As much as they were always tied to London, both the Stephen sisters craved the solitude and simplicity of country life. In 1911, they took a place called Asheham near Lewes in Sussex. Virginia and Leonard continued to use this house as a weekend get-away until 1919.
When war broke out in 1914, Vanessa and Duncan (with Duncan’s lover Bunny Garnett) went to Wissett Lodge in Suffolk where the men did farmwork to maintain their status as conscientious objectors. When they needed a new situation in 1916, Virginia recommended Charleston, which was only four miles away from Asheham. The house was roomy and the farmer there needed help. That autumn, Vanessa, Duncan, Bunny and the two boys moved into Charleston. (Clive spent the war at Garsington with Ottoline, but was a frequent visitor to Charleston with his lover Mary Hutchinson).
In 1919 the Woolfs were given notice at Asheham, and so that autumn they moved to Monk’s House in nearby Rodmell, only two miles from Vanessa’s home.
The sisters liked the distance between them – not quite next door but very nearly. Before telephones were installed, they often sent messages back and forth by post not unlike we’d use email today. Virginia was a great walker and often walked to Charleston, where she was always a welcome visitor. Whether in London or Sussex, their lives were closely entwined from birth until death.
The road now is very busy. We pull over at an unlikely intersection, and the bus driver tells us sometimes he must wait 10 minutes for an chance to pull out again. So we have to wait for a quiet moment and then dart across the highway between the zooming cars.
It’s a long walk up the driveway, past tangled clumps of low trees. There’s nothing to indicate we’re on the right road, and I remember how much Vanessa valued her privacy. That obscurity was one of the reasons she chose Charleston. Farm buildings are scattered along the road further along. We’re walking vaguely uphill. Eventually we come to a fork and opt hopefully for the right turn. Again walking gently uphill, we see ahead a collection of buildings along either side of the road, arranged on a crest in the hillside. The land around it is bare, hilly, pockmarked with rocks, lone trees like sentinels on the contours.
We cross a little cow-bridge and step around the muddy tractor wheel tracks; among other things Charleston is still a working farm. To our right is the pond where they swam and punted and painted under the arching arms of a willow tree. The buildings ahead to our left may have been farm buildings at one time; they have the look of it. But now they’re the shop, the loo, the tourist appendages we recognize.
We’re just in time for a tour of the house. It doesn’t look so big from the road. It looks sensible and strong and sits with its back right on the drive, so that we step from the driveway right over the threshold into the kitchen.
The tour commences here. We’ll follow the path of a typical day at Charleston Farmhouse, and that day would begin with Grace Higgins, the family’s faithful cook and housekeeper, lighting the range at 5am and beginning the day’s activities. The room is dominated by the table we recognize from Vanessa’s painting and the huge range. I drink up the details of the kitchen’s layout and configuration, noting the ornamental decorations, the painted panels of the cupboard doors, the painted tiles behind the sink and stovetop, the blue and white serving plates displayed over the range which, we’re told, were from Hyde Park Gate. Quentin contributed light fixtures hanging from the low ceiling. They look like upside-down collanders. (Everywhere it seems the more eccentric additions seem to come from Quentin. His touch always includes a sense of humor.)
Standing there, I see the kitchen as a warm place with children darting in and out, laughing voices, busy activity, bowls and rolling pins and knives on the table or children sitting there with books or under the table with toys, a cat asleep on a chair, a dog barking outside, perhaps Duncan sticking his head in the door with a sheepish apology about spilt tea or the knock of a delivery man at the door. Despite her many unconventional attitudes, Vanessa wasn’t liberal about servants. She only came to this room once each day in the morning to discuss the day’s menus and plans with Grace.
When they first arrived in 1916, the farmhouse had no electricity and no hot water – in fact, it had no water at all: the pump was frozen. They hauled water in buckets from a nearby spring. Those first winters were bitter, and their battle against the cold was relentless. Roger Fry came up with creative alterations for the fireplaces to throw out more heat. They pumped water to fill the cistern and heated water on the range. Grace spent the early hours of each day heating water and carrying jugs up the stairs. Like ordinary country people, they used chamber pots in their bedrooms at night and otherwise used an outdoor earth closet.
And though the house feels sturdy and thick-walled like a hillside fortress, the buildings are exposed to the wind and weather with little to buffer them from the elements. It’s easy to imagine the cold wind blasting against the house naked against the bare hills. No wonder it was cold.
We go past the back door now into the dining room, which occupies the corner facing out onto the driveway and the pond. In spite of the windows, the room feels dark and small, the round table nearly too big for the space. They painted the walls in a charcoal-grey checkerboard pattern. The surface of the table was once painted in brilliant colors which have now faded. The inside wall is a recessed alcove under a huge mantle nearly the length of the room. This area is big enough for two chairs straddling the fireplace.
This is where they started their days with breakfast, newspapers, making plans, chatting and laughing. Everywhere you look, everything is painted, decorated in that Omega Workshop style. Backs of chairs, cupboards, sideboards, mantlepieces, panels of doors. The colors have faded over the years, but still infuse a room with cheerfulness. They decorated the draperies, the wallpaper, dishes, pottery, ceramics, even the fabric of the furniture.
We pass the front door now and climb the stairs, are escorted through a series of rooms. We’re told who used which rooms, but the tour’s storyline moves around in time over a period of 50 years. Different people slept in different rooms, rooms were added, changed, people came and went. The rooms are not large, but are functional and often plain apart from the painted decorations and dazzling paintings hung everywhere. Each room is dominated by Vanessa’s and Duncan’s work mainly, but also the work of the other painters they admired and collected. It’s tempting to linger in each room to examine what’s on the walls, but we must press on.
Much of the second floor is arranged as it was when Clive Bell moved to Charleston fulltime in 1939 for the duration of the Second World War. Vanessa took pains to make Clive feel at home. His bedroom adjoined the Green Bathroom, with his own library next door. He also had his own study on the main floor. (Clive’s study downstairs was once the schoolroom for Quentin and Julian. On that frigid Christmas Eve in 1918 when their sister was being born upstairs, the boys got carried away sacking Rome and smashed the lower door panel. When replacing it later, Duncan painted an acrobat in mid-air, which to me seemed fitting.)
Clive’s bedroom had been Quentin and Julian’s bedroom when they first arrived. When he moved here, Clive brought his own furniture with him from Gordon Square. His bed is tiny; the guide said it was in the French fashion. Both his bedroom and library are lined with shelves of books, most in French. His room contains a blue carpet he brought with him from London and a strange wooden reading table with an arm to hold the book.
The Library is a dark room with walls painted black, filled with bookshelves heavy laden with books. This room had been Vanessa’s bedroom until 1939. Along with the many paintings hanging in this room is Duncan’s portrait of Vaness done not long after Virginia’s death. It’s the portrait of her I find most arresting – she looks like a sad queen. Also this room contains the lovely bust of Lytton Strachey by Stephen Tomlin.
Next to Clive’s bedroom is a door marked “Maynard Keynes’ bedroom” – but Maynard slept there three decades before Clive slept next door, and so we must mentally jump back to those cold days during the Great War, when Maynard used Charleston as his weekend country home. He wrote great things here, of course, made a name for himself, but he also loved to pry out the weeds between the flags outside with his penknife. The room looks out on the pond at the front of the house and in the summer was smothered with white clematis.
Duncan’s bedroom is the corner room looking out onto the pond and driveway. It is a cheerful room with white walls and colorful decorations. I am struck by the portrait of Adrian Stephen he kept there. A small table in front of the window is painted with a man riding a dolphin. I had to look up this story when I got home. It comes from Herodotus. Arion was a famous harper and singer who made a great fortune travelling about, but when he was sailing back home, the ship’s crew decided to murder him and take his money. To avoid death he dove overboard, where a dolphin saved him, bore him up above the waves and carried him safely back to land. “Dolphin” was Virginia’s lifelong nickname for her sister, and Vanessa indeed bore Duncan up throughout his life. It also brings to mind Duncan’s many lovers from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks. Vanessa had good reason to worry about him; he could never hang onto money and he was never far from harm’s way.
