Susan Cerulean, author of the 2020 Sarton Memoir Award winner I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird, has spent her working life searching for ways to protect Florida’s natural lands and wildlife. It’s a lifestyle she weaves throughout her award-winning book about the final days of her father as he slowly loses his battle with Alzheimer’s disease. The book shares the author’s love and concerns for him, and for this planet and its biodiversity that she believes we humans are harassing and destroying.
“We may not know with scientific precision the extent of the wounds that pierce and accumulate, but we live with the loss. We know our beaches and our oceans, and our neighborhoods and our trees grow quiet. All living things have language. They demonstrate with their bodies and their voices what they have to say. What the wild animals and the wild islands are telling us is this: you leave us no place to live. . .”
Susan has seen how the rising seas have rolled over the over the black needle rush marshes, home to clapper rails and seaside sparrows. “I tracked pines and cedars killed by salt. . . . I tabulated declines in the annual Christmas Bird Counts.” Now it’s her hope that the stories she writes, which speak of the beauty and wonders she has seen during her research, may help return the planet to its wholeness.
Susan’s love and dedication of her life to nature began at an early age. A New Jersey native, she and her family spent much time visiting and playing on Long Island beaches, where, she says, her mother taught her to love the sea.
“It was the 1950s, and then the 60s, and our family was part of the middle-class metropolitan population with enough leisure time to go to the beach for fun. Gas was plentiful and cheap; boxy station wagons that could accommodate big families were affordable; rail lines allowed my father to commute back and forth to Manhattan on the rare occasions we rented a cottage for a week,” she recalls.
“The level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was 300 parts per million and rising, but we knew nothing at all about that. Instead, corporate marketing taught us what we wanted, and television convinced us what we needed to buy. . . . Still, my parents gave me a great gift: spacious time to play and swim by the ocean. The shore is a regenerative and healing place for the human spirit. . . . And I came to believe that my personal territory, no matter how far inland I lived, included the closest, wildest coastline.”
Susan, who now makes her home in Tallahassee, Florida, says she never formally studied writing—no MFA or degree of any kind. Most of her training, she says, came from the advice of such writers as Anne LaMott, Steven Pressfield, and Natalie Goldberg. Their main message, she believes, is that if you feel writing is your true path on behalf of the Earth, then find ways to stay motivated and not get distracted.
Susan also became friends with prize-winning nature author Janisse Ray, who she met at a poetry reading in Tallahassee about 1986. “One of the first ways we supported each other was in a writing group we created with two other women when our children were small. We called it the Hungry Mothers’ Writing Circle. We burned to learn the craft of nature writing.”
Now, as she reflects on winning the Sarton, Susan says she is humbled, but joyful. “I was shocked and thrilled to get the call, and so delighted.”
As for the award-winning writer’s advice to other writers, she says, “it’s important to find one’s purpose in life, no matter your age, and align your true voice with that purpose—writing is not about money.”
Susan’s purpose, as indicated by the books she has co-authored and edited, and the nature anthologies in which her essays are featured, has been all about saving Florida’s wildlands and wildlife.
And while Susan’s Sarton-winning book I Have Been Assigned the Single Bird weaves the author’s ongoing research of wild birds and her father’s death into one memoir, the catalyst for the book and its title goes back to the time when she was studying swallow-tailed kites for her book Tracking Desire: A Journey after Swallow-Tailed Kites, which was published in 2015.
“It was over South Carolina’s Edisto River that I saw my first swallow-tailed kite. My memory is etched with a clear image of how that bird swung into view and hung over me, suspended like an angel, so starkly black and white, with its wide scissored split of a tail. I rushed to grab binoculars, and almost flipped the canoe,” Susan remembers. “The bird rode a breeze too subtle to sense, its breast a center point for the sleek maneuver of wing and tail, as if a kite string actually were attached to the deeply-muscled breastbone. As suddenly as it appeared, the bird was gone . . .
“When that first fleet kite shadow darkened my face, and I lifted my eyes, astonished, to watch the bird wheel above the river’s sunny run, I knew that something essential had come into my life connecting me viscerally to wildness. I wanted that wildness. I wanted to leap out of the boat, to scramble over the abrupt knees of the cypress, and climb the insufficient wild aster vines. . . . What I longed for was connection with a single bird. . . . I wanted to experience the particularity of my gift received, and to believe that I could make a difference in the life of a single bird.”
Susan continues to watch for swallow-tailed kites, which in her part of Florida, means getting out on the rivers in summer. “When I drive up the west coast of Florida, north from Tampa to my home in Tallahassee, climbing the ladder of latitude, I slow at each river crossing, and look skyward. . . . You still can’t be sure of seeing a kite, but that’s how I increase my chances.”
Susan says that not so long ago, the swallow-tailed kite was able to build nests as far into the continent’s heartland as Minnesota; south and west to Texas; and then northeast to Maine. “You might even have seen one in northern New Jersey in a good year—if you had been born before the turn of the 20th century.”
Pat Bean is a retired award-winning journalist who lives in Tucson with her canine companion, Scamp. She is a wondering-wanderer, avid reader, enthusiastic birder, Lonely Planet Community Pathfinder, Story Circle Network board member, author of Travels with Maggie available on Amazon, and is always searching for life’s silver lining.