people to work with. When it comes down to it, everyone struggles, so the fact that I’m saying it publicly isn’t an issue if you have any sense of humanity or compassion.
My questions are in red, her responses in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button.
By Mac McClelland
Audubon. May-June 2016
“Here ends our happiness,” the driver says, approaching the end of the pavement and stopping the government truck. It has no seatbelts or roll bar, and apparently very little in the way of shocks, but the two birders on board are happy, now and these past six days, despite how the particulars of their expedition may have struck others—say, the writer and photographer also on board—as uncomfortable. Or, frankly, miserable. Why did you decide to include yourself and the photographer in the piece? Why introduce your presence and personal discomfort so close to the beginning? Well, it occurred to me on the first day in Cuba to write about myself in the third person, and while it came as an inspiration, not a hard-thought-out consideration, I think its purpose is first to acknowledge that my impression of these events is through my own lens, but more importantly to set myself (and the photographer) up as the straight man to the endeavors of these extreme enthusiasts. Tim Gallagher, 65, and Martjan Lammertink, 44, went through worse in their searches for Campephilus woodpeckers in other countries before they landed in Cuba to look for the granddaddy of all finds, the elusive and by most accounts extinct Ivory-bill. No one has looked hard here for a long time, in this last half-plausible place. Someone should really look in Cuba, people who know and care about such things have been saying, and so here Gallagher and Lammertink are. With, as it happens, not much they aren’t willing to do—suffer; die—to get that done. Why did you choose to open the piece this way – the group in a truck six days in, then some background about what you’re doing there – as opposed to a different kind of scene, say, putting out bird calls? The moment the driver said, “Here ends our happiness,” I knew it would be the beginning or the end of an important section of the piece; when I got home it just seemed obvious as the starting point. Thinking now about why that seemed obvious, it’s the simple drama of it, the weirdness of it, and the way that it encompasses the whole theme of the piece: that these birders put their passion way before what many people would consider comfort or self-care.
There was the crush of last-minute getting-ready, Gallagher tying up loose ends as editor-in-chief of Living Bird at his office in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. There was Lammertink on a 22-hour bus to a Brazilian airport from interior Argentina, where the Dutch ornithologist works for the National Scientific and Technical Research Council, followed by 19 hours of airports and planes to Ithaca, New York. There were the two of them at Walmart together buying pots and pans and tents and staying up late packing and waking up early to drive, along with the writer, more than four hours to Toronto and then landing late in Holguín, east Cuba, Gallagher more than two personal airline bottles of prosecco deep, to deal with the even later arrival of the photographer. What do you think using the “there was/there were” construction accomplished here? I liked the rhythm of it. I suppose it accomplishes a sense of monotony, the slog of preparation. No sooner had they had breakfast at their budget homestay the next morning, after four hours of sleep for Lammertink and maybe five for Gallagher, than maps were spread open across a table and Carlos Peña, a Cuban natural history specialist, stopped by to help strategize. This is where the paved road ends. Pointing, leaning. This is where any road ends. This is where you might be able to pick up some mules to help with transport. Then it was out to a grocery store for rice and pasta and eggs and water before a quick lunch and into the car for the first leg of the long trip, to Farallones de Moa. Toward the mountains. Into the woods. Why did you want the reader to know the background here in the second paragraph? Having set up in the first graf that they are prepared to do anything in search of this bird, I’m fleshing out what exactly that entails, from the beginning.
The rented car was a 1955 Willys: two and a half seats in the front and two very narrow benches bolted longways into the back. The group’s hundreds of pounds of gear, food, and luggage were piled up in between and on top of half of them, leaving Gallagher and the photographer to squeeze onto the ends of opposite little pews, hunching over to keep their heads off the low metal roof. At breakfast the writer again expressed her wish that there were seatbelts, which she generally tries to secure on work trips when she is in charge of logistics; while the photographer kindly validated her feelings by saying this was a normal human desire, Lammertink did not deign to respond. Why did you choose to write about yourself in the third person? Flash of inspiration, as I mentioned, but I think it makes it funnier—and fairer, though of course there’s no true “fair” when I’m the only one in control of the words—if I’m observing myself with the same voice as I am everyone/everything else. It may have also had a helpful degree of dissociation to it, writing this in my head in the third (versus first) person as it was all happening, since I really did hate a lot about this trip. Gallagher, maybe a bit tipsily, had slapped her knee and laughed about it the night before as their young driver sped the proto-jeep away from the airport around the proliferation of horse-drawn carts on the street in the dark. Now, as they prepared to drive the first three of the many, many hours they’d spend on Cuban roads over two weeks, Lammertink invited the writer to cram herself into the only place she would fit, between him and the driver. “It’ll just be much more fatal in an accident,” he said of sitting in the front, then laughed, the fact that car accidents cause the most American deaths abroad being funny.
But of course, this is birding. Go dangerous or go home.