Up the narrow stairs, we come to Vanessa’s studio. She’d shared Duncan’s studio downstairs for many years, but eventually wanted more privacy and so made the necessary alterations to create a lovely, bright studio upstairs. It’s divided into two rooms now, the first housing a fleet of computers, obviously the house’s office. And so you pass this jarring anachronism going into the room with the broad high windows. The guide tells us how Vanessa would retreat up here if unwelcome visitors (such as Lydia Keynes) arrived. We had only a few seconds to look around, and so I have no time to form an impression other than, “This is where she hid from life for those last 20 years of her life.”
We go down the stairs again to the ground floor to the room called the Garden Room. Its French doors open directly out into the beautiful garden, and in spite of the room’s inviting nature, you’re naturally drawn to those doors to look out into that gorgeous walled garden. This was a storage room for a long time, but eventually grew into the drawing room for the adults. This is where they sat after dinner, arguing into the night or reading to one another. This is where they gathered around the wireless during those long nights of the war. It’s a charming, cozy room with a fish rug and two lovely ladies flanking what had been a mirror over the mantle but is now a painted basket of flowers.
Now we move into Vanessa’s bedroom, the room where she died. She chose this room, in what had been the larder, for her new bedroom when Clive moved upstairs in 1939. She added the French doors that look out onto the garden. I looked around eagerly, wanting to know what she kept closest. Above her narrow bed is a large portrait of Julian. Portraits of young Quentin and Angelica in fancy dress. A sensible small desk where she wrote letters. In a corner behind a screen is a private bath she added, one of her few luxuries. By a door is a self-portrait of Duncan, done when he was young, when she first fell in love with him.
And so we pass into Duncan’s studio, and there is his comfortable clutter, his easel, his paintings, his chair next to the fireplace. The room feels as if he might have been there only a few minutes ago. He just put down his paintbrush to go answer a phone call or greet a caller at the door. The room was added in 1925 in what had been a chicken run. It is shabby, cluttered, comfortable, dominated by a huge male nude on an easel.
Now we step out into the garden. It’s bounded on one side by the house and the three other sides by a high stone wall, incongruous against the emptiness of that landscape. The garden’s flowerbeds are bounded by reflecting pools and statuary, benches and arbors. The flowering foliage creeps up around the edges of the borders and boundaries, but it’s well cared for. A central lawn was used for theatricals. Beyond the walls there’s more: orchard, greenhouse, vegetable garden. And beyond that, the empty downs. You wander around the garden, around one corner, down a path, and again lose your bearings.
Regaining the house, we turn right and pass Vanessa’s bedroom windows, pass the Garden Room, and come around to the front of the house, looking out onto the pond. There the ghostly figure of a woman stands beneath a large tree and seems to survey the pond. No, it’s one of Quentin’s sculptures. Nearby, another sculpture called the Levitating Lady appears to float in mid-air.
Charleston is a artist’s house. Nearly everything has been given the touch of a paintbrush. Everywhere you see portraits, paintings of sitters, paintings of painters painting. The garden was designed (also by Roger Fry) to be painted. Everywhere you see art: Quentin’s sculpture, pottery from France, rugs from Turkey, from Italy, from Julian’s time in China. Their chosen metier, their adventure was to create art from the ordinary, to decorate the plain and functional, and Charleston was their ultimate creation, their most glorious piece of art.
Much as I loved the place, I left Charleston that day feeling queerly unsettled. The house is full of life, the garden full of color, the whole place still vibrates with energy. But always at my elbow I felt Vanessa’s unrelenting sadness. She managed a remarkable balancing act through most of her life, keeping the one essential, Duncan, near her but never really possessing him. She never lost her fear of losing him.
Unconventional as she was, Vanessa always had an alpha male: Thoby, to some extent Clive, then Maynard, Roger Fry, Duncan, then Julian. Roger was far more than ex-lover; he was her mentor, her companion in creativity, her spirit guide. When Roger died, she transferred a lot of her feelings from him to Julian. Nothing can compare with a mother’s pain when her child dies, no matter what the circumstances, but Julian was more than a son to her. He was to be the real hero in the story of her life. When he died, something vital inside her died, and she spent the rest of her life inhabiting her days but not really living life. Painting became a place to hide, and so did Charleston.
Reflecting on it later, I sense that Charleston is a house of mirrors, of deceiving appearances, of the tension of polarized opposites delicatedly balanced, never tipping too far one way or the other. It’s like the painter’s use of trompe l’oeil enlarged to fix their world. The house is much bigger inside than it looks from the outside, and as you go from room to room you lose your bearings. The layout feels haphazard, from the many years of alterations and additions. The furniture you step around might be something from a junk shop or it might be a priceless antique. You see a Picasso or a Poussin… no, it’s a copy Duncan made -- before he sold the original.
The relationships at Charleston were Bloomsbury relationships: an undercurrent of tension and competition beneath a surface of affection, color and creativity, often verging on incestuous, like one big dysfunctional family. These relationships were often delicately balanced between startling honesty (“Semen?”) and shocking deception (Angelica’s parentage). Much as she loved Virginia, it was only after Roger’s death that Vanessa told her sister they’d been once lovers. Her famed serenity masked the terrible fear of losing Duncan, which lasted all her life.
Despite their unconventionality, there were definite limits to Bloomsbury’s free thinking. Vanessa and Duncan confronted this when their daughter Angelica married Duncan’s ex-lover Bunny Garnett, who’d been present at her birth and predicted as much. Difficult as it was to accept, that unlikely marriage resulted in a houseful of lovely granddaughters that filled Vanessa’s later years with laughter and love.
And so, whatever else changed around them, Duncan and Vanessa were the constants at Charleston. They maintained this precarious balance somehow, with grace, with respect, with love. They tried to be true to themselves and to one another, and I admire them so much for trying, no matter how they fared. Ultimately, Vanessa and Duncan were faithful to one another. They came there during the First World War and stayed there the rest of their lives. Vanessa died in 1961. Duncan lived there until just before his own death in 1969. The others came and went; children were raised, left, and returned with their own children. Though Duncan and Vanessa also had a winter home in France for a time and a flat in London, Charleston was their home for over 50 years.
As she walked across that flat meadow toward the river, as she plodded through the wet soil under a slate grey March sky, out there on the edge of the downs, out away from the village and her neighbors, what was she thinking? Was she smiling to herself, a bit, in anticipation? Savoring a last glimpse of the sky and the bare farmland around her, glancing up to look back, but then thinking no, straightening her shoulders under the fur collar of her coat.
If she was happy that day, it was because she knew today she would finally defeat her oldest foe. The only road to freedom was at hand. She knew she was cycling back underwater with the illness that shadowed her all her life, the illness that maybe, just maybe she thought she’d beaten. Now it had come back; she’d been wrong. She hadn’t beaten it at all. It lay coiled inside her all those years, just waiting for the right time.
She surely recognized the return of that old enemy, now, when their home in London had been destroyed by the bombers, when nightly bombing raids flew over their snug safe cottage in Sussex. She lay there in her bed listening to them, wondering, waiting, always waiting, night after night. She’d just finished “Between The Acts” right on the heels of her biography of Roger Fry. The anxiety of finishing a book always made her vulnerable. And sure enough, now that old enemy crept back into her bed with her.
England was alone then. The US had not yet entered the war. France had been overrun and collapsed under the Nazi juggernaut, and Hitler had yet to betray Stalin and send tanks racing across the Soviet Union to open second front. The full force of Nazi Germany was thrown against Britain nightly, and that threat was made to her, in her house, in her bed, nightly.
There she lay, waiting, wondering, listening for the explosions. She didn’t pray, she didn’t believe in God, but she could not push away the waiting, the fear. It was there always, in the background, always there. Fear about her book, fearing illness, fear of bombs, fear of invasion. That fear infected her like a virus, prying into her defences and undermining her strength. It had been wearing her down all winter.
