As April unfurls into May, a pair of belted kingfishers are darting in and out of a hidden riverbank hole by the Deschutes River. Listening to the familiar rattle, chatter, and wind-up calls, I wish I could speak to them in bird language and tell them the news. Right beside me is their book–Halcyon Journey: In Search of the Belted Kingfisher. I’m pleased to let them know this is the first book (and I hope not the last) to feature these jay-sized, exuberant fishing birds of North America’s waterways.
Perhaps they might know if I tried calling them by their native names: In Saphaptan (Warm Springs people in Central Oregon), kingfisher is t’úlulx. In Salish (Missoula), kingfisher is c̓ális, pronounced “ts ah lease.” On the southern coast of Oregon, linguist Patricia Phillips of the Miluk Coos, told me the name in the Hanis language is shjit’is (shi-jit-is) and in Siuslaw and Lower Umpqua it’s ch’a’tii (chi-AH-ee).
Thanks to Oregon State University Press, the book has flown and almost landed–not yet to all the distributors, but it will be there soon. I’m proud the book was printed in the United States, and I’m truly grateful to OSU Press–professional, attentive, supportive, and smart! You can order directly from OSU Press (friends and family who have pre-ordered are getting theirs in the mail now), or put in an order from your local independent bookstore, or send a note if you’d like to buy a signed copy from me directly (email@example.com). With help from the publisher, I’m beginning to build an event schedule.
The cover feels cool and smooth to the touch. I find myself tracing the brilliant photograph on the sky blue background. The female “queen fisher” turns her head to the side to reveal a gleaming eye and exquisite headdress. Her royal cinnamon-red belt clasps upon her white breast. I feel gratitude to the bird and to the photographer Brian E. Small. Skimming through the 251 pages, I’m in awe of the 16 illustrations by Ram Papish, artist extraordinaire.
On the back and the inside cover, I touch the names of each generous author who wrote advance praise. I humbly thank them for lifting up this book and for their gifts as authors–books that deepen our relationships with nature and each other: David George Haskell, Laura Pritchett, Pete Dunne, Debra Magpie Earling, Kim Stafford, Suzanne Matson, Tim Palmer, and Kathleen Dean Moore.
More than a decade ago, I decided to follow belted kingfishers in the field, find a nesting pair on a home stream, and enter a quest to discover why this bird is “halcyon,” a word equated with happiness. I did not know belted kingfishers would be elusive and difficult to observe, or that one season on a creek would turn into multiple years of immersion. Or that my curiosity to meet kingfisher kin and find clues to an unsolved mystery would take me to the Lower Rio Grande, South Africa, the back halls of the Smithsonian, and London. Or that I would continue to add to the story in Oregon, from encounters with coastal birds to the rivers near Bend. The journey brought me closer to the meaning of home as known by the Salish in Missoula, where the heart of the book takes place. I did my best to honor the Salish throughout–including language, history, and wisdom from Salish elder Louis Adams.
My writings came to resemble a braided stream–weaving natural history, memoir, and myth. Like a creek becoming a river, I felt the power of tributaries–the many hands of people who added strength and depth. I thank them all. I’ll end this blog with a teaser from the book–from the Introduction:
“My offering here is at once an ode to the halcyon bird and a call for protection of their watery homes, from headwater springs to ocean confluences and all the interconnected wilds, from ancient forests to wildflower meadows and beaver-created marshes.
Since making the pivotal choice to trail a tricky bird with a flair for fishing, I’ve learned much, during what has become a lifelong apprenticeship. Seeking kingfishers near rippling or tranquil waters, worries tend to mist away.
Living now in Bend, Oregon, I listen for the reverberating notes that ricochet across the jade green currents of the Deschutes River in a mellifluent staccato always taking me home. Veering quick and low to the sun-sparkled whitewater, a kingfisher flicks droplets with pointed wingtips. Star spreader. Joy splasher.”