The target destination was Ojito de Agua, an area beyond Farallones in the mountains of Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt. In 1986, Cuban biologists Giraldo Alayón and Alberto Estrada found Ivory-bills there, and a few weeks later they and the eminent woodpecker specialists Lester Short and Jennifer Horne confirmed the sightings there. Lammertink himself spent eight months in 1991 and 1993 looking for them there. Ojito de Agua has been protected for 30 years now—since the sightings—so maybe, Lammertink hopes, the habitat might now be more hospitable to Ivory-bills.
In the car to Farallones, Gallagher bounced his old bones about in the back with zero complaints and inhuman patience. I love the image of “bounced his old bones about.” Do you have a process for coming up with evocative imagery like this, or does it just come to you? The latter. IS there a process for coming up with evocative imagery? If so, I would actually like to know it (dead serious). Dust swirled in through the open and broken windows, more as they got farther from the city, five miles an hour and less when the pavement expired and the road turned uphill and rocky and deeply, deeply rutted. What do you think the repetition of “deeply” does here? Some of these holes are like a foot deep. One “deep” legit did not convey it, in my opinion. He cheerfully schlepped in his Wellingtons through mud and across narrow planks over ravines to a jungle shack lent to them by a coffee farmer who never, ever buttons his shirt Ha ha! Did you try to make this piece humorous, or did that arise naturally as you recounted the events? I definitely wasn’t consciously on the lookout for hilarious details; luckily, I noticed them when they presented themselves. —then back out again after the regional Protected Areas official told the foreigners by phone that he wouldn’t allow them into the forest from there. And that nor were they allowed in Farallones at all. As a tiny muddy village, it has no amenities or services for visitors, including—most importantly—permission to host them.
So it was on to Baracoa, a lovely if mildly shabby beach town four and a half hours of mostly jolting non-road farther east, to meet with the evicting regional Protected Areas official, whereupon he sent them back again some two hours west, to the national park’s visitor’s center on Bahía de Taco, a parking-lot-size patch of grass separating the non-road from the ocean where the group was to sleep for two nights in a different, more official jungle shack while the Protected Areas agency considered whether to allow them to venture deep into the national park. Students of writing often learn to shorten their sentences, but you have some pretty long ones here. Do you have long sentences in all your pieces? What do you like about them? How does one do it right? I do have long sentences in probably most, if not all, of my pieces. I don’t set out to make them long, but they come out that way. Sometimes when I’m reading back over them, I realize the lengthiness doesn’t serve the contents of that sentence—I need readers to pause, or absorb, or have the breaths of a period to get from it what I want them to. But sometimes I think the length does evoke a pace or a feeling (exhaustion, maybe, in this case), and that’s, in my opinion, when it’s right.
At Taco Bay, the sand flies were savage. There was no plumbing but a vat of carried-up river water from which the group could draw buckets to bathe beside the non-road. Everyone, even the birders, hated the bathroom, a multiperson outhouse that did not enjoy much in the way of maintenance. When the supply of potable water they’d hauled in ran out, the writer taught herself how to use the $250 worth of water-filtration and UV-sterilization equipment she had bought before embarking (she and the photographer, who are accustomed to hardships but of a different kind, have discovered that they are wearing matching new pairs of technical wicking antimicrobial quick-drying underpants). Gallagher helped her purify water for the group, impressed with how much more convenient it was than a camping straw, which filters bacteria one sip at a time and does not filter viruses and which was all he carried in his bag, though he has neither a naiveté about waterborne illness nor an ironclad digestive tract. A partial list of places where Gallagher has suffered severe gastrointestinal distress includes: Mexico, Costa Rica, and Peru. In Mexico, he also got Hepatitis A. Which is a virus. Was it your plan when you set out to focus on the personal side of extreme birding, the experience of it? It was my assignment to cover the birders, not the birding per se. I didn’t know or anticipate the level to which that would involve personal care, though, no.
But this wasn’t a “hard” trip. A hard trip, that would be something like—speaking of—Mexico, where in 2010 Gallagher and Lammertink, in quest of Imperials, a possibly also extinct and even larger—the largest—woodpecker species, were headed into cartel lands so dangerous that every one of the Mexican biologists who had been recruited to go with them dropped out. You have some elements (“speaking of,” “the largest”) that make the story read as quite conversational. Is that something you were aiming for in this piece, or do you always tend toward a conversational style? I think I tend toward a conversational style much of the time. Even with topics of great gravity, I’m still just a human telling other humans about something, in the end. Gallagher and Lammertink went anyway, and in one of the villages on the way, three houses were burned to the ground, one man kidnapped for ransom; as they drove through the area, they passed locals fleeing the other way. But they pressed on, crossing paths with armed traffickers and enlisting smugglers and Uzi-carrying locals as guides, Gallagher praying that if he got killed his wife would find his notes and finish the book he was working on, and when they emerged from those mountains alive, the forest ranger who had—under great protest—helped them get in broke down crying.
