Yellow-rumped warblers are among the most common warblers in North America. There are an estimated 170 million of them, small, elegant birds clothed in yellow, gray, and black. They spent the summer nesting across the vast northern conifer forests of the continent, singing from the pines and spruces. In September I watched them migrating south, wave after wave crossing the cold lands where I live in Montana, United States. At the end of that same month, they began to arrive in Oaxaca, Mexico, where many of them would stay for the winter. In December, I followed them by airplane. During the flights to Oaxaca, thinking about the warblers and their unimaginable migration, I wrote this poem.
Hurtling through the turbulent night
in a mechanical bird, within a shell
of aluminum, flight feathers that never molt
seeing the same pinpricks of gridded light below
that the warblers saw as they flew through the vast night’s blackness
two months ago, hearts beating fast. Saying goodbye, they and I
to the Helena Valley, to these particular curves of stream and mountain
where I know the plants well, the dormant tufts of the grasses,
the burgundy-gray chokecherry buds, the tawny autumnal exuberance
of goldenrod seeds, the glittering movement and somnolent songs of summer insects.
Our aluminum rocket follows the cordillera
hurrying south, while to the east a reddish whisper of sunrise
fades to cobalt over the knife of the left wing
and the ancient silhouette of the sierra.
Hours pass, and other time capsules, propelling themselves
over mountains and desert plateaus, and among the smoke of Mexico City
some flycatcher hunts insects along the runway
and yellow flowers glow under the nopales.
Across the wall
The migration of the warblers is something that amazes me. I still don’t comprehend it very well. Flapping through the night, they fly over an insignificant wall, maybe without noticing it, a narrow barrier that, through some cruelty of life, seems to define our human existence too much in our two countries. The migratory birds, I imagine, don’t give a damn. They live an existence that recognizes a single Earth, stretching from the steep mountains of Canada, sculpted by glaciers, to the mangos and guajes of Oaxaca, some of them continuing south through the volcanoes of Mesoamerica to I don’t know where.
That’s why I came to Oaxaca. For the connections, for the richness of exchange that can happen whenever we recognize that we’re one humanity living on one Earth, connected by the birds, by the monarch butterflies, by vast currents of wind and atmosphere. And when we try to learn the languages of our neighbors from another country, to exchange stories, thoughts, and daily life, perhaps the world becomes a little bit more beautiful.
Gentrification and tourism
I came seeking that type of connection—but I don’t want to pretend that everything is a matter of warblers and beautiful flowers. I see an ugly face to tourism, something that has to do not with exchange but with exploitation, and the least I can do is not ignore it. For me as a gringo, it’s very easy to cross the wall; for my Mexican friends, the paperwork is much more complicated. And the simple, cruel fact that there’s a 16 to one exchange rate between the peso and the dollar means that my money is suddenly worth much more in Mexico. Meanwhile, if a Mexican wants to get to know the United States, they have to swim against the economic current, exchanging hard-earned pesos for scarce dollars that barely make a dent in a country where everything is expensive.
In recent years, many foreigners have taken advantage of this wealth gradient, moving to Mexico, buying houses, and living more or less in luxury. As a result, the prices here in Mexico have shot up as well, making life even more difficult for those locals who have limited resources. This phenomenon of gentrification bothers me. And that’s even without mentioning the more ugly and dramatic examples, such as Cancún, a city that didn’t exist before 1970.
What happened in Cancún
Selling the tropical paradise to foreigners has brought some hotel owners and realtors economic success in Cancún. But it doesn’t seem to have benefited local Mayan communities very much, according to the documentary El tren y la península, which investigates this topic in relation to the contentious project of the Tren Maya, a rail development focused on increasing tourism in the area. Meanwhile, the development of Cancún has greatly impacted the environment. For the more than eight million tourists who visit every year, Cancún has given them the notion that taking luxury vacations is something they deserve, ignoring the suffering they’re causing. To this I say: bullshit! I don’t know the solutions to these complex, systemic problems—but I know that I can’t speak about connection and cultural exchange without also recognizing these difficult topics.
In spite of the pains of gentrification—and in spite of the fact that I, as a white guy from the north, come here as an involuntary representative of a system of inequality that I can’t stand—I’ve gotten to know many incredible people here in Oaxaca. People who have told me that to receive the traveler with kindness is something fundamental to their being, to their moral code. I hope that the traveler doesn’t forget to reciprocate this kindness—and that my fellow Americans don’t forget to welcome the travelers who visit our communities, as well. Mutual respect is fundamental to cultural exchange. As the famous Oaxacan, Benito Juárez, said, “peace is the respect for the rights of another.”
From Montana to Oaxaca (and back again)
This story is the first in a series that goes from the frigid landscape of Montana to the mountains, valleys, and wetlands of Oaxaca. The series will follow threads of connection with people, birds, and landscapes in these two regions and between them. I hope that it stimulates an exchange between our people, an exchange that enriches our lives and our connection with the earth. I hope that, along with the deep local knowledge of place we may already have, this series contributes a framework of the birds that don’t recognize borders, that connect our continent in a single, diverse entity.
Now, let’s return to the warblers. We’ve followed their fall migration south with a poem. We’ve considered the wall and our connected, complicated humanity on both sides of it. Now let’s get to know them in the city of Oaxaca in the winter. After that, we’ll leap dramatically north to the arrival of spring in Montana, awaiting the coming of the warblers in a place where I’ve developed a deep relationship with the land. This is a story of fleeting glimpses, snapshots of a journey that we can only touch with the imagination. So now let’s go to the warblers in Oaxaca—and bring your imagination along.