It wasn’t a question of whether or not England would be invaded. It was a question of when. Nobody said so, but everyone knew it. She and Leonard had prepared for invasion, like most people. Her brother the doctor had given them cyanide capsules, which was a relief. Cyanide was quick, and they may not have time to get to the garage and let the carbon monoxide do its work. Their cottage was marching distance from the southern coast, so when the invasion came, when the Nazis landed for the inevitable invasion of Britian, Monk’s House would be directly in their path. Leonard was Jewish, she a well-known pacifist and intellectual; the Nazis had lists. They would wake to the banging on the door first, the heavy footsteps and shouting first -- not a wireless broadcast, not a warning bell from the church next door, not even a telephone ringing to rouse them, to warn them. She’d be asleep when they came, vulnerable, undressed, blinking blindly in the light of their torches. There she lay in bed with her fear nightly, knowing this might be the night the bomb dropped on Monk’s House or the night she’d wake to see the Nazi boots at her beside.
She always had a very powerful imagination, and now she tried to imagine life without Leonard, if they took him from her but left her alive. She tried to imagine how it would feel to not know whether he was dead, to live in that limbo. She knew she could not live without him. He’d become too much a part of her, too indispensable. Living without Leonard would be like trying to live without her hands.
All of Britain was mobilized to rally the peoples’ spirit, to keep a stiff upper lip. Running away, taking sanctuary, even temporarily, in some safer place would have seemed cowardly. They all had to stand and face the enemy. It never crossed their minds to take her somewhere safe, away from the bombers. It never crossed her mind either.
When she felt well, she wasn’t afraid of the bombs or even invasion. She made jokes about it. Nothing can be worse than what she’d endured when she’d been ill.
She knew Leonard watched her like a hawk. She knew the symptoms as well as he did, so she knew what to hide, how to act. And it wasn’t difficult. Leonard was preoccupied; they all were. Nessa was the other hawk, but Nessa was nine miles away at Charleston. Nessa had Duncan. She had her Angelica and Quentin -- and Clive. She could hide it from Nessa.
And the rest of them? Vita, Ethyl, the others who peopled her life, they seemed like a handful of letters that turned to ashes in her hand. Somehow they were not tangible enough to pull her back from the river.
She thought about the river all the time. She thought about it while she nibbled bites of food so as not to prick up Leonard’s suspicions. She thought about it as she lay sleepless in her narrow bed, listening for the bombers’ drone to puncture the whispered voices that filled the silence. The river was like a predatory snake, winding its way inexorably along the bottom of the downs. She could visualize it down there, never far away. Sometimes it filled her with fear and dread. Other times, it was like a beckoning voice. She woke to the sound of running water in her ears, she could feel the pull of the current overcoming her fragile strength, pulling her like an embrace. She wanted to be seduced, she wanted to give in, stop fighting, be overcome. To see the sky from under the water, to look up once and then let go.
She had the cyanide pill. She could have used it. But then Adrian would berate himself, Leonard too. Besides, she didn’t want that death – that was not her way. She’d always written about water, about the sea, the rivers that ran through her stories like lifeblood. She thought of the little stream that trickled through the garden at Talland House, running its way down the hill to the sea. She wanted to be part of that, to rejoin with that. To be a little speck of weightless matter pulled along to the sea.
She was counting the days, knowing she only had so much time before the illness escalated, knowing she would no longer be able to hide the symptoms from Leonard. She sat by the fire with him at night and pretended to read, turning the pages quietly as the letters danced before her eyes. Her journal sat untouched; the words escaped her. When Leonard made her go see the doctor, she knew she had to act immediately. That didn’t worry her. She was ready. It was just a question of the precise moment.
Why was she so sure this was the right time to go? Why not fight the good battle, take up arms against this foe yet again? No. She could face Nazis but she could not face those familiar old demons again, the same demons that first accosted her as a child. She thought about herself as a girl, laying there bookless, staring at the wall, listening to the voices in her head. The milk, the isolation. Being forced. She’d resolved long ago, she would not be forced again.
Would she have felt differently if the US had entered the war that winter and come to the aid of its desperate cousin? Would she have felt less alone, less like a small animal in the path of some giant machine, like a field mouse run down by a relentless tractor? What’s the use of wondering. She could not push back the demons of her madness anymore than she could hold back the bombers, keep them at bay beyond the Sussex coastline.
It was old age she feared more than the Nazis, maybe more than being ill. To be frail, pitiable, dependent on others, alone. In the years before the war descended, she’d tried to think ahead, to project herself into the future, to see herself growing old – and could see nothing but a blank. She saw only a stranger, an eccentric old woman whose past relevance to the world was gone, like so many things she’d seen left behind in this new, cruel world around her. She’d seen her own body change into that of an old woman. The only old women she knew were ridiculous things, anachronisms, powerless, trivial. She’d never seen her own beauty as a girl, when others called her beautiful – she saw only herself, simple and plain. She’d never believed in her exterior, but now its betrayal was too visible. She felt the years in her bones. The face in the mirror was that of a haggard old crone. She thought of the elderly women of her own childhood, the grandes dames of her fiction – they were all figures of irony, disdain. They were the ravenous beasts that ate their young. She could not imagine herself as anything other than pathetic, alone, forgotten, scorned, useless.
She thought of Septimus, the poor shell-shocked soldier she’d created to save Clarissa Dalloway from literary death. She saw Mrs. Dalloway standing at her window, looking down onto the spiked railing below, imagining her own bruised body impaled there, like his. She’d given Clarissa the strength to push back the demons and go back to the party, but Virginia resolved she would not. This party will go on without her now. It was time for her to follow her wounded hero, time to silence the voices once and for all.
Was there anything left to say? She’d had so much to say not long ago. But the books she’d written seemed trivial now. She was convinced her past triumphs were simply a fluke and now she’d be found out, seen for what she really was: a vain woman with marginal talent. She’d wasted her life frittering away the years on nothing. It all amounted to nothing.
Did she know it was the illness behind these thoughts? Probably she did. She was well able to step outside herself and see herself from another’s vantage point. She knew the voices in her head were not real. But the feelings were very real, too real to resist. The feelings were the refrain from an old song she’d thought she’d forgotten, but now it came back, strong and sure: Hopeless, useless, powerless. Alone. Not safe. No one loves you. No one really understands you. They all just pretend because they pity you. When you’re not there, they talk about you with pity in their voices. Their lives would be easier without you. It’s an act of love, to die, to release them from the burden. It’s really the only thing you can do for them, after all, to show your love for them.
It was pointless talking about it to anyone. There were so few who understood the illness, so few who’d seen her through those storms before. Only Leonard and Nessa. She knew Leonard would go on without her to do better work unhindered by his fragile frisible wife. Leonard’s energy astounded her anew each day. He did useful things. The world needed people like him. She only held him back.
Nessa, it was more difficult. Nessa had somehow survived the losses that would have shipwrecked a lesser person. Losing Roger was a grievous blow, but not mortal. She endured Julian’s time in China like a prison sentence, then to have him die in Spain. It kicked the legs out from under her. Virginia knew there could be nothing more for Vanessa, nothing would touch her now. Even her sister’s death.
She’d made Nessa go on living, day by day, after Julian’s death, breathing life back into her, making her to go on living only by the force of her own will. She knew how to do it, she knew the right words to say, the way to bring her back, the same way Nessa’s voice gently guided her back from her own Hades. She knew what to do because she’d been taught by one who knew. An adept.
Yet, though she could bring Nessa back from the darkness, but she could not repair what was broken in her, could not fill what was empty. Nessa had said she would be content, but could not be happy ever again. Virginia knew that in spite of the fact that she got up each day and went about her life, in spite of the fact that she took up her paintbrushes again, in spite of the sly obervations she’d offer with a wry smile, in spite of the lovely grandchildren that would someday crowd her garden – Nessa was dead inside, and she, Virginia, could not bring her back to life. Neither could Duncan or Clive or any of the rest of them. Nessa’s heart died with Julian. Nessa’s heart lay out in Spain somewhere, under the earth, with her son.
