The day after Valentine’s Day, I sat in my car and watched a small falcon devour the heart of a mouse. Little pink legs squirmed in futility. The falcon, an American kestrel, swooped from the signpost it balanced on over to an open field a few feet away, where a quarter-mile of yellowed grass stood between each half-constructed home in the new development. The bird landed on a dried-up stalk and clutched it with dainty raptor talons. Fascinated, I observed as the bird ripped away at the mouse’s flesh, pulling it apart piece by piece. He did not consume his prey in one large gulp, as I imagined falcons to do, but in small, savored nibbles. The process took longer than I expected. That was the first surprise about my new home in Arizona that had not been disappointing.
Back in Colorado, I had never seen a falcon so close. In my state, demarcated by rectangular borders that resemble a cozy blanket, the birds preferred to stay high in the sky, scanning the infinite mountains for almost invisible targets. I have always been more familiar with creatures that dwelled on and beneath the ground. Tiny marmot mouths which emit sharp, short squeaks; silent, lazy paws of black bears that lumber in muted forests or dig through dumpsters; the wet, black noses and eyes of mule deer that trot from one side of the street to the other. In predictable patterns these native species scurry and plod and bound. The marmot will always wait too long to go back into its hole, the bear will only be seen for a brief flash of fur, the deer will inevitably turn and hop back in front of the oncoming car. Each one behaves exactly as expected.
After spending the academic year in Flagstaff, I went home to work as a gardener for the summer. I came to know the plants that populated people’s yards by the ways they introduced themselves to me. Russian sage was beautiful, mint green and pale purple, but it reeked like a cheap, heavy cologne and gave me a headache, the stench always lingering too long on my skin. Bindweed, rebellious and sprawling, was admirable in its tenacity. I would curl the thin vines around my fingers, amassing rings of arrowheaded leaves and dusty pink trumpeting flowers. It’s strong and nearly impossible to remove by hand. Bindweed is like a double-sided hydra, snaking heads sprawling above and below the earth, siphoning off water within the ground, curling around the bases of other plants, choking them out. There is an odd combination of satisfaction and regret that comes with the firm rip required to tear away sections of this weed, the snapping and severing of stable ties. Barberry was a bitch. Every clip and tug, each biting sting of a thorn as it slid beyond my gloves and into my flesh, taught me more and more about my home.
The kestrel’s fanned tail, rust-colored with a thick black band and cotton-white tips, pumped up and down while it dined. A steady tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. Despite my knowledge that the bird was tearing apart a furry animal with misty, beady eyes, I still found the kestrel cute. Unlike the eagles that nested at the tops of scraggly, unreachable trees throughout the farmlands of Colorado, with powerfully-curved wings, bright yellow legs, and heavy-browed eyes, always sloping downward in a scowl, the American kestrel looked plump. His puffy round head and portly body swayed back and forth on the brown stalk. His eyes, cartoonishly large and black were rimmed by a brow that made the little bird seem more offended than threatening. He looked back at me as if to rebuke my ignorant classification of cuteness.
The bird was right; I was no expert, no ornithologist. He was as unfamiliar to me as the neighborhoods I struggled to navigate, the unknown streets that led me to this developing lot where he first landed a few feet away from my car, causing me to gape at a scene I’d only ever encountered through the glass of a television screen. Everything I knew about this bird, even its name, came from what I could find online and scribble into my journal as I scrolled through my phone, frantically trying to identify it before it flew away – a departure, which, to my relief, was slow and leisurely. I read about the species’ wingspan, mating habits, hunting behavior, and the habitats it lives within (practically all of North America), soaking up facts and statistics to form a tidy catalogue of knowing. When I felt I knew enough, I turned my attention to the stalk it had come to rest on.
Mullein. In the summer, long, tall, straight and wooly, dotted with bursts of yellow flowers. In the winter, long, tall, straight brown husks that stand at attention and sway against the cool February breeze. My phone tells me that mullein is used to make candle wicks when the leaves are stripped away, that it can be made into a tea to fight colds and bronchitis and asthma, and it serves as a perch for birds like the American kestrel, who prefer to hunt by watching and waiting. I learned that mullein is an invasive species in Northern Arizona; large leaves splay at the bases, conquering the space closest to the ground, making it difficult for other species – including native species – to grow. Pioneer plants such as these that rode across the country, laying down shallow roots where the earth was once burned, are supposed to be wrenched from the ground by hand.
Mullein was not one of the plants I encountered back home when I pinched and pulled weeds from the gardens of rich homeowners who thought their million-dollar cabins needed landscaping. Where tangles of bindweed had been torn from the ground, pots of brightly-colored lantana were interjected. The kaleidoscopic bursts of minuscule flowers would need to be dug back up once the tropical perennial withered after the first early frost. The jumble of muscles between my thumbs and index fingers ached from my daily eight-hour battle to eradicate an unwanted presence and replace it with a more desirable foreigner. My wrists were sore and bruised after being forced to hold up my body weight on all fours. Dry and crusty and almost permanently discolored by dirt, my knees, just as much as my hands, showed that I had become one of the creatures that crawled along the ground.
I try to imagine what the stalk feels like between the dinosaur-like claws of the kestrel. Crunchy? Brittle? The tactile sensation of the browned plant seems to matter to the kestrel as little as its categorization as a non-native species. Much like the American kestrel, mullein is ubiquitous in North America. As long as this particular bird has been alive, which my phone tells me can’t be more than five or six years in the wild, mullein served as a lookout for it to hunt from and dine upon. Beyond the borders of Arizona, throughout the rest of the continent where the bird lives, on the off-chance that a stalk of mullein is not available, there are telephone poles and fence posts for the plucky little falcon to perch upon. The American kestrel and mullein make themselves at home wherever they go.
In my car, watching the confident kestrel use its talons like a toothpick digging into meat-lodged teeth, shaking out its feathers in satisfaction, I feel the shallow limpness of my newly-transplanted roots. Tightly bound within the outlines of the container I have previously fit into, I struggle to stretch and expand, fill the confines of a new space. As I review the catalogues of my mind, flipping past the comfortable pages of bear and bindweed, it occurs to me that new entries that have been made today: American kestrel and mullein. There’s the slight movement of a root, like the wiggle of a toe.
I look up from scribbling in my notebook, hand-bound by a friend back home and stamped with the image of birds, some in small cages and some perched on branches. To my surprise, the American kestrel is gone, but the hastily scrawled ink marks in my journal remain.
Author Bio: Addyson Santese is a creative writing student in the MFA program at Northern Arizona University. She enjoys hiking, camping, and nature photography, and often returns home to Colorado.