Or, a hard trip would be something like Argentina, where Gallagher and Lammertink trekked high and low and high and higher and low and high again following radio-tagged Helmeted Woodpeckers (a species that indisputably exists) over the jungle hills starting at 4 a.m. daily and for 14 hours a day while it poured relentlessly and mosquitos infected with botfly eggs bit them and dropped maggot larvae onto their bodies, where they burrowed and grew and thrived. This sentence has a great rhythm to it. Do you read your sentences out loud to yourself? Thank you! I don’t believe I did. I don’t usually unless I can’t hear it adequately in my head, but usually I feel like I can. Lammertink said nothing about the pain, but Gallagher caught him flinching once as one crunched away at the shoulder tissue under his skin. (Gallagher himself finally reached a breaking point and dug his infestation, and his skin and thigh tissue, out wholesale with a knife.) Living in Argentina and tramping often into the jungles after Helmeted Woodpeckers, Lammertink averages 40 botfly cases per year. In the shower on the first morning here in Cuba, he squeezed a mass of yellow pus and partly liquefied dead-botfly parts out of a hole in his forearm.
Cuba is nothing. They don’t even have botflies in Cuba!
Still, the driver of the government truck is right. Things do get worse. By the time they do, the team has driven back east again to Baracoa, and then south through the mountains and switchbacks to the ocean clear on the other side of the island and west again from there, the views gorgeous with beach to the left and dramatic desert rock to the right on the way to Guantánamo, to another Protected Areas office to beg, barter, and finally secure the coveted clearance into Ojito de Agua. They have left the rented Willys and loaded more provisions into this government jeep driven by this government employee, though after a too-brief stint at the mechanic’s it is barely or in the opinion of at least one national park staffer not at all ready to complete the trip up the half-road on the mountain ahead. In even the best scenario, it is unlikely that the group will reach their destination, a manned national park station seven miles up deep mud and rock, before dark; twilight approaches, and the forecast calls for rain, which will render the way unpassable by jeep for sure.
The government driver tries anyway. He takes a deep breath and gathers himself when the pavement ends, and they crash forward through the uneven landscape, jeep rocking violently and Gallagher and the media trying to keep from slamming into one another in the backseat. Until they stop. Stuck. Mired in a deep mud trench. In contrast to your long sentences, you have some abrupt ones, such as these. How do you use short sentences? Pretty literally here, as the subject is stopping, sticking. Sometimes I use them for rhythm, or to get something important across very simply. Everyone ejects, and rocks are collected and thrown under the tires and into the muck ahead, and after a while the truck is dislodged. And then more crashing—and some very near tipping—and then they get stuck again. And the driver kills the battery trying to drive out. And everyone again decamps, and the gear and luggage and provisions are offloaded, splayed around the muddy clearing, and the driver runs away, and after a long time he returns leading two yoked oxen from a farm somewhere and they’re tied to the truck and everybody pushes and rocks it while the farmer beats the oxen relentlessly, breaking branches and then entire small trees over their backs and across their faces until they break free and escape and don’t trample anybody but have to be chased down and wrangled and re-tied to the truck.
After a couple of hours of this, Gallagher turns to the writer and remarks, “This gives you a little idea of how hard it is to study these birds. And why nobody’s doin’ it.”
It grows dark.
It starts to pour.
Really, she has no idea.
In photographs, the Ivory-bill has something human about it. There’s a sentience to the weirdly alert yellow eyes, an intensity to its regard that, combined with a wide stance—rare in the bird world—reads almost like standoffishness. In pictures from 1938 of a large juvenile perched on naturalist J.J. Kuhn’s arm in Louisiana’s Singer Tract, the bird’s big, slightly opened beak looks a breath away from expressing fully formed sentences. This is a lively description. Do you think that comparing animals to humans is key to describing them well? I don’t know! Honestly, I don’t have much call to describe animals in my work. When I saw this photograph, I just immediately thought: Jesus, that thing looks like it’s about to start talking. (Look at it!)
In stuffed specimen form, the Ivory-bill looks like a raggedy nightmare. Dead-eyed or eyeless and old, the ones in the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s vault were only depressing to behold when Gallagher and Lammertink brought them out past multiple security doors for the writer to inspect before heading to Cuba. One specimen there, mounted on a piece of wood, was previously a decoration out on someone’s smoking porch or something, the feathers weathered and broken down. In the collections manager’s office, another mounted specimen has its serrated tongue intact and extending between open bills, but when the thing was gingerly lifted up for the writer’s closer review, one long toe-claw fell off.
No wonder Gallagher was so thrilled to see a live one tear through the sky in the Arkansas bottomland swamp in 2004. He had been obsessed with birds for as long as he could remember, once in his early teens lying facedown on the ground in the sun of the California mountains for hours looking dead so a Turkey Vulture would land on him. (By the time the experiment was reluctantly abandoned as a failure, he was so burned and dehydrated that he barely had the strength to ride his bike back down the hill and home.) And then there he was, after so much searching, rediscovering the bird world’s most coveted and iconic ghost species. Or so he, and several other searchers whom the Lab of Ornithology subsequently enlisted to scour swamp forests across the South for five years, spending several million dollars, maintains—though the only video they captured is highly contested as proof.