Virginia catalogued the foes her sister had dispatched, the hardships she’d overcome. She could count them off on her fingers. Dead mother, dead step-sister, dead father, dead brother, all in girlhood… then add to that a world that said a woman could not paint. Falling desperately in love with a man who could never give her the love she needed. All these things she overcame -- until Julian died, and that defeated her. She’d watched Vanessa carefully for four years now and was certain there was nothing more that she could do for her. So when she totted up the pros and cons of suicide, she stumbled only a little at her sister’s name. Virginia’s suicide would not defeat Nessa because she was already defeated.
Sometimes at night her mind was crowded with the faces of the dead. Mother, Father, Thoby, Lytton, Roger, Julian. She believed in no afterlife, so she would not tempt herself with the prospect of seeing loved ones again. She found herself remembering Carrington when she would sit with pen poised and no words to write. She relived that last day when she and Leonard had visited her at Ham Spray, saw again the wounded look on Carrington’s face. She knew this woman could not surmount the loss that faced her, the years ahead of her without Lytton, the empty hours. She knew it in her heart, and as the day wore on she knew she would let Carrington go if that was what she chose. You will come and see us next week – or not – just as you like. Two words. Like a wounded animal, the kindest thing was to let her go. It’s the kindest thing to go, she thought.
The Ouse seems placid where it snakes through the countryside beyond Monk’s House. It doesn’t look like a powerful river from her back garden. She looked out onto its course from her window while she waited for words to come to her pen. In the summer, a strong swimmer could slice through it. But she knew under that brown-grey surface ran a powerful current and now the water would be ice cold. It would numb her hands and feet within minutes. If some frantic impulse, some instinct for survival made her flap her arms to try to come up to the surface, her heavy coat would pull her down. And within the space of one or two breaths, it would be done. She stood in the garden and watched it, waiting. She’d take a long slow breath and hold it, and think about how long it took to need another breath. She thought about breathing, as she sat waiting for words to come, how one takes a breath while we sleep, one takes a breath while not conscious of our own bodies. One can’t commit suicide by simply deciding not to breathe. One needs help. She knew where to find it. She’d always known.
So she walked quickly along with bank of the river to the spot she knew. She’d picked it out weeks ago and knew it would level out down to the water’s edge. After a quick glance around for fishermen, she dropped her stick and strode strongly out into the river. As she stepped into the icy water and felt the strength of the current, she knew she’d done the right thing. The heavy stone in her pocket pulled her to her knees before she was ready, suddenly bringing brown water up to her mouth. As her clothing soaked through, she felt the delayed shock of ice cold against her her thighs, belly, breasts, shoulders. She smiled a little as the current pulled her off her knees and then she was carried downstream. She resisted the impulse to fight for the surface, but she bobbed up once and looked at the downs, the sky. She heard a nearby crow squawk as the water closed over her face one last time. From under the water, she looked up at the sky and then she closed her eyes. She wasn’t afraid. She let out her last breath and waited.
The bus pulls over in a tiny village, barely more than the intersection of the main road and a quiet side street. You’re in front of a sleepy pub, the Abergavenny Arms, which appears to be the only business in Rodmell. You walk past it down a side street, past silent driveways and gates, and the only thing you hear is the song of the birds around you in the trees and shrubs you pass.
Further along, the road seems to peter out where it angles past a farm yard. You pass a gate to a little school along your right. Suddenly you are there.
Monk’s House sits far forward near the road so that it appears to come up to greet you. It is an ordinary-looking house, impossible to discern at that angle how big, with a thin strip of garden separating it from the road. A narrow sidewalk runs up to a disused front door, but you can easily see you aren’t meant to make your way to that door. Instead, you turn right up a few steps and enter a dim side garden, thickly enclosed with foliage. As you walk along, the house is at your left side. The stone flags open out onto a broad stretch of sunlit garden in front of you. A glass greenhouse is hooked onto the back of the house. As you turn left again, the sidewalk leads you past the greenhouse that Leonard added after her death. Another left turn takes you to a few steps leading down into the house. But instead you are drawn into the garden, the slightly uphill slanting sets of small terraces enclosed by short stone walls. It’s inviting, tidy, well kept and mature. Here a small pool, there a bit of statuary, all conspires to invite you further, up more steps, until you look up beyond it to the small building at the back of the garden. It looks like a shed or outbuilding. Across from it is the steeple of a small church on the other side of the wall.
You turn then and duck your head to go into the dimness of the house.
It’s a long low house, running along the length of the road, the width only of one room. To your left is the sitting room, the largest room. One set of windows faces out on the front walk, the ones opposite face out onto the garden, the ones in between face out onto the entry area where we came in. The inside wall has the fireplace. Chairs are clustered comfortably around it. A plain table occupies the space opposite the fireplace. The ceiling is low, crossed by wood beams. The furnishings are plain, simple, functional, yet there is the touch of color and warmth in the decorations around you. The look of the Omega Workshop is there. Painted tiles lay on the windowsills.
You walk around drinking it up, coming in close to look at the details, standing with all your sensors open, feeling the little room around you. It’s all warm and welcoming, but a bit stiff, as if nobody has spilled coffee on the floor there for a very long time.
It’s an old house with irregular corners and an uneven floor. The room would not hold more than six people comfortably. The electrical fittings seem anachronistic, as if that first installation was still new, strange, unintuitive. As if the hand that paused to flip the switch hesitated, still unfamiliar with this alien concept, after all these long years.
You turn and go into the little dining room. The room affords no more extra space. One would not linger here long after the meal but adjourn into that larger room with the windows into the garden. Then you go along into the kitchen, again small, functional, almost spartan. Nowhere to hide from Nelly there. Stairs climb to the upper story, but are roped off, and so we turn to go out the narrow kitchen door and up the few steps into the garden again.
But then you turn to see more of the house stretching to your left. This is the addition, one room appended onto the end of the house – her bedroom -- with another room atop, which became Leonard’s study. You turn and circle back into Virginia’s bedroom. It’s a small room with a very narrow bed pushed against the outside wall, plain and functional. The centerpiece of the room is the small fireplace on the wall facing the road. The tiles around it have been painted and signed by Virginia’s sister. In the middle is a lighthouse on an island.
You turn again and go back out into the garden again, remembering that Virginia had to go outside every night when she went to bed. Ostensibly she wanted no door between the kitchen and her bedroom, for if she’d wanted it, she could have had it. You think for a moment about Nelly Boxall as you walk back up towards that small building at the back of the garden. Around you the little apple trees and tulips are rioting color and a magnolia bursts into pink tenderness above a long low wall. Atop that wall are two carved heads, one of Leonard, the other, enveloped by the magnolia, of Virginia. Their friend Stephen Tomlin did these busts, and you remember the two trees at the bottom of the garden they named for themselves, where Leonard scattered her ashes after her cremation. Both trees are gone now, one pulled down in a storm while Leonard still lived there, the other, who knows. There’s a plaque on that wall describing the trees, the location of the ashes, but you don’t need a plaque to tell you her spirit, her earthly remains are there in that garden.
She built that little shed to write in, and so you follow the path through the wet grass and step inside. It’s crouched there at the back of the garden, embraced neatly by the low trees and shrubs around it. You step inside. Again, a modest sized room with a steeply slanting roof and ample windows, a writing desk, a chair, a few small decorations, an oil lamp, her glasses, a pen. No clutter. Nothing on the walls. Simple, direct, like her writing.
You stare hard through the pane of glass that keeps you from her desk, and imagine her sitting there head bent over the pen, busily writing, and you hear the sound of the laughter of the children at the schoolyard on the other side of the wall, where that churchyard is.
You turn again and stand in the doorway of the little shed and look back toward the house, across that comfortable garden. You imagine her standing there, pausing, pulling her cardigan close round her, seeing the familiar flags of smoke rising from those chimney pots, maybe seeing Leonard bending over at the window of his study or Nelly’s dim shape moving past the kitchen doorway. One of Leonard’s cats curls around her ankles. She does not glance back at the desk behind her as she shuts the door and hastens down the path. She’s planning a long walk to Charleston for the afternoon, if the rain lets up.