Las Canteras Park, Oaxaca
It’s the end of January. The sun rose in a clear sky in Las Canteras Park and a commotion of northern rough-winged swallows filled the air over the pond. The park, an abandoned quarry in the capital city of Oaxaca, is a small oasis for birds among all of the streets and buildings. Now, three hours after sunrise, the voices of other birds are joining the hammering of carpenters from the barrio. You can hear the shrieks of the social flycatchers, the deep voices of the white-winged doves and Inca doves, the beautiful song of the house finch—and everywhere, the calls of the warblers.
Warblers in the city
Where the aromatic branches of a large pirul (Schinus molle) hang with dry, pink fruits, the yellow-rumped warblers are foraging, leaping agilely among the leaves. Two orchard orioles are moving more slowly through the foliage. A berylline hummingbird pauses within the canopy of the pirul and then suddenly whirs into the distance. Farther away, another flock of yellow-rumped warblers is hunting insects, accompanied by a few Nashville and Wilson’s warblers.
All winter long, the city of Oaxaca is full of migratory warblers. Yellow-rumped, Nashville, and Wilson’s warblers are especially common here. They flit through the trees in the Zócalo, the square in the middle of downtown. They live among the bustle of the city, calling from every garden.
Near the start of April, the frequency of warbler observations begins to diminish in the city. Spring migration is starting. By early May, the last warblers will take flight, heading north.
The lands I know well are 2200 miles to the north, in the state of Montana, United States of America, near the border with Canada. It’s an intense and beautiful land, with long winters of snow and cold. The plants pass the cold weather hidden in roots and tubers, withstanding the wind and the temperature changes. And when spring comes, it comes with exuberance.
There’s a place in Montana that I’ve gotten to know intimately over the past years. Let’s travel there now, in the spring, when the snow is disappearing. We find ourselves at the edge of a stream called Sevenmile Creek at the point where the mountains meet a valley. Upstream, the waters pass through forests of pine, Douglas-fir, and juniper, burbling through beautiful patches of willows and quaking aspens. They spill through beaver dams on their way to this place, at the edge of the valley, where the conifer forest transitions to dry prairies of grasses and herbs.
From April to May
We’re arriving here at the beginning of April, just as the warblers are leaving Oaxaca. It snowed a little bit more last night, but every day the sun is stronger. Now that it’s getting close to noon, all of the fresh snow has melted. The landscape is soggy with the anticipation of spring. Once in a while we can hear the song of the western meadowlarks, back from their wintering grounds, which stretch from Nayarit, Mexico to Illinois, USA. The American robins, also recently returned, are foraging among the dead grasses of the previous year, where the insects and spiders have become active again after the harsh winter.
Suddenly, we see a small falcon shoot across the sky. We only see it for a few seconds; the falcon disappears rapidly to the south. Its flight startles a flock of mountain bluebirds that were feeding on the ground, hidden among the grasses. They leap into the air, a storm of blue feathers fluttering past us.
Now let’s jump to the end of May, crossing nearly two months of rapid springtime change in a second. The landscape has transformed dramatically, as if it were a different world. There’s no thought of snow now; winter has receded towards the mountainous heights. Now, more than fifty species of birds are present in this single short section of stream, more than double the number that we found here two months ago. The waters are energetic and muddy, spilling over the banks of the creek, and the landscape is green with new grasses and new leaves on the shrubs. The western meadowlarks are singing constantly now, all around us. We’ve already found their first nests, hidden on the ground among the grasses.
Connected by warblers
The warblers have returned, as well. We can hear the yellow warblers, which will stay to nest here, from the chokecherries along the stream. A flood of yellow-rumped warblers—we count 46 of them—are trapping insects among the new leaves of the alders and probing the flower buds of the chokecherries. They and several of the other warblers we see today—Wilson’s warblers and American redstarts—will continue in their migration, seeking breeding sites higher in the mountains or farther north towards Canada.
By the beginning of June, the yellow-rumped warblers will have passed by. This stretch of stream will feel the absence of their songs and their activity. We’ll have entered the peak of the nesting season, another chapter in the infinite stories of the migratory birds that weave this continent together.
But the yellow-rumped warblers have left traces in our lives: here in Montana, in the capital of Oaxaca, and in hundreds of places in between and beyond. Their migration remains beyond our comprehension, glimpsed in fragments, the rest imagined. But even so, the warblers touch our awareness. And they connect us, linking the particular and the global, linking the deep relationships that we can form with the earth wherever we live to the interconnected diversity of landscapes and peoples that make up our cordillera, our continent, and our shared planet.
From the connection that we can all have with the earth wherever we live, from the wall that the warblers ignore and the gentrification that I can’t ignore, from an abandoned quarry in Oaxaca de Juárez and from the cold earth of Montana, here we start this series of connection through nature across America. America in the sense of the word as it’s used in Spanish, a single continent that includes North, South, and Central, that includes all of us. Next month, we’ll continue the story. And meanwhile, I invite you to reflect on these themes. I invite you to think about the yellow-rumped warblers where you are, to consider how the threads of connection that these birds carry interlace with your particular relationship with the earth. Until next month.