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Natural HistoryBirdsLewis's Woodpecker - Melanerpes lewis
Lewis's Woodpecker
 

Bridge of Wings

o look at this bird is to open a window in time: remembering the painstaking descriptions Lewis wrote, feeling two centuries between his eyes and mine, thinking of how much these wings above me bridge. The scene remains as elemental as ever, an earth-bound human, a sky-free bird, yet much has changed. Lewis's examination of the "black woodpecker" reveals the temperament of discovery he embodied for his time. His description rings with a sensual curiosity toward nature, disciplined by an undistilled impulse to classify and measure. His was a science of the five senses, grounded in the confidence that every natural mystery could be solved.

Back in the mystery of here and now, it's early morning. Moisture tips tall grass; sunlight inches down a ruddy ponderosa pine tree; Lewis's woodpecker glides through latticed light. It snatches an insect in midair, pirouettes, carries it back to a snag whose shattered crown is split by the morning shadow line, and disappears into a two-inch hole. In a nest hollowed from half-rotted wood, a foot or more inside the tree, young woodpeckers await their breakfast. In semidarkness they feed and grow. Perhaps tomorrow a first flight, a first glimpse of full sun.

But today the woodpecker reappears alone and wings away. Did it see me? Did its ancestors, so many bird generations ago, see Lewis? The bird sails on, silent in its own morning urgency, unchanged these past 200 years. No, these two, maybe five, million years. Lewis would recognize his namesake at a glance. But would Lewis recognize us, or we him, beneath this bridge of wings?

--Phil Condon

Lewis's Woodpecker


 
From Discovering Lewis & Clark ®, http://www.lewis-clark.org © 1998-2014
by The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, Washburn, North Dakota.
Journal excerpts are from The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary E. Moulton
13 vols. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001)