At the midpoint of a traffic intersection in New York City, a monarch butterfly alights on my orange blouse—and he’s gone. For that split second, it’s as if a giant camera zooms out to render visible this chance planetary conjuncture: I at the crosswalk where bicyclists and buses wheeze impatiently, the butterfly snagged on his own journey by the light off my blouse. Suspended as I am on the thread of this encounter by surprise and delight, I do not ask: What happens when the butterfly realizes that my orange blouse offers nothing except brightness in the sunshine, his alighting granting it more luminosity and meaning than it ever had before? Can they be disappointed, butterflies, as they fltt fltt fltt sidelong in the air, alert for a burst of color that might invite a long tongued exploration? In my garden, I mostly find little cabbage butterflies of perfect ecru but occasionally, fritillaries with their extravagantly long wingtips too. Monarchs do come by, glowing rust in the garden’s green, finding some diversion in my erratically planted invitations. They will take off and make their way down to the slopes of the Sierra Madre in Michoacán, Mexico where they hang for the winter on oyamel firs like thousands of rich red fruit. These firs are threatened by excessive logging, the proliferation of farming, and climate change so that the butterflies, flying together in a rosy trembling like a garden in the sky, might arrive to find the trees gone, their hanging grounds supplanted by farms and buildings. They alight, they must alight somewhere after all those miles but the journey isn’t over. The activity around them starts up and they probably start too, drawing deep down that thin vein of resources that we hope creatures hold in reserve. But I know that those disappearing trees and the disappointment in my blouse are two points linked in the planetary journey of this butterfly: how the very moment in which my being was elevated by the pleasure of his arrival was also one of betrayal.
This is the street of the genocide museum, the driver announces in Phnom Penh. I know the building even before we stop, the nondescript weather ravaged school buildings returning to me from Rithy Panh’s documentary which I saw several years ago, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine about the few men who were spared execution at this site because of their skill with paintbrushes. DVDs of the film are hawked at every tourist spot, including at the upper levels of a gold and pink wat where they sell beads, postcards and brown songbirds in cages. The neighbor who once found my lost cat, feeding him as he wandered into the Brooklyn backyard attracted by the aviary there, told me, a lilt in his own island voice, I catch their song and let the birds go. Love the birds, he declared as I thanked him profusely, whether speaking of himself or of the cat or as an injunction I couldn’t tell, love them singing outside. And in fact, the cages sometimes swing on the trees in front of his house so that the air above us passers-by vibrates with the concentration of chirps and trills. A world of green birdsong on that narrow urban strip through which we pass daily almost as if it was one of the habitat zones encountered at the Botanical Gardens. There, the birds dart in the heavy humidity of a canned rainforest, silent streaks above groups of children, their voices high in the delight of escape from the schoolroom— books and boards, everything erased for a time. Released as I thought I myself was from those memories of chalk, dust and schoolroom grit, I am startled to find them again in the classrooms of the S-21 prison, of which Vann Nath, only one of seven out of 14,000 who survived the incarceration, painted canvas after canvas that depicted with the greatest exactitude every form of brutality enacted here. Outside the prison schoolrooms runs a makeshift crosshatch of barbed wire along a balcony. Through this cage and the concrete latticework framing the flights of stairs, the songbirds chirp. They perch on the decorative framework, flying in and then, out again.
The borderlands of South Texas are on the Central Flyway, one of North America’s great migration routes along which birds fly, from the Canadian Rockies across the Great Plains, into Mexico and farther south. Neon signs over motels invite another migratory species called Winter Texans to alight for sun, sport and birding. Movement north from Mexico is hampered by the border wall stapled across the landscape, tall and grand yet self-consciously permeable. Customs and Border Patrol refer to it as a “fence” in an almost mock evocation of Robert Frost’s prescription for good neighbors but an alternative terminology is “tactical infrastructure” which implies a more militarized strategy for channeling movement. The U.S.-Mexico border itself is actually a channel not the proverbial line in the sand that separates here from there. The 1846 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War established the Rio Grande as the border—it exists somewhere in the middle of this sinuous ribbon of water, moving as the river changes its course. Once on the real border at the river and now wrapped by border infrastructure is the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse birding centre whose bird checklist boasts of residents, winter and summer migrants, visitors and a category called fly-overs who do not perch but only fly. The center welcomes hikers, birders, and quinceañera and wedding parties to enjoy this lively movement on their grounds. One morning, some Winter Texans with cameras and binoculars stopped a Border Patrol vehicle to point out a patch of black flattened low in the scrub at the foot of the wall. You might almost have missed that collapsed sweater on the grass. Who knows what night terrors had been overcome only to fall prey to the harsh sunlight of tourism?
Radhika Subramaniam is a curator, researcher and writer interested in urban crises and surprises, particularly crowds, cultures of catastrophe and human-animal relationships. Her writing appeared recently in La.lit magazine (Kathmandu). In Brooklyn, New York, she is working on a book-length narrative nonfiction titled The Elephant’s I.