In 1968, two weeks before my seventh birthday, my family left the sandy red dirt of the wiregrass region of Lower Alabama and moved to Birmingham, a roiling city built in the shadow of Red Mountain in the southern Appalachians. That move should have been a culture shock—I was leaving a tiny town untouched by open conflict for a city long since notorious for racist convulsions of water cannons and police dogs and church bombings—but I was six. I didn’t know anything about social justice. I just missed the pine trees.
We returned to South Alabama often because my grandparents still lived there, in the house where my grandfather was born, and our long family history and frequent visits might explain why I imprinted on that landscape so completely. Or it might have been the result of growing up in a time without air-conditioning, when what happened outside the house immediately affected what happened within it, a time when parents sent children outside to play after breakfast and didn’t look for them again till lunchtime. That hot land felt like a part of me, as fundamental to my shaping as a family member, and I think I would have remembered its precise features with an ache of homesickness all my life even if I had never seen it again.
It would take all the words in Remembrance of Things Past to catalog what I remember about the place where I was born, but there are three things that can bring it all back to me in startling detail: the sight of a red-dirt road, the smell of pine needles, and the sound of a blue jay’s call. And of those three madeleines from wiregrass country, by far the most powerful is the call of the jaybird.
Blue jays are ubiquitous in the eastern half of the U.S., but until this spring they have been only passersby in this yard. I’ve always heard them in the woods behind the house, and they once nested unsuccessfully in the crook of a maple tree at the back of our lot, but in general they haven’t spent a lot of time here. They love acorns, and we have a large white oak tree just outside our bedroom window, but even in fall they have been desultory visitors. This year, though, they’re everywhere, a large, garrulous family calling from treetop to treetop and bringing their young ones to the peanut feeder many times a day. If they see me in the yard, they fly over to a limb of the pine tree that overhangs the feeder and wait impatiently for their treat.
I love the blue jay’s warning call, the jeer-jeer, jeer-jeer it makes when a hawk is near. I love the softer wheedle wheedle wheedle and please please song for its mate. Blue jays have an immense range of vocalizations—whirring and clicking and churring and whistling and whining—but the sound they make that takes me right back to 1968 is a call that sounds exactly like a squeaky screen-door hinge. I hear that sound coming from the top of a pine tree, and instantly I am in Lower Alabama, where the soil is red sand, and pine needles make a soft carpet for weary feet.