Sometime this week, if things go as predicted, the mourning warbler will be spotted in Muscongus Bay.
The fall migration of birds already has begun, just as summer for humans hits high season. Within a few weeks, we can expect to see chestnut- collared longspurs, Northern water thrushes and Wilson’s warblers, as songbirds, shorebirds and sea ducks make their course along the Atlantic flyway, their wings skimming the edges of New Hampshire, Cape Cod and Rhode Island.
But I am keeping my attention on those mourning warblers, hoping that one might veer slightly off course and come nearer my inland home outside of Gray, because my autumn flight is beginning early this year, too.
In a couple of weeks, I will be leaving Maine, turning inland and inward, as I make my way, first to Massachusetts and then, on to Michigan, where I will teach writing at a college on the shores of the Great Lakes. Like the birds, I will be following blood instinct – not always absolutely reliable for survival, but an essential navigation instrument nonetheless – returning to the region of my birth and fledging.
Coming to Maine two years ago was a dream realized for me; I had always wanted to live here and hoped to retire here one day. But time and necessity, familiarity and family, are calling me home, to pass on to the next generation some of the valuable education imparted to me more than a quarter century ago at a small private college with the name, Hope.
The English department there has recruited me to teach nonfiction writing, poetry, argument and composition. The administration was eager to talk to working writers who felt comfortable teaching within moral and spiritual parameters, in a workshop setting, which is more or less what many journalists do for each other every day.
I have abiding gratitude to this particular college which many years ago granted tenure to a sometime journalist and poet with a master’s degree who was a central force in my education. He would never earn what is now the ordinarily requisite PhD, because, I think, he had a low tolerance for work he did not recognize as essential to the job at hand: teaching young people the value of words and ideas, the importance of telling the truth at any cost, the uncommon privilege of being allowed to wander the fields of language for life.
He believed, among many other things, that young writers improved by practice, practice, practice – by reading and writing as often as possible, and thinking deeply and without sentimentality all the time.
“Show me, don’t tell me,” he would write in the margins of student work. “Avoid abstraction. Be specific.”
I entered college during the era of his not-insignificant influence, a somewhat shy co-ed whose only real career goal was to write for a living – ideally, poetry – and he was the first teacher I had ever met who thought, as I did, that to be allowed that opportunity was a sacred vocation.
I often met with him for one-on-one evaluation of my work, which meant steeling myself for a barrage of questions about the linguistic choices I had made and a real junkyard dog fight over every single word, until I saw poetry – and prose, too – for what such writing could communicate: a precision and lyrical quality that could break a reader’s heart.
He gave me E.B. White and Joan Didion, not by way of mere introduction, but as an astronomer might aim at the night sky and point out the dominant planets or a botanist might pick up debris from the forest floor and explain the importance of distinguishing between palmate and reticulate leaf types.
I remember, with the elaborate clarity we reserve for extinct dinosaurs or long- altered Victorian mores, how he barked at me in his office one afternoon, as always calling me only by my last name, and saying: “Look, if you want to be a writer, you have to be willing to strip yourself bare, go right to the bone and tell in detail what you experience. You can’t be afraid of the dark or worried about being criticized or getting hurt.”
That true teacher – Dirk Jellema – died young, of esophageal cancer, at just the age I am now as I return “home” to the Midwest.
I don’t know if I have more than a semester’s worth of ideas or insight to impart beyond what he imbued in me, and I might return by spring to the landscape that shaped my adult memory and most of my life: the barrier beaches of the east coast. The truth is, I will always be a New Englander now.
But migration is a fact of life, and fall is a good time to set out for welcoming shores. It seems apt to be moving as the mourning warblers are stirring here in Maine, negotiating the long flight south, and reawakening in me the recollection of how I first earned my wings.
I’m headed to the wintering ground of my forebearers. I understand the mourning warbler is expected there, too – in Holland, Sept. 27, when classes are well under way.