And so you too go down that path back towards her house and pause to look around. There is more to it than just this arching garden behind the house. There’s a meadow of mown grass next to it beyond a wall with a small pond sheltered under some fringing trees. They played games there, bowling, you recall, maybe cricket. And there’s a large kitchen garden freshly dug up and planted out beyond that, almost under the glare of the downs beyond.
We linger, longingly touching the stone walls, the statuary. I say to Mark, “I feel her more in the garden than I do in the house” and am struck by a violent lurch of deja-vu; I have dreamed of saying those words to him, not long ago, and now I have.
We sit on a bench and look around us, reluctant to leave. Birdsong drenches the garden. Others drift past us, vague smiles, we smile back. We must catch the bus by the pub, we’re not sure when. And so we gather our things and slowly make our way back down to the house, along the path beside the house, back out to the road, where we turn and look back at Monk’s House before we head up the road. It is only now as you leave, as you glance back at the red brick path and the blossoms beyond that you think of her leaving that last day, wondering if she looked back at Monk’s House as she went off to her death. Do you find any tinge of regret or sadness there? None. If Virginia Woolf’s suicide tainted her magnificent life with tragedy, no remnant of it lives today at Monk’s House in Rodmell. There, only love is evident.
In the last few days, I saw two new movies, J.J. Abrams' "Super 8" and Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life." Both are very good. Both are ambitious, entertaining, and well done. Taken together, they also represent the polar opposites of good filmmaking today: one attempting to be completely original, the other a masterful blending of tired film cliches.
"Super 8" is a blast, but there is nothing new there. If you take all the stuff that Spielberg did in the 1970s and '80s, stuff that we loved at the time, still love, stuff that was copied until it became cliche -- throw it all in a paper bag and shake it up and pour it out, you get "Super 8." And that's not bad. It's good. It works. It was entertaining and fun. I said to Debbie, "He's out-Spielberged Spielberg." You've got your small-town nostalgia, cute kids, government baddies, misunderstood alien, troubled father-son relationship, ooh-and-ahh special effects, with a cherry on top. I need say no more, really, because if you've seen "E.T." and "Close Encounters" and the Indiana Jones movies and all those other delightful gems, you know what I mean.
Terrence Malick, on the other hand, has made only a handful of movies in his long career. His "Days of Heaven" is to me one of the most memorable, beautiful, evocative movies of all time. The story itself is downright Biblical. The setting is iconic. The characters are straight out of Greek myth, including the hubris that leads to the downfall of the protagonist. Ennio Morricone's score underlines all the terrible beauty of a war of deceit and passion on the flat Texas plains. A ornate Victorian house proudly crests the endless waves of wheatfields, alone on that broad expanse of emptiness, against sky and land, like the will of the man who owns the land, where the dispossessed of the cities come, stumbling off the trains, and work to eat.
Malick is also known for "A Thin Red Line," the film made of the James Jones novel about the invasion of Guadalcanal. I saw it once years ago when it came out, and was confused by it. I need to watch it again now.
From what I hear, he's been working on this new film "Tree of Life" for decades. I have to admit, while sitting in the theater, I found myself impatient, waiting for a plot to show up. No such luck. This movie has more in common with "Meshes of An Afternoon" than it does with "Super 8." In fact, it has more in common with the novels of Virginia Woolf than any film I can think of.
What was he going for? The answer to that is up to you. He's not hitting you over the head with this. Here's my stab at it.
To me it seems he is attempting to recreate on film the way we remember things from our childhood -- some moments are just in snippets of fleeting images, others in great detail. The focus is on feelings, not action, not words. There is very little dialogue. Occasionally we hear the characters' whispered thoughts, addressed to God, ourselves, a loved one, the universe.
All those moments from the past are framed in the present, where the grown-up boy is now Sean Penn. He is... doing something (moving? preparing to show a home with a realtor? his wife? his ex-wife?) that threw him back into his past as he goes about his day. Yes, you know how it is to have days like that, where the past barrages you with powerful memories, often unbidden.
He is remembering his childhood, his brother, his mother, but more than anything he is remembering how he struggled to come to terms with his father. As the film unfolds, we see him as a child, the oldest of three boys, with an idyllic childhood in Waco, Texas during the late 1950s. The boys roam the neighborhood and play typical childhood games.
Their mother is a dreamy ideal of a warm, loving mother. Jessica Chastain's face is like a blue sky on a summer day, warm, peaceful, seemingly eternal. Their father is a middle-aged Brad Pitt: a manly man, tall, strong, knowledgeable, sure of himself, adept, forceful. But he is not some absentee father hidden behind a newspaper. He is actively involved with the boys, teaching them, showing them how to do boy things. He also plays with them, laughs, squirts them with the hose on a hot day, squeezes their shoulders in a manly show of love.
He's a manly man, but he is creative as well. He plays the organ beautifully and makes everybody listen to classical music. He delivers lectures on the music. He invents things and tries to patent them. In time we come to see that he's a frustrated man, angry that life has not turned out the way he expected, disillustioned professionally, and always a little disappointed in his sons. We see his anger spill over only once, and even that is small potatoes compared to what a lot of kids grew up with.
Yet those boys are terrified of that man. When he hugs them, they merely endure it. They hate him, and yet they love him so much. When he's gone on business for months, when he comes home, they rush up to him with so much joy -- of course they love him. They want to please him, they want to make him proud.
The oldest boy, Sean Penn, gets the brunt of his father's attentions, and begins to resent the way his younger brother is less controlled. And so he begins to funnel his own frustration onto others. He experiments with mild bullying, boyhood crimes -- and then hates himself for being like his father. The camera lingers on his face. He begins to turn away from the casual violence of the neighborhood boys. He begins to show compassion. Eventually comes a time when he says to his father, "I'm more like you than I am like her," and you can see he is not happy about that. We glimpse him again as an adult, phoning his dad to apologize for speaking unkindly to him earlier that day, as if to say, I'm not like you. I'm not.
Does every boy go through this with his father? A friend once told me about a quote he agreed with; a man can't really achieve his own manhood until his father is dead.
Suddenly the father loses his job and the family must move to Florida. The two brothers hide in the tall weeds and weep together wordlessly. Why end their story there? Because that was childhood's end. Whatever else happened after they left that house, it was to a different boy.
That's it. There is no climax or denouement, no climactic confrontation between aged father and son where they hug it out and forgive each other. The movie finally resolves rather than ends -- Sean Penn wanders on a flat beach at low tide in a crowd of people who are also wandering, meeting, recognizing, remembering, embracing -- the afterlife, where all is forgiven.
It's a beautiful, utterly original film.
I'd watched Lily's den cam off and on all winter and was watching when little Jason and his sister Faith were born. I can tell you that baby bear cubs are about the cutest, sweetest things in the world. They were still very small and vulnerable when Lily left her den in April. After six months without food, she needed to search for early spring foods, and her tiny cubs had trouble keeping up. There are many dangers in those woods, including wolves and coyotes. Jason's death was probably very typical.
I was upset, of course, but the hard-core den watchers were devastated. It was so wrenching reading their agonized comments in the chat room and on Facebook. I knew exactly how they were feeling, because that's how I felt about Phoenix last summer.
I still haven't really processed that experience. I surprised by how deeply I was affected. I cried for weeks. I couldn't talk about it without bursting into tears. My friends were mystified. I still can't talk about it without choking up. How can one become so deeply attached to an image on a computer screen? I don't know, but we do.
After her death, I found myself saying to others in the chat room: Phoenix came into our lives for a reason, and her death is teaching us something, each of us something different, something personal in our own lives. I don't know if that's true, but it seemed to help with the pain.
What I do know is that one can become emotionally attached to an animal closely observed on a webcam in the same way one loves a pet. And anybody who has loved a pet knows how deep that connection is. We love animals in a way we can't love other humans, in a way that is unguarded, with the wide open heart of a child still deep inside of us. Often animals take on a symbolic meaning for us. They become much more than what they are. Without knowing why or how, they take on the qualities we attribute them with, ideals like loyalty, purity of heart, unconditional love, trust. Things we yearn for in our daily lives. So when we lose the animal, we feel the loss of all that they embodied for us.