As a teenager, Lammertink, too, tried to attract the close attention of a vulture, attempting first to buy a dead sheep but ultimately resorting to sprinkling a doll in tomato-sauce blood and leaving it under the raptors’ flight path. (This experiment also failed.) He was one of Cornell’s Ivory-bill searchers 10 years ago, but not a beholder of one of the six other sightings named in the paper the Lab eventually published. He still believes his colleagues, but he thinks the bird or birds they saw have probably since died. He is highly skeptical that any Ivory-bills still survive in Cuba, the only other place besides the Southeast United States they’ve ever been known to live: The title of the paper he published after searching here in the ’90s is “Status of Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis in Cuba: almost certainly extinct.” He wrote another piece for the journal of the Neotropical Bird Club called “No more hope for the Ivory-billed Woodpecker Campephilus principalis.” But maybe, he thinks now, the birds weren’t there then, in the few remaining patches of pine forest where American researcher George Lamb definitely saw (and obtained photographic proof of) them in 1956, the last such universally accepted records on Earth. Maybe they found suitable habitat in the lowland hardwoods nearby, where maybe they held on until the newly protected pine forest regenerated enough for them to return. You chose some telling nuggets from the researchers’ pasts, but you didn’t go into too much detail about their backgrounds or lives back home in the story. Why not? That’s a good point. I didn’t witness them in their home lives — that’s probably a large part of it. Also I was covering their work personalities and had more material than I could use on that front already.
On that note: The national park guide assigned to the group at Bahía de Taco, who goes by El Indio, said he saw an Ivory-bill with his father just 24 years ago, right in those lowland hardwoods, where the birds would generally not be expected to live.
And so the group looked there, in the lowland hardwoods. From Bahía de Taco they set out on what Gallagher invariably calls a “death march”: 12 hours and, according to the photographer’s iPhone, 99 flights of stairs’ worth of elevation over often extraordinarily slippery red clay scouring for Ivory-bill markings or oval nest cavities in trees. It was on that day that they first broke out the double-knocker.
The double-knocker is an innovation of Lammertink’s own design and construction. An online video documents him using it to attract another Campephilus woodpecker, the Pale-billed, which exists from Mexico to Panama, strapping the small wooden box to a tree with rope, pulling out a contraption made of two dowel rods that he sways back then swings into the box, one dowel and then the other making contact, mimicking the distinctive Campephilus sound: BAM-bam. In the video, recorded in Costa Rica, he does this, and then, from a distance: A Pale-billed knocks back.
! A sentence consisting of just an exclamation point! That’s bold. Tell me about using a punctuation mark this way. A whole paragraph, even. When I was writing this scene, I was trying to get across how stunning and surprising this is (to me, anyway). This seemed like the way to do it. Also an underlying theme of this piece is how ridiculous everything and everyone in the world is, so a (ridiculous) paragraph consisting entirely of an exclamation point seems appropriate.
In the forest near Bahía de Taco, Lammertink trudged off the path beaten for park visitors and through the brush up an incline, finding a pine tree in a growth of quebrahachas, the type of tree El Indio said were dominant where he had his sighting not far from there. Everyone stood silently as Lammertink prepared. He pulled out the box. He strapped it up. He set the dowel contraption on top of it. He opened his notebook. He marked down the time and GPS coordinates. He pulled out an MP3 player attached to a speaker wrapped in camouflage. And then, after much such settling in, he swayed back, and struck.
Everyone was silent.
Lammertink looked around slowly.
He waited 22 to 23 seconds, checking his watch, then struck again.
He struck again.
And again.There are a few places in the story where you give a series of sentences their own paragraph. What effect are you going for with this technique? What’s the right time to use it? Pacing, baby. Good god this was fucking boring. But still tinged with so much anticipation, so the drama of sentence-long paragraphs feels doubly appropriate.
After 10 double-knocks, he put the dowels down, picking up his MP3 player and speaker. He scrolled through his playlist, then pressed play, holding the speaker aloft as the recording of an Ivory-bill, the only existing recording of an Ivory-bill, from 1935, played, underlain by heavy static. People say it sounds like a horn. Or a baby goat. Kent. Kent-kent. Lammertink turned in slow circles blasting it, and Gallagher kept his ears alert as the sound played for 90 seconds. Then he turned it off, and waited.
He put his hands on his hips. He checked his watch.
Gallagher didn’t move.
Then they started the process over, in the same spot.
A double-knock session takes about 30 minutes. With other Campephilus species, Lammertink has waited as long as 20 minutes afterward for them to respond to a call. When he thought they’d waited long enough this time, the group all sitting and standing silently there in the forest, they picked up the bags and waters and cameras they’d set down and took off again, hiking 500 meters farther into the forest to try again. The call carries at least half that far, so to maximize exposure in the limited amount of time available to any one man, Lammertink spaces them out thusly. After the second session, they hiked another 500 meters, and tried again.
Those 30 minutes, knocking and waiting the third time, it was getting late in the day. It was hot, and mosquitos landed on the motionless party. At some point, the photographer wandered off a bit. Gallagher sat down farther back on the path and rested. The writer practiced her yogic Mountain Pose. What purpose does it serve, you think, to include what you and the photographer were doing? It conveys a sense of killing time, which is what everyone was doing. Additionally my including the yoga pose makes a kind of fun of me; there are a lot of people who would think only a certain kind of person (-slash-douchebag) would be (absurdly) doing a yoga pose. A huge bird suddenly broke through the trees and soared into view, sweeping and grand and even with some white underside. But it was only a Turkey Vulture, buzzing close to remind them that life is fleeting.
There have been times when Lammertink used the double-knocker in places where he knew for a fact Campephilus woodpeckers were nearby (-slash-existed), and they didn’t respond. To get one to do so on this trip in a territory this large, he conceded to the photographer, would be very lucky. To not get one proves nothing.
So: There is not a moment to waste. Not in Bahía de Taco double-knocking, and especially not after Lammertink walked to El Indio’s father’s house and interviewed him and asked him what sound the Ivory-bill had made when he saw the bird with his son 24 years ago and the man made the wroooong, very wrong sound of a different bird, and the wrong wing description to boot. This is another sentence where you’re using a colloquial expression (“wroooong”) and repetition. Why are these narrative devices effective here? It was a big moment for the birders, and I think they convey the boo/hiss/head-shake/letdown of it. There’s lots of other ways you could do that, of course. The reason I can get away with the colloquialism, which is another way of looking at “effective,” is because of the conversational style you noted throughout. As El Indio was only seven at the time, his recollection likely colored by his father’s identification of the species, both of the accounts of these two—the only two—witnesses to the exciting possibility that the Ivory-bill did or could live in non-pine forest in eastern Cuba were therefore called into question.
It was a disappointing development, one that Lammertink would henceforth refer to as “The Twist.”
So not a moment to waste getting out of Bahía de Taco—though the forest there was chockful of other species sightings: Scaly-naped Pigeon and Cuban Trogon and Stygian Owl; Cuban Amazon, Cuban Pewee, West Indian Woodpecker, Cuban Tody, Cuban Solitaire, Great Lizard-Cuckoo, Black-and-white Warbler, Cuban Green Woodpecker. Not a moment to waste getting to Guantánamo and getting permission—no time to care or alert the authorities about the endangered parrot being kept illegally caged on the floor of the kitchen in the restaurant where they ate in town—and getting back out to push up the mountain, not a moment to wait for a new day with more light remaining and less chance of rain or a fully fixed vehicle that might not die when it gets stuck.
That night, after hours of human pushing and oxen pulling, the jeep is freed. And with more pushing and pulling, it is rolled backward, and pop-started. But it cannot make it up the now rain-slicked mountain rock, though the driver tries for a terrifying 20 minutes with all the equipment and group again loaded inside. There is a Cuban military outpost a ways back down; the group makes its way there in the downpour, in the dark, and begs a patch of concrete floor to sleep on in a dwelling containing what Gallagher will refer to for the rest of the trip and maybe the rest of his life as The Worst Toilet in the World.
“This will be a great story to tell later,” he keeps saying. He’s been saying this for six days. He will continue to say it for eight more. Can you clarify why you chose the timeline you did for the story, which isn’t purely chronological? You start on the sixth day of the journey and keep coming back to it, while going back in time throughout. I think choosing the first scene is what chose the rest of the timeline. If I wanted to start there, which I did, I had to go back to explain what we were doing and where we were, until I got caught up to the present of that scene again. But the writer is in no mood to agree with the principle that a good story is better than a good time, partly because she has become afflicted with diarrhea—the group has concluded that there must have been an accidental ingestion of a drop from the Bahía de Taco vat of river water—but also because people (read: men) who constantly tell stories of bad times are tedious, and she is basically certain she could write an equally compelling scene if this Cuban restricted-jungle military outpost in the mountains above Guantánamo had turned out to be home to a team of scrappy dogs attired in miniature formalwear and trained to serve cocktails to visitors—which would be a good time—rather than a toilet that in addition to being The Worst has no door to separate anyone who’s using it from her comrades. This sounds like hell. Tell me about choosing to include these personal thoughts and experiences. Ugh. It really was extremely terrible. Diarrhea and extreme discomfort, gastrointestinal and otherwise, are set up in the piece as a regular feature of these trips, so a scene about what that can look like seemed relevant; it just so happened that I was the one with the diarrhea this time.
Earlier, the photographer sidled next to the writer and asked, as they both turned their faces away from the merciless beating of the oxen, a patch of protected Cuban forest being deforested with the tearing down of ever-larger branches and trees with which to assault them, “Do you ever wonder if this is all worth it? For a bird?” The two of them snickered darkly. Just moments before, a chunk of wood had cracked off an oxen-beating club as it broke over the animal’s hide and shot past the photographer’s head, missing him by maybe an inch. “One that almost definitely doesn’t exist?” Did you ever bring this up with the birders directly to get their response? I don’t know if I ever directly asked them, “How is this possibly worth this?” But they answered and addressed it all the time, as Gallagher does later in the piece when he’s talking about hope, and fishing, or as Lammertink does when he says if he dies it’s in the service of something greater. They were extremely cognizant of that question, as it seemed to hang over the whole venture, on their own.