What did Phoenix mean to me? What did I see in her? She lived in accordance with her own nature. She wanted to fulfill her eagle destiny, which means she wanted to live, to mate, to reproduce, to survive. I wanted to envision her in the future, feeding her own babies the way Mom fed her. I wanted Mom and Dad's line to continue through her.
I love how the eagles don't give a shit about us. I love how irrelevant we are in their world. We are just big noisy things that occasionally get in their way. They pay as much attention to us as they do to other irrelevant things. I love being irrelevant in someone's world. We humans are not the center of the universe, and animals tell us that every day.
I love how they are guided by instinct, unswervingly. And their instincts serve them well. The setup at Lily's den included an exterior camera that could pan, tilt and zoom, so we got to watch the cubs explore the world outside the den for the first time. They still could barely walk. (Turns out four legs is a lot to keep track of!) Tiny Faith wobbled over to a small tree, put her paws up on it, felt the bark beneath her needle-sharp claws -- and started trying to climb! She'd never seen her mother climb a tree. She'd never even seen a tree! And yet she knew what to do.
How far away from our own instincts we are, we humans. What does our instinct guide us to do, besides remove our hands from fire? We are so disconnected from our own instincts today. No wonder we are neurotic.
There's no neurosis in an eagle family. This year's older sister picks on her younger brother and hogs all the food -- because she can. Little brother doesn't get a complex about it, but instead finds smarter, sneakier ways to get food. Mom grabs fish away from Dad, rearranges his sticks, sometimes even pecks him to make him back off. Does Dad pout about it? Hell no. He just goes off to find more fish.
That's not to say they don't get upset. They get *very* upset by other eagles intruding on their territory. The WV nest illustrated why. It's like a home invasion crime would be to us.
So why do we watch these wildlife webcams if we know the animal may die a horrible death before our eyes? Because they have so much to show us. Including death.
Eagles, of course, almost died out not long ago, thanks to our arrogance, stupidity, idiocy and thoughtlessness. The fact that they've recovered enough to thrive the way they have is evidence of the way Mother Nature's knowledge trumps ours anytime.
Eagles take exactly as much fish as they need to eat in the next couple days. They don't stockpile. They don't sell the fish to other eagles for a profit. They don't hire other eagles to build them a more elaborate nest. As scavengers, they happily clean up the roadkill and the fish heads left behind by fishermen. Animals that aren't part of their food chain are ignored. A whole flock of noisy starlings nest just underneath the Hornby nest. They eat the bugs that result from the dead fish. It all works out.
I was absolutely distraught last summer about the oil disaster in the Gulf, while I was watching Phoenix. I was also watching all five seasons of Battlestar Galatica again on DVD. I kept thinking about what Athena the Cylon said about humanity. Why shouldn't the Cylons wipe us out? Do we deserve to survive? Do we? I'm really not sure. But I do know this: Eagles deserve to survive.
Recently, the mother eagle at a webcam nest in Norfolk VA was killed by an airplane. Their nest is near an airport, and her mate had been killed by an incoming plane a year ago. She had re-mated and had 3 babies in her nest. The pilot saw the collision. He and his family watch the nest cam. Imagine his distress.
The wildlife powers-that-be decided to take the three babies from the nest and raise them in rehab, that it would be impossible for Dad to feed three hungry babies alone. They would starve. It was a very controversial decision, but I'm sure it was the right thing. Nonetheless, it was heartbreaking to see the male eagle visiting the empty nest, bringing in food, circling the area, searching for his missing mate and babies. (I don't watch this nest, but many of the people who watch the Hornby eagles do, and they would come into our chat room and talk about it.)
Our eagle expert says the drive to procreate is so strong in eagles, the Norfolk dad will re-mate within days or weeks and may even start his new family in that same nest. And the three babies are thriving in rehab. One has already fledged. They'd have had no chance on the nest.
Earlier this spring, watchers at the nest in Sidney, BC, noticed what appeared to be fishing line around the neck of Pa Sidney. Eagles sometimes bring home human trash for nesting materials, and fishing line is not uncommon. It gets tangled up in the moss or lichen they bring.
In time, Pa Sid apparently got rid of the fishing line, but weeks later, one of the 3 eaglets got a food tangled in fishing line and was tethered securely to one edge of the nest rim. The eaglet struggled to free herself for five days, but was unsuccessful. The Mom eagle kept feeding the young one, but this line was a death sentence for young Flyer.
The webcam watchers on that nest and others (including ours) were distraught. The problem seemed unsolvable: the tree is dead and very fragile; climbing is impossible. The webcam's owner uses a heavy-duty crane for cleaning the lens in the autumn each year after all the eagles have headed off for the salmon runs, when the nest is empty. This has been a terribly wet spring and the ground around the nest is saturated, soft and muddy. The crane could not possibly get in there. Plus they'd never tried to access the nest with young in it. Would the parents attack?
Nesters kicked around ideas: a hot-air balloon, helicopter, a zip line, etc. Eventually some nesters with connections to the press got the story onto the local news -- and sure enough, a solution emerged. A drainage company that specializes in inaccessible locations had heavy duty (but lightweight) mats that would support the crane. A rescue was mounted in a day's time -- all volunteer. We watched it live on the webcams and from live cams on the ground.
The rehabber cleared the nest of the fishing line and freed the eaglet. He examined her foot and decided she didn't need medical treatment and so plopped her back into the nest. Mom Sid watched from a nearby tree while Dad circled overhead. Neither attempted to interfere with the rescuers. It was all over in about 3 hours, a complete success.
Some were concerned that the parents would abandon the young after human interference, but Mom Sid was back on the nest within minutes of their departure, busily fussing and feeding. All was well .
It was reported in the press the next day, of course, and of course there were plenty of naysayers who made snarky comments about how we all think nature is like a Disney movie and what a bunch of idiots wasting money on one little eaglet. Those people, in my opinion, can go to hell.
We're the ones who leave the fishing line laying around. That's not nature.
Last year in Ontario, six eagles fed on the remains of a euthanized dog at the dump and were found near death. They were taken to rehab. One was past help but five were saved and released later.
The coastal eagles take advantage of the cycles of fish migrations. In the late winter, they wait through a time of meager fishing for the February herring runs, which tides them over until the midshipmen reappear in April. This past winter, the herring run never materialized. All over the area, eagles were starving. Many were so weak, they could not fly and literally fell out of the sky. They'd congregate at the dumps and fight over trash, some dying from injuries. A lot of starving eagles on Vancouver Island that fed at dumps were poisoned. The rehab place was overwhelmed with starving, dying, and injured eagles.
It's one thing to read about the toll we take on the environment. Most reasonable, rational, normal people realize we are fucking things up royally, and in spite of that, it goes on and on. We make stupid, useless gestures to assuage our guilt, so we can sleep at night. Strive to reduce your carbon footprint, for all the good it does. Six new people driving Priuses isn't going to change what happened in the Gulf last summer. The scale of the destruction we are wreaking is so far beyond comprehension, it's easy to tune it out and throw up your hands. Until you see it up close and personal, in your face.
Last year, aspergillus killed Phoenix but that was not due to anybody's arrogance or ignorance. It just happened and it was terrible and tragic. Stuff like that happens every day, all over, animals die in tragic ways.
But it's a whole other ball of wax to sit watching close up. These wildlife webcams accomplish one thing very effectively: making the impact of our carelessness very, very personal.
But an eagle's life is FULL of dangers and threats, nonetheless. It's one thing to know that, but another thing entirely to see it first-hand. I've only been watching these webcams for a year but the stories are plentiful. And it's instructive to see how we humans play into these stories.
The eagles are incredibly vigilant and spent nearly all their time watching over their territory. They become extremely agitated if another eagle ventures into their airspace. At first I thought this was a bit melodramatic, but in fact, there are very real dangers from intruders.