“There is definitely a subset of people who are driven to this,” famed birder and Pulitzer finalist Scott Weidensaul will later explain to the writer. There are birders (and other field biologists), he will say, who are driven to the extent of, “Let’s save 45 minutes of field time tomorrow by finishing this hike tonight in the dark, even though we may fall and break our necks.” He has himself made “really bad decisions,” he says, for which he could have died. Even in the absence of bad decisions, outcomes can be fatal. Ted Parker, another famed birder, did die, along with premier neotropical botanist Alwyn Gentry and leading Ecuadoran conservationist Eduardo Aspiazu Estrada, in a plane crash doing a treetop survey; so did Phoebe Snetsinger, then the most prolific birder in history, when her van rolled in Madagascar. Nathaniel Gerhart died in 2007 in a car accident in Indonesia—three years after he discovered previously unknown habitat of the Selva Cacique—and so did Siarhei Abramchuk in 2010, from an encephalitis-bearing tick bite in Belarus. Subramanian Bhupathy, head of conservation biology at the Sálim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History in India, died in 2014 after slipping down a hill and landing with a bamboo spike in his eye.
“I’m not saying that that’s a decision I would necessarily make,” Weidensaul will say of the hypothetical dangerous night hike. Though “part of that just becomes if you’ve gotten away with it in the past, you assume you’re gonna get away with it in the future,” he’s taking fewer risks now. But “I certainly understand what drives somebody to make that kind of a decision. Just this driving passion to push yourself to the limit because you don’t know what’s on the other side of the next hill. Because you don’t know what you’re gonna find, and if at the end of the day you haven’t done everything you possibly can, you leave yourself wondering: Well, what if I had?” Of Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, Weidensaul says, “If there’s a reason there’s an Ivory-bill anywhere, it’s there, it’s because those are the places that are most difficult to get into.” It seems like you had the opportunity here to go deeper into the history of birding as a profession. Did you think about doing that? No, I didn’t. It didn’t even occur to me. These guys are my slice of birding life.
When the group wakes up at dawn in the military outpost below Ojito de Agua, Lammertink secures four mules to carry gear. Two national park guards also arrive to accompany them. The sun comes out blazing. They climb uphill. When they make it to the manned station several miles up in the afternoon, they stop for a moment—but then continue on, five miles more to the clearing at Ojito de Agua, where Lammertink wants to make camp and mount searches. The writer, who has been ingesting food but has effectively not eaten in two days because of the diarrhea, becomes too weak to stand; they put her on a mule. They put Gallagher, who is growing increasingly tired, on another one. They reach Ojito de Agua shortly before dark, and it starts to rain as they set up their tents. The Cubans fill the designated treated-water receptacle with untreated water; Lammertink, the only fluent Spanish speaker, has not explained to them that the Americans are designating such a receptacle or why because he personally is not bothering with water treatment from this mountain spring. A partial list of untreated-water tragedies that have occurred in Lammertink’s previous fieldwork includes: the death of a human man. That time even Lammertink didn’t trust the water, so sketchy were the sources they were pulling it from in the Bornean jungle, but the field assistant, a local, wouldn’t listen to anyone’s warnings. Diphtheria came on fast after he went back home and turned worse quickly; by the time his family went for medical help, there was nothing anyone could do.
The photographer almost drinks the untreated water before the mistake is discovered.
The writer has already drunk a liter of it.
At Ojito de Agua, everyone in the small camp bathes and washes their hands and dishes in a stream that the mules are pissing and shitting in and near. The second night, one of the mules awakens the camp, moaning and thrashing and crashing around; it lies down, and then, to the great astonishment and helplessness of its Cuban masters, violently dies. Wow. This image, and the one above of the oxen being beaten and fleeing, are powerful. Did you see them as metaphors? Of conveying something about Cuba? To me they were examples of what a shitshow the excursion was and how great the sacrifices are that get made.
“This is not what normal birding is like,” Gallagher clarifies at some point to the writer, in case this has been lost on her.
It starts to pour again. In the morning, they break dead-mule camp for fear of infection and rotting-mule smell and hike three miles to another, smaller clearing, perched on the side of a cliff where mosquitos are swarming in great clouds. It rains again when they arrive to set up for three nights among the trees and underbrush, which in this area are covered with sharp thorns and spikes of varying lengths. When Lammertink stayed here 25 years ago, he brushed up against a plant that turned his forearm into a bloated, oozing, yellow-pus-seeping rash of open blisters that didn’t close for five months, and then didn’t fade from scarring for “years.” He doesn’t know which plant it was, so he can’t point it out.
In between the moving, and machete-swinging through non-trails, and basic surviving:
Between sweating and getting snagged and rained on, slipping over wet rocks in the middle or right on the side of a mountain, 20 flights of elevation before even 7:30 a.m. one day (the writer climbing under her own power, as her stool has miraculously solidified):
They stop. They strap up the double-knocker. They turn on recorders, and write down coordinates, and call to the Ivory-bill.
They wait, collectively, for hours, sitting or standing quietly, for a response. BAM-bam. Waiting. Kent-kent through the speakers; waiting. Hiking and trudging and starting over. In all that stillness and hard staring, it’s easy to understand how an anticipation broken by a bird finally bursting forth would evoke sobs, as it immediately did in the guy Gallagher saw the Ivory-bill with in 2004—after they’d dodged countless close calls with poisonous water moccasins in the southeastern American swamp.
But in Cuba, one never does burst forth. How did you think about building tension in recounting what is essentially a failed expedition? I think it came a bit ready-made, since we spent so many hours sitting waiting for something to happen that we weren’t sure could or would happen but hoped for, which is tense by nature. We didn’t know the expedition was failed then yet, and since the reader is with us in time, they get that tension, too. Worse, there are not even any signs in this place, the last place in the country where Ivory-bills lived, that they were here anytime recently. There are no foraging signs, none of the bark-scaling and bark-stripping Ivory-bills do. No recent cavities. The forest is not even as Ivory-bill-friendly as Lammertink would like. Though protected, it’s dense. The regrowth pines don’t have enough light and space to grow into big Ivory-bill habitat. There are no reports among locals, not even crappy secondhand rumors that one has been seen or heard in decades, excepting one witness who they will go check out when they leave the woods. It wouldn’t be the first instinct of many writers to use “crappy” here instead of, say, “flimsy” or “dubious.” Tell me about that word choice. Crappy seems even worse than flimsy or dubious. They were so desperately looking for any shred of any quality that even the lowest would have been clung to. All of the interviews with potential witnesses they’ve tracked down so far have been hopeless: The one with El Indio’s father that contained The Twist, the one with the former logger they passed on the way to the national park station who said no one had seen the bird after the ’80s, the one with the 91-year-old in Farallones who said Ivory-bills were everywhere when he was a kid but not since, and kept trying to steer the conversation away from extinct birds (“He says, ‘We’re all made out of dust and to dust we will return,’ ” Lammertink translated. “His wife passed away three years ago, and he believes she now lives in eternity, or something”) as Lammertink mightily steered it toward extinct birds again and again (“There’s probably at this age more pressing questions than Ivory-bills,” he said as he finally gave up).
Sitting down in camp on the final night, Lammertink pronounces that the worst day in the field is better than the best day in the office. He became captivated by woodpeckers in general and Ivory-bills in specific when he picked up a book on the bird family by chance in a library at age 11. When he graduated high school, he worked at a dairy factory to save money to finance his trip to come here and look for them, and this time, he is satisfied with how much ground he’s covered. He is hungry, since he ate only a handful of stale crackers for lunch on another hard-charging day of traveling and double-knocking, and thirsty, since he lost his water bottle at some point in doing so. Having observed the character of his interactions with the other members of the group for almost two weeks, the writer has circled in her notes to ask him if he likes birds better than people, but on this last night she sits down next to him and asks instead if he cares more about birds than he does about himself. It’s interesting that you let readers in on your reporting process a bit here. Do you do that often? Why? I don’t think I do that often; in this case, it’s a nod to what I think about his character, while at the same time underlining the fact that it’s only my opinion.
He pauses for a long, long time, and stutters. He allows when pressed that the botflies are a gross and painful annoyance but a small one, and maybe he should put more DEET on his clothes. But when you’re getting up close on a bird and you feel a mosquito land, you can’t just be swatting around like a maniac. No. You can barely dare to breathe. He doesn’t think he would kill himself over a bird. Not deliberately. Yes he’s had dengue fever and malaria, and he died once. Well didn’t quite die, but came close to dying, when he and a field assistant were swarmed by thousands of bees in Borneo. They were in and out of consciousness after, ferocious puking and diarrhea while some villagers tried to pluck thousands of stingers from their faces and backs and arms, and others stood around saying they wouldn’t make it for sure. It was an Oriental Honey-buzzard, which rips open bees’ nests, that had whipped them up and caused the whole event; Lammertink had never seen one of the birds, and he was pretty excited until the bees attacked. He and the field assistant are married now and have two children. “I’ve been doing this now for, let’s see, 25 years, fieldwork in tropical areas, and you know, I’m still alive,” he says. He laughs. “So, why not do it for another 25 years?” He is not a thrill seeker. Not even a risk seeker, he says. He acknowledges that some of the work he does is risky, “but it’s always for some kind of conservation project, and if something goes terribly wrong, at least in my last moments, I know it was for some greater cause.”
In the morning, Lammertink, who can endure almost anything but cannot abide an unshaven face, shaves by feel beside the cold creek. The group packs up camp. They march eight miles over a mountain ridge and out of the forest, stopping for a last double-knock session, finally coming out the side opposite the one they entered—north, back up in Farallones. Both birders say, as they emerge filthy from the trees, that it does seem like the Ivory-bill is dead in Cuba. Lammertink’s earlier conclusions, he re-concludes, are confirmed. The little bit of hope he was holding is squashed. What was your process for interviewing, taking notes and/or recording on a multi-day trip like this? As it happens, the Radiolab producers had sent me a radio kit to take along in case we wanted to make a story of it later, so I had nearly all of our interviews as well as random interactions on tape. Then I went back and transcribed only the parts I wanted for the story. Normally I would just take notes most or all of the time, and record only very dense or official interviews.
The Ivory-bill is not given up so easily.