This spring, a strange drama played out in the nest in Shepherdstown, WV. Mom and Dad were busy with their young hatchling and brooding the remaining egg, when suddenly a young male eagle began to hang around. Eagles will not tolerate any other eagle in their territory, especially close to the nest. Dad (whose name was Liberty) kept having to drive him off and was roughed up from fighting. This left the female (Belle) alone to guard the nest. She waited and waited for Liberty, and could not leave the nest to hunt, and so they went hungry.
Eventually she was forced to leave the nest to look for food and/or try to run off the intruder herself. The hatchling (named Paddy) died of starvation or exposure. (It was still early spring and was cold. Young eaglets have only a light down and can't keep themselves warm at all.)
Then the intruder began to come into the nest. He would stand around with his head down, occasionally trying to move sticks. Belle attacked him viciously. Over the course of a few days, the male intruder repeatedly came into the nest. He did not attack Belle. She clawed him with her sharp talons and pecked at him with her beak, but he would not leave, nor would he fight back.
Within a week or so, it was apparent that Liberty was not coming back and that the new male wanted to be Belle's new mate. Belle continued to try to drive him off, but he was patient and persistent. Eventually the nesters there decided he needed a name and called him Smitty, because he was so obviously smitten with Belle.
About a month later, the body of a badly damaged male was found nearby. It was impossible to know if it was Liberty, but the nesters believe it was. Did the intruder kill him? We'll never know.
Belle and Smitty will probably not start a family this year, it's too late in the season. Belle appears to tolerate Smitty more than anything. When he moves sticks, she always grabs them away from him and puts them somewhere else. But he's devoted to her and so she has accepted him.
In the Maine nest, an intruder got into a big fight with Dad on the nest, talon to talon. Mom gave up and left the nest. The eggs were likely damaged in the fight.
In the Channel Islands nest, an intruder knocked the two eaglets out of the nest, which were nearly ready to fledge. Both survived, were rescued and had to be rehabbed. Both were released. We know that one did not survive its first year on its own.
Eagle experts in the chat rooms with these nest cams have explained that when eagle populations swell, it puts pressure on the existing resources. The protection of the Endangered Species Act enabled bald eagles to come back from the brink of extinction. But each eagle pair needs its own territory, and when that is in short supply, life can become very difficult.
Over the weekend of July 10-11, food deliveries dried up. Dry spells are not unusual for eagles; that's why they have a crop. The mid-day heat kept Phoenix quiet, clinging to the shade of the stump, but in the early and later hours of the day, she was busy wingercizing and fleaping, just like normal.
When food deliveries resumed on Monday, Phoenix had a few bites, but on Tuesday she showed little interest in the food. She was sneezing now and then, and had stopped her hopping and flapping. Mom sneezed too, and her voice had become hoarse, so we all figured some pollen or allergen was bothering them. Phoenix seemed lethargic, but we blamed the heat.
On Wednesday morning, July 14, we saw Phoenix stagger a little. The wildlife rehabber who watches the nest contacted Doug Carrick, the webcam's owner, to suggest an experiment. Doug keeps frozen salmon heads as a treat for the eagles when food is scarce, and he threw one out. The parents took it to the nest, but Phoenix would not eat. This was very unusual. She'd always scarfed salmon with great gusto, so they knew then there was a serious problem.
They began taking steps to get permission to remove her from the nest. Logistically and legally, this would take time. As the day wore on, it became evident that she was having trouble breathing. She would open her mouse as if gasping for breath, and seemed weak.
Before anything could be done, that evening at 7:19pm, Phoenix died. She was sitting quietly looking out at the water. She raised her wings a little as if to flap, and then moved no more. In that moment, somehow, we all knew she was dead.
Her body was removed from the nest the next day and flown to the mainland, where a wildlife rehab center called MARS did a preliminary necropsy and found that she'd died of a fungal lung infection. Further tests revealed that aspergillus was the cause of her death. It is apparently very common in wild bird populations and is very deadly.
The tree-climber who retrieved her body (very dangerous on a 120-foot high tree), the helicopter man who flew her to MARS, and MARS all volunteered their services. Hornby eagle lovers were present to video the removal and flight out. Mom watched quietly from the Babysitting Tree, while Dad circled overhead. Normally anything going near their tree would have been viciously attacked, so we can only conclude they understood that Phoenix was dead and/or that the climber was not a threat. Just as the climber approached the nest, Mom let out a series of long, silent cries.
Mom and Dad did not spend time in the nest after that, so we can't really know what they were doing, but Doug saw them fishing and hanging out in their usual trees. They left for the salmon runs in August a little early, not having a youngster to babysit. Normally they'd have taken Phoenix with them once she was confident in flying, to show her where and how to feast on the late summer salmon runs.
We were all relieved and happy when they returned to their home territory right on schedule, the first week of October (almost to the day Doug predicted), visibly fat and healthy. Over the winter, they laid low for the winter storms, but in the late winter, they started repairing the nest and were observed having "hanky panky" -- and sure enough, soon Mom laid two fine eggs. They hatched right on schedule, and we are all now busy watching Alexandra Morton Hornby and David Suzuki Hornby going through the same process of growth and discovery. And so, the circle of life goes on.
As soon as she was hatched, Phoenix peeped vigorously, almost nonstop if she was awake. In fact, baby eagles peep even before they hatch. You can sometimes hear them inside the shell on a cam with a good microphone. Phoenix expressed herself with her vocalizations. Her peeps would be sleepy and half-hearted as she'd struggle to stay awake, then shift into high gear when a parent arrived with a fish. That was the "tea kettle." As she matured, the tea kettling could become more like hysterical shrieking. You'd want to turn down the volume on your computer.
Food is usually fish, often a midshipman, which is a plentiful local fish. Most often they are still alive; only seconds before they'd been minding their own business swimming around the beach below the nest. The parents hold them down with their powerful talons and rip them apart to feed the baby. Yes, it's gross.
After she'd had enough to eat, Phoenix's peeps were replaced with a contented sound we called churbling. It is a sort of chittering, chirping, muttering sound, soft, happy.
Little Phoenix had a lot to learn. For a long time, just keeping her head upright was a triumph. She'd wobble like a drunk and pitch forward onto her chin -- oops, faceplant! Flop flop, wings useless, legs, what? But in a few days, she learned how to stay upright, resting on her belly, legs tucked under her, and in time she learned to use her little wings to help stay upright too.
Even as a day-old hatchling, she knew how to do a poop shot -- lifting her rear end and pointing her poop shot out over the rim of the nest. It sounds like one of those old-timers in westerns who'd spit tobacco into a spitoon. In a few weeks, the branches around the nest were white with Phoenix poo.
The second egg never hatched, so after a while we started to call it Dudley. Phoenix stayed curled up next to Dudley, and as she grew, she used Dudley for a pillow and an armrest. Much later, Dudley finally cracked. Mom disposed of the bits of shell. We had a funeral in the chat room.
The first couple weeks, the parents brooded her full-time if they weren't feeding her, so mealtime was the only time we'd get to see her. (Luckily, mealtime is any time!) But soon the weather warmed up and they'd stand on the prow (the outer rim of the nest) and let her "air out." Then we could see her all we wanted.
She slept like she was drugged, waking long enough to eat, but then her head would sag, and within seconds she'd be conked out again. She's sprawl on her side, out like a light. Every now and then, she'd rouse herself, struggle to lift her head and look around - then boom, out light a light again. Sometimes she'd be half-asleep, peeping half-heartedly, just in case anybody was thinking about a little snack.
Eat, sleep, poop, repeat: the life of an eaglet.
By the time she was around two weeks old, her instincts told her to flap her little wings. She'd pull them up tight against her body, but as she'd fall asleep, they'd sag down at her sides.
Suddenly her feet grew. Almost overnight, around 2 weeks of age, there were these enormous long yellow wormy-looking things under her. Sometimes she'd glance down at them and do a double-take, surprised to see them down there. Sometimes she'd peck at them as if they were a new food item.
It took a while before she could manage them. Learning to stand was a process. It was a big accomplishment to get steady up on her hocks, which is like resting on your knees. From there, a couple weeks later, she started working on getting her feet under her and lifting up to actually stand. That took strength and balance. For a long time, she could only rise up long enough to poop. Anything more than that, she'd wobble and faceplant with wings flapping. But she learned. Soon she could not only stand, but actually take a few steps.
As she got older, she stayed awake longer. Mostly she watched Mom and Dad. She looked up at them from her vantage point deep in the nest bowl, watching intently. The center of the nest, where Phoenix sleeps, is called the nest bowl. It's considerably deeper than the outside, which forms a protective baby gate of sticks to keep the young eaglets from wandering out where they could fall. Mom and Dad constantly rearrange the sticks in the nest and bring in new nest material: sticks, dried grass, moss, lichen, anything that catches their eye. Soon, Phoenix was mimicking her paretns, nipping at sticks, testing her beak on them, trying to move them.
Pics of the nest: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjusQdvs
By Day 20, her pin feathers were starting to come in. First we noticed these dark spots - each one is a spot where an individual feather will grow. Then one day when she was stretching, I noticed these odd little hollow white tubes lined up on the underside of her wing. Those are the pin feathers. They are shafts are made of keratin, like our fingernails. The feather is furled inside. Once the shaft has grown out of her skin, the feather emerges and unfurls. Then she nips away the shaft.
She spent every waking moment doing this for a while, when she wasn't eating, the whole month of June. It must be very painful or at the very least uncomfortable. I felt sorry for her. But you could see she was very proud of her feathers, which gave her real protection from rain and cold.
By the time her feathers came in, she was mostly black, with splotches of white mixed in, with a dark beak. That's a juvenile bald eagle. Her beak would have lightened as she matured, and her head would have become white around age 4-5, around the time she reached sexual maturity.
Self-feeding was another skill Phoenix had to learn as she grew up. It required balance, the ability to stand on one leg, grasp the fish, get a good grip with her beak, and then the strength and coordination to pull her head back and tear the fish. The first bite is the hardest; they call it "breaking it open," which is just what they have to do. Once she'd punctured the skin, she had a "tab" she could get hold of to start tearing.
It took her ages to break open a fish, but she wanted to learn. She became very aggressive about grabbing the fish away from the parent and insisted on fiddling with it herself. In time the nest wasn't big enough for two, so the parents would just drop off a fish and then sit on the cam box or a nearby branch while she struggled with the fish. Soon she had pretty much figured it out.
And then came the process of learning to fly. Once she had her feathers, you could see she enjoyed flapping. Around the same time, she learned to grasp the sticks with her feet so she could stand on the prow, up outside of the soft nest bowl.
Then she learned to walk -- well, it wasn't walking to much as charging. She would charge across the nest from one prow to the other. The wing flapping took on a different character, became more vigorous. She was developing necessary flight muscles. That is called wingercizing.
Then the flapping included hopping, up and down, feeling the lift of the air behneath her wings. The next step: "fleaping" where she would flap her wings and jump from the prow down into the nest bowl, like a mini-parachute test.
The next step is called branching, which is the first time a bird flies to a branch outside the nest. In her case, Phoenix fleaped up onto the close-up camera box on July 3, knocking Mom off in the process. (Mom didn't mind.) We were so excited! She stayed up there for 9 hours, just looking around at the world from her new vantage point. We were worried she wouldn't know how to get down, but when the time came, she fleaped right back to the nest quite efficiently.
Once she'd branched, we knew the next step would be her fledge. She would spread her wings and leave the nest. Our eagle experts told us she would return to the nest and take meals there from her parents for a few weeks. They would keep feeding her while she gained confidence and learned the ropes of flying and hunting.
But in another month or so, in late August, we knew they would all leave Hornby Island together and head into the mainland for the autumn salmon runs. When Mom and Dad would return to Hornby in early October, she would not be with them. She would be off living her own life.
All of us watchers were very sad knowing we would probably never seen her again. It's possible she might return to Hornby or establish territory somewhere near her parents, but their job with her was done. I knew I would miss her terribly, but I consoled myself with the thought of her off living her eagle life, having eagle adventures, and eventually finding a mate and becoming a great parent herself, having been taught by the magnificent Mom and Dad Hornby.
Mom & Dad Hornby are a devoted couple, but whatever Dad's role is away from home, Mom Hornby is the boss in the nest. (Obviously we only see what happens on the nest, and the nest is a nursery. They only hang out in the nest while rearing their young. So we see them only for half the year. But that does give a good picture.)
Dad loves to arrange the sticks, but Mom will often move them again right away. And she always gets final word. He defers to her. When Dad brings in a fish for the baby, Mom will often grab it away from him and feed the baby herself.
But Dad has his role to play. He brings more fish and nesting material. He takes on bigger, heavier sticks. He'll sometimes arrive panting hard from the exertion.
I wasn't watching during incubation last year, but this year I am, and the dynamic is the same. Changeover on Egg Duty is always fascinating. Neither one wants to get off the eggs! Dad will sometimes busy himself rearranging sticks if Mom's reluctant to get up. Dad will often pretend he doesn't notice Mom as she stands around waiting for him to get up. He'll get this 1,000-yard stare. She stands around for a minute, then gets down into the nest bowl with him and will nudge him with her body or poke her head under his body. Once she took a stick and gently placed it on his back. When he still didn't move, she put it on his head. Then he got up.
The eagles are incredibly careful around the eggs. They ball up their talons into fists to keep from accidentally poking the egg (or baby). They carefully step on top and then slowly lower themselves onto the eggs, gently rocking back and forth to press their bodies down and around the eggs. Often then they use their beaks to gather bedding to tuck in around their bodies.
Adult birds have a "brood patch," which is a bare spot on their underbreast where they can press the egg directly against their skin. This way they can warm the egg directly and feel its position. They frequently use their beaks to roll the eggs to distribute the warmth and make sure the contents don't adhere to the inside of the shell.
Eagles mature sexually around age 4-5 years, when they get their white heads. Mom & Dad have been using this nest since at least 1990, so we can estimate they're at least 25 years old. Healthy, lucky eagles will often live to age 30, so they have a few more years left.
The adults mate for life, and if one dies, the other will immediately seek out a new mate and continue the reproduction cycle. Eagle couples very rarely get divorced.
Pics of the nest: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjusQdvs
Eaglets are born with a thin down that gives little or no protection. Phoenix's head looked like dandelion fluff. But within a few weeks, they grow a thicker down that enables them to thermoregulate better. They're not out of the woods until they get their adult feathers though, and rely on the adults to keep them warm. The adults' feathers are waterproof and shed the raindrops, so brooding kept Phoenix warm and dry. After she got too big to sit on, Mom would drape a wing over her. We called that Mombrella.
Those first few days of her life, Phoenix could barely manage to sit upright. Her round little head was too heavy for her little body. We called her Bobblehead. Yet she knew how to do two things right out of the shell: how to peep and how to snap at the food they offered her and gobble it down.
She always watched carefully whatever her parents were doing, and when Mom and Dad had little spats, suddenly Phoenix's peeps would become silent as she watched their exchange intently. Once Mom and Dad were "arguing" over who would feed the baby, and in frustration, Dad turned to some vigorous stick-moving, as if to say, "Fine, be that way!" Unfortunately the stick he chose was enormous and as he swung it around, he nearly knocked Phoenix out of the nest bowl. But all was well a moment later. I'm sure he was chagrined.
Phoenix's calls were sweet little peeps at first, but as she grew, they became louder, eventually crescendoing into shrill whistles. Later on, when she began to "mantle" her food, the peeping whistles became downright hysterical. Eagles mantle their food, meaning they grab it aggressively to protect it from others. We nest-watchers were a little horrified when sweet little Phoe started charging across the nest to grab the fish out of her parents' beaks, shrieking loudly. She would scream in excitement and raise her feathers and wings slightly to make herself look bigger. Our resident eagle expert explained that this was all perfectly normal and that Ma & Pa don't take it personally -- their little girl was growing up. Eagles have to compete for food to survive. Mantling makes them a better competitor.