After a night of sleep back at the first jungle shack, the birders decide, while the photographer and writer are out of earshot, that they will go back into the woods. Today. There is still that last witness, who someone said saw one in 2008 and heard one in 2011. They haven’t interviewed him yet. They are on their way to interview him this morning. If he seems credible, they will ditch the writer and photographer and round up some mules and hike right back into the mountains for another double-knock session tonight, and another at dawn, and then try to race back out and to a driver and to the airport hours away over barely-roads to make their flight tomorrow.
There’s hope! Gallagher thinks, perking up out of his dire exhaustion, in which he barely staggered out of the woods just yesterday. We can still do this!
The witness says he saw Ivory-bills, all right.
He saw them in 1971.
Gallagher is crushed. His throat is thick with grief and near-crying when he comes into the writer’s hotel room the next day to confess the plan to jettison her and continue the expedition, foiled only by the confirmation of a faulty report. “I just suddenly . . .” he says. “I thought: These birds are really gone.” His swallows are heavy. Nice image. Do you think actively about engaging the various senses in your descriptions? No, I don’t think I do. I describe what stands out to me, and frankly I’ve noticed that that often leaves holes in describing what things look like, specifically. “I mean, I’m the most optimistic person in the world, and it was just . . . inescapable to me. And I almost felt guilty, as though, like, me giving up made it so. It was really like having a loved one on a ventilator or something, and they’re already gone, and you just have to make that decision to give up.”
He thinks other people should keep looking here. Even though he feels sure the birds aren’t here. He doesn’t know why. He says it’s hard to say. He himself won’t come back, though, unless there’s a solid sighting. This is it for him.
Here in Cuba, anyway! He’s talking about the Cuban Ivory-bill. He will continue to float the rivers and bayous of the American Southeast looking—Oh yes!, he says. Because that’s who he is. He will never give up the dream of finding one in America, though he’s been mired in controversy since the first time he proclaimed that he had—the catalyst of the highest-profile birder fight in modern history. Weidensaul, when saying on the record that he considers Gallagher’s sighting “persuasive,” equates that admission to “driving nails into the coffin of my professional reputation.”
“I need to go, to exclude the possibility that they’re there,” Lammertink had said at the Toronto airport, before they left. “It’s too important not to check.” Why did you leave this sentiment – which preceded the whole journey – until this point in the piece? I think it means more here, when you know what the hell they’ve been up to, when up top beforehand it’d be an emptier, or less resonant, sentiment.
“Of course, it’s a real long shot, and probably nothing will happen,” Gallagher had said the same day. “But as in fishing, if you don’t put your fly in the water, there’s no chance you’re gonna catch anything. You could go to some stream and go, This is a terrible-looking stream, or whatever, or unlikely to have trout, but I’ll cast the fly out there. And I’ve caught trout in some really unusual places.” If he can keep that kind of hope up for trout, what can’t he do for birds, with which he’s been in love since he was talking to them out on his grandmother’s porch as a three-year-old while his father, a sailor who was sunk three times in World War II and came back a scary drunk, knocked her around inside. Why did you include this background here, instead of higher up, when you were talking about his early interest in birds? Kind of the same as the above detail, I think. “Someone’s gotta do it, or it’s not gonna get done.”
The writer and the photographer don’t understand, haven’t understood, the risks the birders take. But one could argue that the writer and photographer do—that they are on this very trip doing—the same for their own work. Yes , I’m glad you address this head-on. This occurred to me. Had you thought about this before setting out on this journey? No, I hadn’t, because I had not at all been adequately briefed on what exactly this journey was going to entail. The birders’ passion does bring maybe balance but certainly conservation successes sometimes to this planet. The sightings in the ’80s got the forest they’ve just exited protected, and perhaps not a moment too soon—three of the areas where George Lamb photographed the Ivory-bills in the ’50s are completely logged and mined out, in a country that is really just now opening up and increasing infrastructure and investment. Gallagher’s alleged 2004 sighting helped get more of a singular and threatened American landscape preserved. It’s hard to argue that it was a bad outcome, regardless of whether there were Ivory-bills in it. Back in the day, early explorers did outrageous things to discover the world when it was still wild and unknown. So do their modern counterparts, who are trying to prove it still is, and to keep little pieces of it that way. Why did you think a sort of “moral of the story” paragraph was important here? It felt more like an acknowledgment of their rightness, in a way, than a moral. Who am I to judge them?
On the way to Farallones, back on the first day, the group stopped by the side of the road for a bathroom break. Though it’s currently the only road connecting all the cities in Cuba’s northeast, they didn’t bother to properly pull over. They climbed out, dusty and jeep-shook. Not a car passed. After they’d all returned from their visits to the surrounding woods, they stood stretching their legs quietly until Gallagher intoned, in his best voiceover impression as he gazed toward the trees, “And they stopped for a bathroom break, and suddenly, there was an Ivory-bill!,” his face lit brighter than two bottles of prosecco at the possibility. Why did you choose this ending for the story? The moment stood out for me when it was happening, and spoke, I thought even then, to the relentlessness of both the hope and the searching. As an ending it highlights to how everywhere, anytime, before this trip and beyond, it never dies.